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Again, experts warn against neglect of Nigerian languages, culture

By Anote Ajeluorou
03 July 2016   |   2:51 am
That many Nigerians languages are gradually going extinct because of neglect from native speakers in preference for English or Pidgin English is no longer news. However, efforts to stem ...
Emeritus Professor Ayo Banjo (left); novelist, Eze Prof. Chukwuemeka Ike; Chairman, University Press Plc, Dr. Lalekan Are; MD, University Press Plc, Mr. Samuel Kolawole and guest lecturer, Emeritus Professor Ayo Bamgbose at the Authors’ Forum last week… in Ibadan

Emeritus Professor Ayo Banjo (left); novelist, Eze Prof. Chukwuemeka Ike; Chairman, University Press Plc, Dr. Lalekan Are; MD, University Press Plc, Mr. Samuel Kolawole and guest lecturer, Emeritus Professor Ayo Bamgbose at the Authors’ Forum last week… in Ibadan

That many Nigerians languages are gradually going extinct because of neglect from native speakers in preference for English or Pidgin English is no longer news. However, efforts to stem this dangerous slide continue to occupy the attention of experts and laymen alike because of the central role language plays in man’s developmental drive.

Again, the question of sustaining local languages, particularly by transmitting to the young generation, came to the fore last week in Ibadan at the 18th University Press Plc’s yearly Authors’ Forum. It had in attendance Emeritus Professors Ayo Banjo, Femi Osofisan and Ayo Bamgbose who delivered the lecture titled ‘Neglect of Nigerian Languages and Culture: Counting the Cost’.

Also present were Chairman of UP Plc, Dr. Lalekan Are who also chaired the event; Eze Prof. Chukwuemeka Ike, Professors Akachi Ezeigbo, Akinwunmi Ishola, Niyi Osundare, Duro Adeleke and many others.

Nigeria’s peculiar experience makes the language situation tricky on account of the country’s colonial legacy and the onslaught of globalization. But in spite of the odds facing many indigenous Nigerian languages, their survival through transmission from one generation to another, particularly from parents to their children, has been identified as key to the country’s quest for development.

A linguistic expert, Shirley Yul-Ifode, argues, “No language is superior or inferior to the other. No language is more complete than the other, richer than the other. All languages are there good, adequate and complete for all the purposes for which they are required by their indigenous speakers”.

Also, the Centre for Endangered Languages put it clearly, “Language is the key to the heart of a people. If we lose the key, we lose the people. A lost language is a lost tribe; a lost tribe is a lost culture; a lost culture is a lost civilization. A lost civilization is invaluable language lost; it will be consigned to oblivion”.

In his remarks, Are said the forum is a yearly opportunity for authors to celebrate themselves and reflect on their roles as nation builders, adding, “It has always been a way to celebrate ourselves, to appreciate our efforts and commitment to University Press Plc in its drive as the nation’s foremost publishers”.

Continuing, he said, “This year’s Author’s Forum will be discussing the neglect of Nigerian languages and culture. Language is more than just a means of communication. It influences our culture and even our thought processes. On a deeper level, language is an expression of who we are as individuals, communities and nations. Culture refers to dynamic social systems and shared patterns of behaviours, beliefs, knowledge, attitudes and values.

“Though we were colonized by the British, our culture and languages should not be in shambles. It’s always a sad story in our homes. Children are not allowed to speak indigenous languages as they will be punished for doing so. Many Nigerian parents today do not speak their native language with their children. This is posing danger to both the survival of our language and culture. No wonder level of morals has been reduced drastically.

“Remember that you can only learn fast and think deeply in your own mother tongue. Being able to communicate in your mother tongue and at the same time proficient in English are not mutually exclusive. It is believed that if primary education were in the people’s mother tongue it would be much easier to learn English as a second language and be truly bilingual. In our days, the only language of instruction in school the first two years, irrespective of your ethnic background, was in the mother tongue. You must learn in the language of your immediate environment.

“Therefore, we must all cultivate the habit of speaking to our children in our mother tongue at home and facilitate the learning of indigenous language in schools”.

According to Bamgbose, “Nigerian languages and culture are losing their status under English dominance in such places as the home, school, and social events. Neglect of Nigerian languages and culture underlies many of the ills plaguing Nigeria”. He added that the rationalizations for the neglect included the fact that the country has no local common language of communication, inadequate terminology for most modern expressions, and the need for modernization and globalization.

He, however, argued that countries like Sweden, Norway and Denmark use their languages fully without the excuses given above. Others are Japan and China

The renowned linguist stated that in the past mother tongue served the educational needs of pupils in the first three or four years in primary schools before English was introduced as a subject in later years. By which time the pupils would have become thoroughly grounded in mother tongue before receiving instruction in English. The advantage it had was “proper understanding of concepts taught in various subjects,” Bamgbose submitted.

According to Bamgbose, the usual argument that African languages lacked adequate terms for modern concepts is based on “Ignorant views about inadequacy of African languages for expressing scientific concepts. See, in contradiction, 1930’s Church Missionary Society’s Iwe Kika readers covered various subjects such as nature study, hygiene, geography, and agriculture and the famous McDougall’s Efficiency Arithmetic which had been translated into Yoruba for teaching arithmetic processes and number operations”.

He lamented the gains of using the Yoruba mother tongue to effectively teach modern concepts had been eroded, and added, “Today, the gains of the past have been eroded. Mother-tongue education is only on paper as private nursery and primary schools teach in English and linguistically mixed urban schools also do the same. Hence, many of the products of primary education are neither competent in English nor in their mother tongue. The deficiency at primary school is carried over to secondary school and to university level”.

Bamgbose blamed the introduction of Universal Free Education of the Western Region that abridged primary school from eight years to six for the lapse, with the first few years when mother tongue was used as medium of instruction being scraped just “to cut costs”.

Bamgbose also said failure to teach pupils in the language of the environment has direct link with the performance of pupils as they find it difficult to grasp concepts in English, a secondary language elevated to the status of first language without the requisite infrastructure. He gave the statistics of performance of students in SSCE of 2011 -2015, with the 38.5 per cent being the average score as woeful.

Bamgbose concluded thus, “High failure rate is often blamed on inadequacy of students in English and Mathematics either because they have not been well taught or because of their inability to master these two subjects. But, when there is also failure in other subjects, a better explanation is lack of competence in English in which all subjects are taught and this can also be traced to inadequate preparation for an English medium”.

Going forward, he then proposed the mother tongue alternative as medium of instruction in the first three years of a pupil’s education. According to him, “As an alternative to the current practice, a mother tongue or a language that a child already knows well could be the medium of instruction throughout primary education, with English only taught as a subject.

“This has been tried out in 1970-80 at the now Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, in a project known as the Six-Year Primary Project (SYPP) by a former Minister if Education, Prof. Babs Fafunwa, and the results have been impressive”.

Bamgbose stated that developing countries like Nigeria have the wrong conception of what development requires when they discount the role of language in it. As he put it, “Countries of the world, particularly the so-called developing countries, are preoccupied with development in the form of economic growth, GDP and infrastructural development. The mistaken notion about development is that it is largely economic and consequently local languages are not relevant. Even when seen as economic, the informal economy of rural dwellers using their languages accounts more for economic activities than the formal economy.

“In countries such as Japan and China, the economic revolution recorded is due in part to the use of their own languages in domesticating foreign technology

“In a more satisfactory conception of development as realization of the human potential, human capital is as important as physical resources and this implies emphasis on education, health and participation. This calls for the use of our indigenous languages”.

Also, Bamgbose traced the deteriorating use of English to the neglect of mother tongue, saying that its poor usage has spiraled to the social and political space where information is usually truncated. As he put it, “An official language, such as English in Nigeria, puts many people at a disadvantage owing to lack of school education”.

He, however, said a ray of light was in the offing with various mother tongues enjoying usage in the electronic media, adding, “Although English is still dominant in the electronic media, there is increasing representation of Nigerian languages. In Ibadan, for example, several private FM radio stations such as Splash, Space, Fresh, Inspiration, Naija, Petals broadcast in English, Yoruba and Pidgin. Lagelu also broadcasts in Yoruba. However, their programmes still fall short of the ideal of targeted community radios.

Governance is an area where the use of English leaves many behind. As Bamgbose argued, “The essence of democracy is participation. When debates, bills, laws and electoral processes are conducted in an unfamiliar language, most citizens are excluded from participation. The Constitutional provisions for the use of major and main languages in legislatures have remained mainly a paper policy. In effect, these languages are neglected in governance”.

He advocated other measures of empowerment of Nigerian languages to include, “Implementation of language provisions of the Constitution, use of Nigerian languages in more situations such as a governor or a chairman of local council addressing a local community, commissioning of language experts for terminology creation, translation of more official documents into local languages.

On the challenge of making local languages compliant with information technology, Bamgbose said experts should work out a suitable diacritic format peculiar to each language to go with applicable soft ware and hard ware.

In concluding, Bamgbose noted, “Advocacy of empowerment of our languages and retention of our culture does not amount to a rejection of non-Nigerian languages and cultures. In fact, given our colonial past, English will continue to play an important role in our educational and political life. What is required is that this role should not be at the expense of neglect of Nigerian languages and culture,” stating that the country needs political will to make this happen.

In responding to the lecture, Osofisan raised the issues about the difficulty of using local languages to grasp mathematic concepts. He cautioned on the kind of Yoruba used in radio broadcasting, saying “There should be distinction between eloquence and rhetoric” and canvased the need to regulate what comes out of radio.

On his part, Osundare said long ago, “The English people didn’t have faith in their language,” as they preferred Latin and Greek until fellows like Samuel Johnson wrote the English dictionary. Osundare said people like Francis Bacon “had to translate his works into Latin. Shakespeare was derided for not knowing Latin and Greek, for being illiterate, that he stuck to his native English language, but he’s remembered today but not those who laughed at him. Our language situation is very grim, but there’s hope. All we ask is give us the politics, good politics.

“Political is very important. Who is talking about putting more money in education? We are ruled by illiterates who are greedy. Let’s get interested in politics, in who rule us. Stop stomach infrastructure; go for the mental infrastructure”.