The #YNaijaEssay: Language preservation in Nigeria and the brick walls [LONG READ]

Many other languages are no longer being learned by new generations of children or by new adult speakers; these languages will become extinct when their last speaker dies. In fact, dozens of languages today have only one native speaker still living, and that person’s death will mean the extinction of the language: It will no longer be spoken, or known, by anyone

Anthony C. Woodbury 

Twenty-two years away from home seemed like he was betraying his roots. And, because he knew little or nothing about the language of his people; he thought it wise to go home, meet with the local folks and make friends – he said, ‘selfishly to learn his mother tongue.’  

Tamara became disappointed in no time. He planned to stay for three months but extended his stay; hoping he would meet ‘others’ who spoke the local dialect – or those who do not taint the lingo with pidgin. His dolour knew no bounds.  

“This must be the beginning of the end. Everyone speaks pidgin. Even the older ones.” 

In response, Boma says, “there are still people who speak the language though, only that they are quite a few. And, we all know what happens when these people decide to join the bandwagon or join their ancestors.” 

Language comes with different experiences for different people. While habitual speakers want to simply transmit messages to the person next to them, there are others who want to allure ‘strangers’ to their tradition. Speaking about the norms, aesthetics of an ethnic group or a people. To these ones, language is a key aspect of identity. 

Language is the method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way. It is the basis of how people communicate and helps people to build connections. 

Sundus Baig 

In 1999, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) created International Mother Language Day, celebrated annually, on February 21. UNESCO believes education based on the first language or mother tongue must begin from the early years as early childhood care and education is the foundation of learning. 

This year’s observance is a call on policymakers, educators and teachers, parents and families to scale up their commitment to multilingual education, and inclusion in education to advance education recovery in the context of COVID-19 – It says on the UNESCO website.

For Manjot Chauhan from Vancouver, “Language is a way to experience a culture. If I am to go on a tour to Germany tomorrow, I may enjoy sightseeing, enjoy good food etc. But without knowing German it somehow doesn’t sound complete to me. It seems shallow. I want to know people. I want to experience their culture their way. The best way to do that is talking to people in their own language.” 

The root of language is actually “tongue” meaning local communication. 

“Language to me is a medium through which we express life and living,” Dámilọ́lá Adébọ́nọ̀jọ, a Yoruba language specialist, says. 

“I see it as the building blocks of our collective existence. Imagine a world where people do not understand themselves, what would it look like? Our languages are also intertwined with our respective cultures, we can’t really separate language from culture. Language is a way of life as much as culture is.” 

Indeed, if you were asked what language means to you, it may pose an herculean task to come up with a generally acceptable response, knowing it is a broad term. It’s no news however, that language is one of the most fundamental aspects of human life, as it is essential for all human endeavours, and is as important as basic biological/psychological/physiological processes like breathing, digestion and neurological mechanisms. 

Ibrahim Ọ̀rẹ́dọlá of ÀTẸ́LẸWỌ́ Cultural Initiative and Founder, SkillsNG, says “Language is the software of a people’s identity. It is the engine on which the culture of a people thrives.”

Ibrahim humanises language and adds that it “facilitates the exchange of ideas, thoughts and belief systems.”

He continues, “When language is taken away from the equation, we lose interpersonal connection as humans because we will no longer be able to communicate how we feel, what we love and how we want others to react or act in relation to our existence. 

“Language is communication. It’s is very important for all facets of human development and to demonstrate that humans can’t do without it, we see much of today’s technology devoted to advancing that aspect of humanity–making it possible to ensure that we are constantly communicating with one another.”

In an article, Toluwanimi Malomo stated that Yoruba language is not just a way of  communicating, but a way of passing on values, expectations, history and religion.

For Kelvin Samuel, “Language is a system of conventional (spoken, manual or written) symbols by which humans, as members of a social group and in its culture, express themselves.”

For Ayodele Ibiyemi, “it is an embodiment of a people’s culture.”

Notwithstanding the broad nature of language, we can agree that the words ‘identity’ and ‘communication’ cannot be left out of a conversation on language. 

Nigerian languages in recent years 

We could say we are heartsick, but we will be trivialising the fact that there’s a fundamental problem with Nigerian local languages – especially when you realise that we still relish colonial times, licking our tongues for the language slavery and exploitation brought to us under the disguise of religion. But, that is not the biggest issue. 

There are over 525 native languages supposedly spoken in Nigeria, and we could argue that about five of these are still existent. In terms of population, we have an estimated 63 million native Hausa speakers, 42 million Yoruba speakers, about 40 million Igbo speakers, 15 million Fulfulde speakers, 10 million Efik-Ibibio speakers, 8 million Kanuri speakers, 4 million Tiv speakers, and the rest may not even be considered as minority. 

In a 2013 article by The Nation newspaper, there was a cry for help to bring back what makes us exist as a people – the aesthetic of our culture. Part of that article reads:  

“Apart from the pressure imposed by pidgin, which is a popular medium of communication among the teeming masses, the use of English has forced many native speakers of Igbo to water down the essence of the language through code-switching. From Anambra to Imo, from Abia to Ebonyi and Enugu states, Igbo adults now seek knowledge, not in their mother tongue but in another man’s language – thus inadvertently relegating their language to secondary status.”

That is the reality of all our local languages, and it stems from the fact that we have no more than a mini-pin respect for our local languages. Call it colonial wheedling. And, this explains why parents advertently love children who speak English well. 

It is sad that schools still allow the use of the word vernacular to describe Nigeria’s local languages. Some schools still have that ‘wear a heavy board’ policy or ‘flog the monster’ for ‘vernacular speakers’. We seem not to know what vernacular means. 

To reiterate, Dámilọ́lá says, “in a world where our local languages are still termed “vernacular,” I wouldn’t say there is a significant level of respect to our local languages.”

And, in a 2020 interview with Punch, Prof. Obiajulu Emejulu says, “We are still suffering from the vestiges of colonisation. You would recall that a major crux of colonisation under the British was to retard our indigenous languages and promote the English language; that was the main thrust of colonial policy. 

“Colonial government didn’t believe in indigenous languages as agents of mass education, mass literacy and technological development, and so they suppressed the languages. You would recall that those were the days students were punished for speaking the indigenous language, which was labelled vernacular, the derogatory term for our beloved indigenous languages. 

“So, we had a crop of educated persons from different communities who were meant to take pride in speaking English language that is approximate to the Queen’s English; to the detriment of their beloved native languages.”

This bias for the English language has become an even more disturbing phenomenon in recent times. And, when agitations for the use of local languages in schools were widespread, like in 2016; a lot of Nigerians played down the idea – using gauzy excuses and talk of the country having too many languages. 

If Nigeria continues in the light of what we are doing today, we are not going to see the light of the day in terms of advancement.

“I would say that we don’t respect our indigenous languages at all,” Ibahim argues. 

“It’s sad to see that the difference between Africans and others outside Africa that have been subjected to the same colonial misadventure is the fact that they took a deliberate decision and decisive action to reposition their indigenous languages for their official and non-official matters,” he adds. 

Ibrahim projects this sadness for the decline of the use of local languages, and asks why we would rather use a foreign language in our day-to-day activities. 

“For instance, in our schools, respect is given more to foreign languages of our colonial masters than our indigenous languages to the extent that students even get punished for speaking  indigenous languages in the classroom. 

“Also, African parents even raise their kids to only speak foreign languages like English, Arabic, French and so on. They see it as a thing of joy if their kids speak foreign languages but see nothing wrong if their kids can’t speak their own mother tongue! This is how much we respect our language. And we are not even talking about how there’s a growing aggressive apathy towards creation and promotion of indigenous literature.”

Respect is, indeed, a strong word if we wanted to have a conversation on indigenous languages in Nigeria, knowing how we regard foreign phenomena over local identities – more reason a #MadeInNigeria campaign keeps hitting brick walls. 

But, for Ayodele Ibiyemi, “a lot of people have huge respect for local languages – but is a tricky issue. A lot of work is being done too, even though it seems that those who neglect the languages are more in number.”

In truth, the conversation should be on how much the country’s lingos have metamorphosed into something that sells our identities more efficiently. But, we cannot have that kind of conversation realising the apathy for ‘local things.’ The definition of the word ‘local’ here means barbaric.

We do not even understand what it means to have an identity. 

In an article, Language and Identity, there is mention of “an experiment was conducted to test whether the assumption that one would share his local identity, by using the local dialect during conversations with his friends and neighbors belonging to the same community was correct. For this purpose, two gatherings were arranged by the locals and for the locals, and their conversations were recorded. It was found that the assumption was perfectly correct; not only did the participants perform ‘switches,’ but they also showed a strong sense of self identity with the dialect that they used.”

Don’t bother thinking if the experiment happened – or will turn out same – in Nigeria. 

The bright side – or not

“We have experienced more significant changes than we care to acknowledge, and I am talking with respect to the impact of technology on the sustainability of our indigenous languages,” Ibrahim says. 

With initiatives like ÀTẸ́LẸWỌ́, you recognise a conscious effort to mitigate the “threats facing the preservation and survival of the Yorùbá culture and language.” 

“Speaking from my perspective, our local languages are changing rapidly. Most of these local languages are now available in language gaming apps i.e Genii games. Also, there has been a recent rise in translation requests to these languages,” Damilola says. 

No doubt, a lot of tech initiatives have been introduced in the last 10 years to preserve local languages. We can also talk of increased demand for Nigerian local language options on platforms like Google, Microsoft and keyboard apps. Also, we see splinters of social media users attempting to pass messages using either the Igbo, Yoruba or Hausa language. 

Asides that, a lot of schools have insisted on literacy on at least one local language to scale through to a higher class. Even exam body, West African Examination Council (WAEC), makes it compulsory to write a paper on a chosen local language. 

To spice the conversation, the Yoruba language is internationally recognised and certified language; with codes such as ISO639-1, ISO639-2 and ISO639-3 under the International Standards Organisation (ISO). And, the Yoruba language was one of the first West African Languages to have written grammar and a dictionary in 1849. 

The BBC, in a 2018 article, talks of a farming community in Southern Nigeria, Ubang, where men and women speak different languages – calling it a blessing from God. There are variations to the way men speak – different from the women. Also, maturity is based on the speaker’s fluency in the language. 

Religious centres, years before now, introduced the translation system, where the religious leader speaks a local language and it is translated into the English language; or vice versa. But, in this instance, many people just wait for it to be said in English. “I cannot stress myself trying to understand what is being said in Igbo.” Without mincing words, any local language-based speaking church is believed to be a local church for the elderly.

However, Damilola argues that, “a lot of people are beginning to take up local language teaching to the upcoming generation. For example, a few years back there hardly any social media handles promoting our local languages. You will be surprised if you search hashtags like #LearnYoruba #LearnIgbo, there’s so many of them now. I am glad to see that big change.”

Also, if you travel to Northern Nigeria, there is an inexplicable love for the Hausa language, such that any visitor who refuses to learn the language ‘in no time’ is asked disturbing questions. “Why are you not learning our language?”

It is the same on social media, where Northern Nigeria users write in Hausa, and bother less about anyone who does not understand the language. Yet, Hausa is not the sole language in the North. 

The agitations have increased – indeed. But so has the fear of languages dying with older speakers. In that BBC article, there is an obvious fear that as people leave their communities for ‘greener pastures’, the languages begin to shudder. 

Surprisingly the issue of extinction of indigenous languages has not received much attention.

Ibrahim thinks the “internet is highly colonised and there is very little representation of our indigenous languages on it because most of the technology and platforms are not even designed to accommodate the dynamics of our indigenous languages on one hand (especially with respect to orthography peculiarities) and the contributive efforts of contents from us is abysmally low on the other hand.

“Today, it can be argued that most usage of language is conducted using modern technology and if we are constantly being shut out, it means fewer and fewer people are actively conversing in these indigenous languages.”

He insists that foreign languages constantly corrupt our local languages. So, we are seeing more stamped intrusions as the years go by. 

“The effect of this is that our indigenous languages are dying and being replaced by corrupted versions heavily influenced by foreign ones. And that’s why for instance you hear expressions like “Se wa okay?”, “Keni nice day?”, “Kini problem yin?” and so on. And, those who speak this think they are speaking Yorùbá!”

A large number of the younger generation say they understand their mother tongue, but cannot have long conversations with them. And, if we are to make references, we should travel to China or India, where the average kid understands the mother tongue perfectly. We should also go back to the attitude of action of ‘civilised parents’ towards the mother tongue, but let’s talk about that later.

A significant number of parents pass on only very rudimentary understanding of the language to their children.

Even older people agree that certain aspects of our culture like greetings in Yoruba (kneeling down and prostrating for elders), chastity (virginity), dressing (traditional attires such as Aso Oke, Dansiki and others) are outdated and need to be thrown out the window. But, culture and language are conjoined twins. 

Language reflects the culture of a people. So, when we disregard certain aspects of our culture, the language begins to experience decline. And, when a language fades out, future generations lose a vital component of culture that is necessary to complete how a culture is understood. This makes language a susceptible aspect of cultural heritage.

People hate things Nigerian in nature. We like only foreign things, treat things like speaking the mother tongue as “Idiotic” But if our children speak English wrongly, we are angry and reprimand them.

Dr. (Mrs) Kikelomo Adeniyi

According to the United Nations, “[t]he world’s indigenous languages are under threat of disappearing, with one language dying every two weeks and many more at risk.” 

The older generation and the local language conversation

“Truthfully, a lot of things are fading away with the older generation, not just in the aspect of our local languages, even certain norms and cultural beliefs are slowly fading away. I remember some Yoruba expressions are no longer in use. There are some words we can’t seem to trace their sources,” Damilola says. 

In his sojourn, Tamara (from the beginning of this piece) was particular about meeting the older ones – he thought they had the language in them. But, as much as they also love the language, they were subconsciously forgetting certain words and expressions, because they already replaced them with pidgin and English itself. 

The reality is that the older ones want to communicate with the younger generation, and the most likely way that can happen is to key into their language systems – which is fundamentally flawed. 

There is also a feeling of satisfaction about being civilised that comes with ditching the local language for the English language – or pidgin which has all the slangs – which informs conscious efforts to learn how to speak English. 

At other times, the excuse is that an Igbo man may have to communicate with his Hausa neighbour at some point and, using his language may cause more troubles than expected. A valid point indeed. But, there are a number of countries who have chosen a local language for their lingua franca – not some globally accepted language (an attempt to please slave masters). 

Nigeria always arrives at parties late. So we will assume that our languages will die before it the steady decline is declared a national crisis. 

“Well, it can’t be disputed that people with extensive knowledge on our indigenous languages are getting old and dying,” Ibrahim says. 

He adds, “and the fact that Africans rely so much on oral tradition is also not helping the matter. This means that a lot of old people are dying with so much knowledge about our indigenous knowledge and languages with little opportunity to preserve, document and digitise the knowledge for the coming generation. 

“So, in a way, this (older generation dying with the languages) is true. However, it can’t also be disputed that a new vanguard of activists and advocates are rising in the new generation to close the gap and make our indigenous languages fashionable for the younger generation and outsiders.”

Kelvin agrees the older generation are taking the language away. “Let’s take Port Harcourt and Warri for instance, pidgin and slangs have taken over the local languages, especially as more and more visitors go in to make a home with the indigenes. Pidgin and slangs replace the local tongue, dragging the local languages into extinction.”

Interestingly, you could still see older people admonish their children for failing to speak the local language. You won’t be telling yourself the truth if you argue that there aren’t older Nigerians who weep when they see their kids or people in the community tainting the lingo. However, are they strong enough to insist that ‘children of nowadays’ use more of the local language? – or do they have the numbers? 

Asides that, there’s a community of the older generation who have learnt to make shame of some of our cultural dictates. Their wards come home to say, “ain’t no one does that anymore,” and parents feel obligated to travel from the medieval times (when people respected their culture and language) to the digital age – where there is hardly regard for anything ‘local.’ 

So, these days, we will prefer to lean on religion to name a child, and run away from names that have local histories or some inclination to deities. 

Patience instead of Asake. Blessing instead of Obiefuna. AbdulHamid instead of Dandawo. 

Ayodele is somewhat in opposition to the the former submissions though. He says more younger people now use the language.

“Our local languages cannot fade away with the older generation. Lots of younger people are speaking and using the language. While I understand that a lot of younger people are completely incapable of using their local languages, we must also acknowledge the ones who use the languages well,” he posits.

The way forward

Mental reorientation. 

We need to be proud of what we have. The English are supposedly gone and we have an identity – which they tried to erase from history. We have our languages. We also have the resources to adopt any Nigerian dialect the common language. Let us leave the trenches of insignificance and begin to promote our culture. 

“The world has evolved, it’s gonna be somewhat difficult to restore back our local languages. Perhaps, if added into a school curriculum we might be able to strike a balance,” Kelvin says.

On her own part, Dr. Kikelomo Adeniyi says “there should be psychic re-orientation; need for jingles on radio and TV appreciating Nigerian languages, advertisements in print media to make people love and enjoy speaking the local language. We thank God for Yoruba Nollywood and Movies. Children are compelled to watch and listen. These Yoruba and maybe Igbo and Hausa movies are helpful to parents whose children are not speaking the mother tongue.” – Dr Kikelomo Adeniyi. 

To some persons, a part of Dr. Adeniyi’s submission may sound problematic, knowing that speakers (the actors) in Yoruba and Igbo movies are keen on code-switching for whatever reason. 

Outside of the identity issue which is paramount, promoting our languages makes it easier for those who only understand the local dialect to be part of the globalisation plan. So, if something were happening in Germany or China, the local woman or man would understand because it is written or said in the local dialect. 

South Africa has some nine official languages. Needless to say countries who pay particular attention to their languages have a deep identity, making them more patriotic and which makes information easily accessible to the masses, not forgetting the old and poor.

Nigeria’s Chief of Defence Staff, General Lucky Irabor, says “Government and other stakeholders need to do something very fast to preserve our languages and culture before they go extinct.

“Interestingly, we have the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture that superintends issues of this nature, and I know that policies are being formulated in this regard.

Other stakeholders, especially parents, should play their part by communicating with their children in local languages in addition to giving them socio-cultural orientation.”

For Ibrahim, “we need to re-examine our education policy and practices. 

“For instance, it has been the official policy in Nigeria that the medium of instruction at the lower primary, (the first three years) should be the indigenous language of the child or the language of his/her immediate environment. If this is implemented, it will go a long way to check the dwindling usage of our indigenous languages. 

“Lagos also made similar policies a couple of years ago, where the state made it compulsory for anyone seeking admission to Lagos-owned schools to have passed Yorùbá as a course in secondary school. Is this being implemented? 

“Can other states emulate this across the Southwest and Southeast too? Can we start conducting legislative matters in State Houses of Assemblies in indigenous languages? Can we make it compulsory for any product coming into the country to have product manuals written in the indigenous languages? Answers to some of these questions will point us in the right direction.

“Also, there’s the problem of inadequate literature and content in indigenous languages. We need initiatives and programmes that encourage and celebrate the creation of content in indigenous languages. We need to have more competition amongst young people with significant prizes that focus on indigenous languages and contents.”  

Professor Megan Davis, Chair of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, insists that saving indigenous languages is important, not only for the people who speak the language, but for the world at large. 

She says, “saving indigenous languages is crucial to ensure the protection of the cultural identity and dignity of indigenous peoples and safeguard their traditional heritage.”

For Damilola, we need to find a way to preserve a lot of things in our local languages. 

“For instance a lot of people have worked on documenting Yoruba Proverbs, Yoruba Idiomatic Expressions, Language of the Drums, Yoruba Names, etc. Personally, I worked on documenting all the verbs in the Yoruba language.  

“I feel we can all focus on certain areas and work on them, that way we will be able to achieve more. It is better now that we still have the older generation, we can extract so much information from them and keep it for generations to come.”

One of the most important things groups, families, and individuals can do is insist on speaking their native language, resisting the urge to succumb to a dominant group’s language.

Ayodele insists on doing more to preserve our languages. “While institutional efforts must be made, individual efforts must also be made to ensure that the languages are preserved for posterity. Everyone should speak their local languages and pass it on to the next generation. We must also ensure that our local languages are used to reflect modern realities. More technological tools must be built to ensure that the languages are relevant in the current age.”

Tochukwu Obodo lists a few endangered languages, your language may be on the list. 

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