Can you speak your native language? This question is a very interesting one in a Nigeria overwhelmed by Western civilization and culture and battling with two strange phenomena: the fluent use of local languages in rural areas and the decline in their use in some urban areas.
Recent reports in the media echo my fear about the latter. Things have changed a great deal. We are at a time when speaking English and emulating Western traditions help you gain acceptance and credibility; when native languages are diluted and corrupted, if ever used. But for those who cherish our unique identities and feel that our traditions and customs need to be preserved, my question at the beginning of this article demands urgent attention.
Nigeria, made up of multiple ethnic groups and diverse voices, is facing the challenge of keeping its local languages from becoming extinct (preserving our unique traditions) as well as that of maintaining national unity (using the English language), two objectives we are yet to achieve.
Although concrete statistics are hard to come by, it is evident that some indigenous languages are dying in Nigeria's cities judging from daily interactions and personal observation.
The English language has broken communication barriers and helped to foster unity and enhance understanding. However, I am worried that the investment we make to retain and master the English language is not commensurate with what we put in to sustain and promote our local languages. Today, someone with an undergraduate degree in Yoruba or Igbo is considered a failure or a misfit because our society believes those who have undergraduate degrees in local languages were not smart enough to study ‘better courses’. In primary school, I remember being told not to speak Yoruba or risk paying a fine or getting whipped. Such a punishment may not be necessary today as English has replaced the mother-tongue in many homes in urban areas to the extent that many children cannot speak their parents’ languages.
Some years ago as an undergraduate, I was asked to report on a student event: the Igbo Student Association’s magazine launch. The moderator smilingly announced that since it was a cultural day, the Igbo language would be spoken throughout the programme. I knew that I would not be able to report anything as I do not understand any Igbo. A friend, noticing my fear, promised to interpret whatever was said to me. But I was taken aback upon hearing some Igbo students – making up altogether a quarter or more of the gathering – erupt from the back of the hall: "We cannot understand Igbo o-o!" I shifted my gaze from one to another and felt bad.
Although some of those who complained of not understanding Igbo at the gathering had understandable reasons for not speaking the language (such as not growing up in an Igbo environment or with their parents), it seems nevertheless that the trend today is parents no longer seeing it as a point of duty to introduce their children to their languages. This is due to a variety of causes: some parents are overwhelmed by Western tradition and are used to speaking English at home, while some deliberately avoid speaking their native languages to their children to help them gain competence in English.
Ngugi Wa Thiong’o recently lamented the rate at which Africans are abandoning their indigenous languages for foreign languages. He argued that Africans who have mastered other people’s languages at the expense of their own have subjected themselves to a "second slavery" – a point I agree with. In line with Ngugi’s argument, my fiction teacher instigated a discussion around this problem recently when he stated that it was worrisome that people do not write in local languages any more. He mentioned the ‘Asian Tigers’ such as South Korea and Taiwan and how they cherish their local languages and use them as a medium of learning.
The topic generated much hoopla in the class as many of us passionately shared our views. Some decried the situation, while others gave new solutions. A few argued the government needs to have the political will to bring about change. All agreed that the local languages should be preserved alongside the English language and that plans to this effect could be put in place within a year. The government has a role. Parents have a role. In short, all hands must be on deck.
Consider this: if the government of Nigeria today comes up with a policy requiring all schools (both public and private) to have local language teachers or risk being closed down, demand for teachers for these subjects would increase and more teaching jobs would be created. In states where Yoruba, Hausa or Igbo are not the native languages, the government should make provisions for the available ethnic languages to be taught and learnt: for instance, the Ishan language in Edo State or Efik in Cross River State.
More people would be encouraged to study Nigerian languages such as Yoruba or Hausa at university, diversifying potential job opportunities. As an example: my cousin got a job in United Bank for Africa (UBA) specifically because he could speak Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo and English fluently: he was born in the north, his parents are Yoruba and his family also lived in the East. As a result, his parents encouraged him to learn the three major indigenous languages.
The government’s efforts should also be complemented by parents at home. Parents need to help their children understand their native languages as well as English. The fact that a child needs to speak English well does not mean he cannot also learn his local language. Furthermore, research has shown that children are able to acquire different languages with ease at a young age. It is here that the role of the parents is most relevant: their responsibility is to maximise their children’s language acquisition potential before they reach adolescence and lose some of their natural ability.
The success of the promotion of local languages in countries such as Germany, Russia, Japan and China shows that change is imperative in Nigeria. These countries encourage the learning of English as a foreign language and retain their languages for official purposes. Improving access to learning our local languages has many advantages: preserving our traditions and customs, fostering national understanding and enabling us to appreciate the beauty of our diversity. To me, our languages are the most unique thing about our identity. If the government and policy makers can make headway in implementing the teaching and learning of our native languages in schools, perhaps when my question "Can you speak your native language?" is raised in the future, we can all proudly answer: "Yes we can!"
This piece was first posted on September 6, 2012.