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Saving Nigerian indigenous languages

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There is a growing trend in Nigeria whereby people shift from using their native language to using English, widely perceived as the language of power, global access, and unlimited opportunities.

The consequence of this relegation of African mother tongues under the guise of globalisation is that several indigenous thoughts and practices that could be beneficial to both the local and global communities and humanities are looked down upon and jettisoned unwittingly in favour of foreign ways.

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Scholars such as Professor Adegbite attuned to this fact. Many Western-educated Nigerians are not favourably disposed to their mother tongue (henceforth MT) to the extent that they are not literate in it, nor do they use it with their children at home. In addition, the recognition is given to English, Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba in the Nigerian Constitution create the impression that other languages have little or no significant role to play in nation-building. Notwithstanding this selective recognition given to the three Nigerian indigenous languages (henceforth NIL), their use for formal functions even in their domains has been on the decline for decades.

Indeed, all the three so-called major NIL can be more accurately described as minority languages because they have been effectively eclipsed by English under the guise of globalisation, which Professor Munzali Jibril describes as the domination of the world system by the West, led by the United States of America, in a unipolar world where there is no other rival power to challenge its hegemony.

One of the strongest manifestations of globalisation is the Internet, which is mainly English-mediated and English-dominated. Part of the explanation for the gradual shift towards English in Africa and elsewhere is to be found in its prestige as the globalising language.

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The founding fathers of the Nigerian nation found it expedient to make English the nation’s official language on its attainment of independence in 1960. It was equally expedient to adopt English as the language of education from the second half of primary education up to the tertiary level in view of the wealth of materials and experts in the language. Not only has English consolidated its position as Nigeria’s language of governance at the federal and state levels, but it has also hitherto taken over the traditional roles assigned to the Nigerian indigenous languages in early primary education, local government administration, and many homes.

The official endorsement of terms such as ‘major’ and ‘minor’ languages by the Nigerian authorities too often creates the unwholesome impression that some indigenous languages are superior to others. This explains why many Nigerians, especially the educated elite, go the extra mile to expose their children to English, which is seen as the language of class and opportunity, as their home language instead of their mother tongue.

The English tsunami has resulted in a growing tendency by the Nigerian elite class to nurture their children as subordinate or incipient bilinguals (with greater ‘mastery’ of English and poor mastery of their MT) instead of bringing them up as coordinate bilinguals (with good mastery of both their MT and English). Consequently, the English language is fast assuming the status of MT or First Language (L1) for many Nigerians, albeit a tiny minority, who are eminently positioned for global visibility and national leadership. English is effectively taking over the traditional roles of Nigerian MTs as the language of early education, the home, social events, and informal leisure and recreational activities.

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The language has already encroached into these domains and it is steadily entrenching itself in areas where indigenous languages used to hold sway. The following are some observed practices in contemporary Nigeria:

The use of English for formal, semiformal, and informal occasions by officials at the three tiers of government in Nigeria (local, state, and federal).

Non-development of effective reading and writing skills in NIL by most educated citizens.
The displacement of the MT or NIL by English as the medium of instruction in pre-school and the first three years of primary education in Nigerian nursery and primary schools, which is a complete departure from global best practices.

The institutionalisation of English as the language of opportunity and access to white/blue-collar jobs.

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The relegation of NIL (including Nigerian Pidgin) as the language of artisans, unskilled labour, and other categories of have-nots in the society.

The overwhelming use of English by the Nigerian mass media (however, this trend is gradually being reversed with the increased use of NIL (including Nigerian Pidgin) by radio stations across the country).

The rise in the use of English instead of NIL during formal occasions by perceived custodians of culture exemplified by local council chairpersons and secretaries, chiefs, emirs, obis, and obas.

The near-exclusive use of English for Internet surfing, social networking, leisure reading, and writing, and other socio-cultural activities engaged in by the new generation of Nigerians.

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The practice of looking down on one’s mother tongue is contrary to what obtains in developed countries where influential world languages exemplified by English, Spanish and French are treated like capital; hence they are treasured, preserved, developed, disseminated abroad, and guarded jealously.

The observed trend is that the English language is effectively eclipsing and minoritising indigenous Nigerian languages in their own domains. Humanity scholars like Adegbite, Ogunsiji, and Taiwo observed that apart from developing their native languages for personal, local, and national uses and harnessing their originality and inherent creative potentials, developed countries have utilised enormous resources to promote their languages across the world for dominant purposes.

In contrast, the people of the less developed nations have jettisoned their native languages in favour of foreign ones for personal, social, and national communication and are negotiating the world through the borrowed lenses of the borrowed languages. As they fail to cultivate and use their languages purposefully, the languages suffer from attrition and die with all the original values, beliefs, and creative resources that should have benefitted the owners and the world.

The above observations resonate with the challenge to decolonise and de-Europeanise the minds of Nigerians. For the past four or more decades, many Nigerian linguists and educators have argued on the benefits of using indigenous languages for education and governance.

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Nigeria needs a systematic language policy to effectively arrest the underuse of NIL in education and governance. The legislative houses at the three levels of government in the country should be mandated to institute laws compelling the use of indigenous languages in specified areas of public life.

Instituting and enforcing a vibrant all-inclusive national language policy will not only save Nigerian indigenous languages from endangerment and extinction, but it will rescue them from the mortuary of irrelevance and the mass grave of globalisation.

An educational system that is not Nigeria-centred is not helpful to Nigeria as a developing nation. While it is desirable that Nigerian education be globally relevant, it should not be anchored on a language that alienates its citizens from their linguistic and cultural heritage. This is because the ultimate products of foreign language education are better equipped more for global than national relevance. English language education makes it easy for the very best of Nigerian scientists, doctors, and engineers to disappear in droves to English-speaking countries exemplified by Australia, Canada, UK, and USA in spite of their home country’s dire need for their intellectual input for its national development.

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The story of Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and several other Asian Commonwealth countries is different because their citizens receive basic education in their native language. Consequently, they are able to retain most of their best brains in their countries to settle down to proffer solutions to the challenges confronting their countries.

All patriotic Nigerians, especially the elite, need to have a positive attitude about their mother tongue and other Nigerian indigenous languages. They need to appreciate the inherent absurdity in promoting the use of a foreign language at the expense of their own native languages. They also need to realise that their native languages are by no means inferior to English or any other world language; hence it is in their individual and communal interests to use and update them so that they can cope effectively with the demands of modernisation. Notwithstanding the international status of English, indigenous Nigerian languages need not play second fiddle to a foreign language in their own native land.

Nigerian legislators and public policymakers need to appreciate the fact that indigenous Nigerian languages have beauty and style; power and potency; humour and history; and lots more. All these amounts to a heritage that should not be sacrificed on the altar of globalisation. Nigerian languages deserve to be given equal opportunity with English as the language of education, business, government, and formal occasions. The challenges notwithstanding, it is more dignifying for them as global citizens to press for federal legislations compelling states and local government councils to adopt any of the proposed indigenous Nigerian languages as their official language.

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The current provision in the Nigerian Constitution that gives the highest status to English and unequal recognition to the three major languages in Nigeria has to be revised to meet politically acceptable realities. The following are some suggestions proffered as practical solutions to the challenge of using NIL in education and governance in Nigeria:

After due consultation with Nigerians through state houses of assembly, the Nigerian National Assembly should establish a pool of fifteen or more national languages (e.g. Annang, Edo, Efik, English, Fulfulde, Hausa, Idoma, Igala, Ibibio, Igbo, Izo, Kanuri, Nigerian Pidgin English, Nupe, Tiv and Yoruba) from which states would be mandated to choose their official language(s); English should remain the central language of the Nigerian Federal Government and all communication emanating from it should be in the language. However, in addition, or as an alternative where appropriate, all spoken or written information meant for the consumption of the Nigerian public must be translated and disseminated in the approved national languages (i.e. Annang, Edo, Efik, English, Fulfulde, Hausa, Idoma, Igala, Ibibio, Igbo, Izo, Kanuri, Nigerian Pidgin English, Nupe, Tiv and Yoruba);

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English should remain the central language of the Nigerian National Assembly while the approved national languages should serve as alternate languages. However, simultaneous translation facilities should be installed in the chambers of the National Assembly so that members can enjoy the options of contributing to discussions in Nigerian national languages if they so desire;

All other foreign languages (e.g Chinese and French) should be accorded the status of “Foreign Languages”; hence their use should be restricted to religious and specific socio-cultural domains. State Houses of Assembly should be mandated by the National Assembly to scrupulously implement the provisions that state governments could choose freely a minimum of one and a maximum of three language(s) to be used alone or in conjunction with English for administrative, legislative, educational and judicial purposes in their domains.

Hauwa Mohammed Sani (PhD) a lecturer in the Department of English and Literary Studies, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria can be reached via hmsani@abu.edu.ng

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