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Revue Experts On How To Preserve Nigerian Languages



Storytelling time with Jimi Solanke

ONGOING efforts by the Chinese to make their language, as well as their philosophy, accepted and adopted by Nigerians can be interpreted to mean different things, depending on who is doing the analysis.

Whatever the case may be, however, one thing is certain: there must be some significant advantages in it for the Chinese otherwise they would not be committing so much resources into the endeavour.

English language is the recognised official language in Nigeria. But for a while now, France has also been subtly trying to encourage the adoption of its language, French, through specific programmes geared towards making the language more attractive and easy to learn for Nigerian students.

Just recently, the Italian Embassy in Nigeria threw open its doors in a generous public invitation for interested Nigerians to come and learn Italian tendencies and culture.

While there is much to be gained from learning foreign languages and cultures, this development has once more thrown up the issue of whether policy makers are doing enough to preserve indigenous Nigerian languages, especially in the face of so much global competition and pressure.

It was the late Prof. Babatunde Fafunwa, then Minister of Education, who advocated in 1990 the integration of Nigerian indigenous languages into the country’s school curriculum to enable Nigerian children speak their native dialects more fluently and effectively and, by so doing, enhance their fluency in English.

His argument was that there was ‘urgent need to re-appraise the inherited colonial epistemological system in Nigeria and to introduce relevant cultural goals, subjects and local languages into the system in order to accommodate the developmental and cultural pattern of the country.’

Another don at the Department of Linguistics, University of Lagos, Dr. Ayo Yusuff, in a recent chat said, “Although one can say we are making some progress in this regard, it is a fact that Nigerian languages are endangered due to lack of use.

We don’t teach our children to speak our languages, which gives cause for concern, as the languages will eventually start to die because of lack of continuity from one generation to the other.”

The problem, as observed by Yusuff, is, however, not restricted to language alone, as Nigerians also tend to ‘pay too much attention to other people’s cultures and tendencies to the detriment of their own.’

Indeed, it is an issue in the African continent as a whole, where the people tend to fully adopt the languages and lifestyles of their colonial masters years after gaining sovereignty. “With the exception of Tanzania, where Swahili is the official language, all other African countries prefer the use of foreign languages, which they have adopted as their official languages,” Yusuff conceded.

Language, which is deeply entrenched in human culture, is one of the most powerful means of communication among human beings. But aside this, it also serves other crucial purposes, which include distinguishing a people or tribe from another, through serving as a vehicle to express their traditions and beliefs.

Indeed, the language and mores of a people are so interwoven that without one, there cannot be another. Little wonder then that human races try to guard their languages jealously, as they know that its distortion or extinction can greatly affect their collective identity and their place in the global community.

Realising this fact, colonial masters had in the past exploited the immense influence language can exert on the mindset and ways of life of the colonised.

Hence, they often ‘bequeath’ their languages to the colonised countries, which then serve as tools with which they indirectly continue to control them. Dr. Tony Okeregbe is a lecturer in the Philosophy department, University of Lagos and Deputy Director, Coordination and Integration of Chinese Language and Philosophy at the University.

What this body does is to closely monitor and oversee the content and programmes being transmitted by the Chinese to Nigerian students at the university.

In his view, although there are a lot of advantages in it, this development can be said to be a modern and another form of colonisation. “There is nothing wrong in Nigerians learning other people’s languages and cultures.

However, what we should guard against is the situation, where our indigenous languages are endangered by these foreign ones. And this is what our committee does.

We ensure that what the Chinese are teaching the students are valuable, worthwhile and would not in any way negate our own values and what we stand for as a people,” he explains.

A language is said to be endangered, when it is at risk of going out of use, as its speakers die out or shift to speaking another language. Language loss occurs, when a language has no more native speakers, and becomes a dead language, while a language goes into extinction, when no one speaks the language at all.

While languages have always gone extinct throughout human history, the United Nations Educational, Scientific And Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), said recently that they have been disappearing at an accelerated rate in the 20th and 21st centuries due to the processes of globalisation and neo-colonisation, where the economically powerful languages dominate other languages.

And because the more commonly spoken languages dominate the less commonly spoken ones, the latter eventually disappear from populations.

The body went on to project that between 50 to 90 percent of world languages would have become extinct by the year 2100 and that there is a consensus that the loss of languages harms the cultural diversity of the world. Of the about 250 Nigerian languages that were actively used in the past, only about 60 per cent are said to still be in existence.

And this is largely the reason why serious concerns have been expressed in several quarters and the call for drastic measures to be taken in the preservation of the existing ones. “Of course, there have been attempts at propagating our indigenous languages to counter the negative effect the adoption of foreign languages can have on them, it is in the area of implementation that we are failing woefully,” says Yusuff. “So, while there have been policies aimed at empowering Nigerians to embrace their indigenous languages, much has not been done to actualise them.

For instance, there is the National Policy on Education (NPE), which states that Nigerian children should be taught in the language of their localities in their first three years.

There is also the national media policy mandating that a very high percentage of programmes should be done in the indigenous languages. Establishment of department of languages in our tertiary institutions is another means of promoting the use of our national languages.

However, you discover that more often than not, the policies remain mere paper works, as the sole aim of creating them in the first place is just to source funds from international bodies, such as United Children’s Funds (UNICEF) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific And Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

So, one can say that those making the policies are not really sincere, hence the inability to record much success in that area.” In Yusuff’s view, it is the elite, who incidentally, are also the policy-makers that are hindering the progress that could have been otherwise recorded in this area.

They are afraid that once we engineer our languages so that the majority of the people are able to speak their native languages fluently, they would lose their control, as well as their sources of easy funds from the international bodies.

They also feel that since our languages cannot be used to convey scientific expressions and modes, not much importance should be attached to them. It is, therefore, not surprising that they are the ones that wouldn’t speak their dialects with their children,” he says.

Corroborating Yusuff’s view, Mrs. Ololade Hector-Fowobaje, a psychologist and Executive Director, O5 Centre For Children and Women, an NGO that protects children and women from sexual abuse and exploitation, told The Guardian that elite parents are mainly to be blamed for their disinterest in encouraging their children to speak their native languages. “Parents don’t bother to teach their children to speak their native languages.

They think it is classier to speak English than their native languages. As a result, from infancy to teenage years, you find parents speaking only in English to their children with the exception of the relative few, who make conscious effort to teach them.

Some are also of the belief that it is better to ground them in the foreign language first, so that they can be more articulate and eloquent, with the hope of learning the native language when they are older, which may or may not happen.

Some parents, caregivers and even teachers think that exposing a child to several languages at a young age can confuse them and delay their learning of another language.”

And the fact that modern elite schools don’t teach Nigerian languages is compounding the problem in Yusuff’s opinion. “Even in higher institutions, students are reluctant to choose African languages because they feel they are inferior to other courses.

They only go for them when they are compelled to do so,” he says. This, in Fowobaje’s opinion, explains why the children are going to great lengths to ensure that ‘they swing with the trend.’ “The youth of today also regard their mother tongue as crude and prefer to speak American accented English,” she says. “ You see them even altering their names to English sounding names.

For instance, Feranmi is spelt Pheranmy, Chidinma has become Cheedenmar and Tosin is spelt Tosyn. Schools too are not helping matters with the way native language subjects are taught in a not-too-friendly manner.

Meanwhile, a relative’s kids in the USA, who have never been to Nigeria, can speak Yoruba fairly well. He ensures he communicates with them in Yoruba often enough for them to learn it and he insists they learn it.

So, it’s really the parents’ fault, if their children cannot speak their native language. “Whether out of omission in the case of those that don’t even put a thought to it or commission for those that intentionally ignore it, parents are responsible for this ugly trend.

It really is ugly, as every child should be able to communicate effectively in both the foreign and native languages.” In proffering the way forward, Yusuff would like much more efforts to be put in by stakeholders, as everyone has a role to play. “It is in the area of propagation that a lot more has to be done. Learning to speak one’s indigenous language doesn’t take anything from you.

Rather, it even adds to you, as people are more likely to respect you, when you are able to communicate effectively in your mother tongue and have a good knowledge of your culture in any part of the world you may find yourself.

People are always eager to know about other people’s cultures and there is nothing to be gained from being a caricature of other people’s cultures. “Towards this end, we should swallow our pride and set up lesson centres for our children to enable them learn our indigenous languages just like they are made to learn the foreign ones.

We should also endeavour to publish children books in our native languages. These should be well illustrated to reflect and make the children understand our cultures and environment.

Nursery rhymes and storybooks should be done in such a way that the children are able to grasp them. “This can be done by meeting the children at their point of interest by making our folktales into cartoons and frequently using our languages at home, in the community and everywhere because if care is not taken, our identity as a people would be lost.

Endangerment is staring us in the face.” Fowobaje would want the three main languages to be made compulsory, with the option to pick one. “Those three languages should be taught from primary three through the last class of secondary school.

It is important to celebrate our culture and that can only be done, if we keep a priority tag on it in our curriculum and homes. Schools should also make it simplified and attractive to their students.

The topics should be bite-sized with practical explanation and fun illustrations and word-by-word translations in English. There should be good teaching aids with flash cards and all. “I don’t see that happening now, as most native language teachers just dump their teachings on students that are not even interested in the first place.

Incentives such as spectacular annual prizes/awards should also be given to outstanding students to encourage interest and good performance.”

So, should we be paying attention to only Nigerian languages? She says ‘no,’ as she echoes Okeregbe’s stance that all what is needed is a balance. “Both should be given the same level of attention.

As much as we want to promote our culture, we also want to groom children with international finesse, who can speak English and other languages eloquently.

While it’s true that learning two languages is more complex than learning one single language for younger children and there can sometimes be certain delays or differences, in the long term, such a delay does not affect the child’s language abilities.

But they will always have the advantage of being able to communicate in more than one language. “These advantages include greater ability to communicate with all members of the family, including grandparents, or even family members who live in the family’s native country and the chance to develop an identity, which connects to their cultural heritage.

Being bi-lingual also leads to greater development of cognitive abilities which may result in higher ability to solve problems, more creativity, more opportunities on a personal and professional level as an adult, ease of communication while travelling, choice of schools, as well as open more options for job hunting. I would say the best age to start teaching the native language is eight”.

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