Thursday, May 14, 2009
In Abuja, culture experts canvass preservation of mother tongues
From Bridget Chiedu Onochie, Abuja
THE threat is real. In fact, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) sounded the warning late last year that “more than 50 per cent of the 7,000 languages spoken in the world may disappear.”
The risk is so high that “less than a quarter of those languages are currently used in schools and in cyberspace, and most are used only sporadically.”
The situation is compounded by the fact that “thousands of languages – though mastered by those populations for whom it is the daily means of expression – are absent from education systems, the media, publishing and the public domain in general.”
And with Nigeria having more than 250 indigenous languages, the casualty might be on the high side. But culture agencies across the country, and by extension, in the continent of Africa are not taking the threat lightly.
Last week in Abuja, the preservation and promotion of the indigenous languages was the focus of the one-day yearly public lecture organised by the Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilisation (CBAAC).
The event brought together culture icons from across the continent, among them, the Director, Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society (CASAS), Cape Town, South Africa, Prof. Kwesi Kwaa Prah; the Emir of Gwandu and Chairman, Kebbi State Council of Chiefs, Dr. Muhammadu Iliyasu Bashar, who was represented by the Vice Chancellor, University of Abuja; Prof. Yakub Yusuf and the Executive Secretary National Institute for Cultural Orientation (NICO), Mr. J.B. Yusuf. Others were Director General, National Orientation Agency, Alhaji Idi Farouk, directors of culture under the Ministry of Culture and Tourism as well as secondary school students within the Abuja metropolis.
With African Languages, African Development and African Unity as theme, the guest lecturer, Prof. Prah, blamed African woes partly on leaders, who abandoned their cultural heritage for foreign ways of life without realising the impact of their actions on national development and integration.
Deliberating extensively on African development, he noted that such could only be achieved when both material and non-material needs of individuals and groups had been adequately put in place. He said
Still on development, Prah regretted that long after independence, all that Africa has got to show for the lofty ideals and over-charged euphoria that greeted the end to colonial rule is disillusionment and sentiments.
“For the very early period, we appeared to be making credible headway. But it didn’t take long, in most cases, not more than a decade or a decade and a half for disillusionment and sentiments of being lost in the woods to begin to overtake us,” Prah remarked.
Not even the early post-colonial elites were exonerated from Prah’s hammer on the misfortune that befell African cultural heritage.
According to him, this group of people adopted the modernisation school that was fundamentally functionalist in approach and tended to see development within ‘sealed’ social system and structures.
He said they also regarded traditional values, institutions and beliefs as constraining factors in their developmental endeavours.
On the impact of cultural on development, the Professor of Culture stressed that every society, which develops, does so on the basis of its cultural heritage and its ability to adopt new inputs from outside into its own culture.
He expressed dismay that too often Africans have likened culture to mean old practices, especially the display type such as traditional dancing, music and singing.
Regardless of this belief, the guest lecturer said that it is only culture that distinguishes man and raises him above other animals. “Humans learn and create culture as a social heritage, which is transferred from generation to generation as material and non-material products of the human genius,” he noted, adding: “Thus, much as we make culture, culture makes and defines us both as individuals and as members of groups, its assemblage of ideals, values and patterns of institutionalised behaviouir, socialised symbols and shared meanings underscore the centrality of language.”
In conclusion, he advised that if Africa must move forward, there is the need to roll back the unhelpful consequences of the colonial heritage, reclaim their cultural belongings and histories and with these in hand, confidently move ahead.
While stressing that not everything about African culture deserves to be saved, preserved or utilised in the quest for modernity, he suggested that a selective attitude to both artifacts and values should be adhered to.
“The idea of reclaim is that we must retrieve what is vital, living and timeless in our cultural and value system and construct or reconstruct them as a basis for our advancement. Our languages are our primary instruments, without them, we cannot move forward”, he warned.
Earlier in his address, the Minister of Culture and Tourism, Senator Bello Jibrin Gada, reiterated the urgent need to save indigenous languages from the impact of colonisation and globalisation.
Noting that the survival of African language is endangered, he warned that Africans should not watch helplessly while their languages are fast being substituted with foreign ones.
He also shared the belief that Africans quest for development is closely related to the survival of their linguistic diversities.
“We often complain of, and yearn for solutions to our declining educational standards. We have failed to realize that the foundation of our problems in the educational sector lies in the absence of the use of our mother tongue for instruction in schools.”
If other countries of the world, especially the Asian tigers have advanced scientifically and technologically with the use of their local languages, the minister said same could be possible in Africa.
Commending CBAAC for its initiative, Gada assured of his ministry’s support for programmes and activities that tend to promote African cultural heritage.
The Director/Chief Executive Officer, CBAAC, Prof. Tunde Babawale, in his remarks, said though Africa and her people spread all over the world and occupied a place of special importance in the world’s history, they have been responsible for their misfortune in the areas of development and unity.
According to him, inability to attain their desired developmental height could be blamed on their willingness to celebrate the pre-eminence of foreign languages against theirs.
This development, he said, accounted for the communication gap between the rulers and the ruled.
Babawale expressed optimism that the lecture would offer the much needed reflection on the African experience, their shortcomings and laxities as well as address the challenges facing Africans and black people of the world.
“Most indigenous African languages face the threat of extinction. This forum would provide the platform to articulate our concerns and thus, serve as conveyor belts for transmitting our ancestral knowledge system suppressed by several decades of domination by foreign languages.”
Speaking on the possible ways of achieving the mandate of reviving dying cultures, especially as it concerns indigenous languages, Babawale said public awareness was should be the starting point. “I think one of the ways for us to perform the task is for us to raise awareness, let the public know that we are neglecting our languages to our own peril and that there is need for us to encourage our children to speak our own languages if we have to escape from permanent enslavement, and the only way to correct the Eurocentric and America attitude of our people is for us to go into indigenous languages.”
According to the CBAAC boss, any parent that argues that teaching a child indigenous languages affects his or her proficiency in foreign language does not understand that child. His assertion is based on the scientific proof that a child has the ability to pick as many as six languages, and speak them with equal competence.
“That is why when you see a child living in a community where they speak indigenous languages, that child will be able to speak all the languages with equal competence. However, the point to be made there is that you cannot talk of your own development exclusive of your language. Development comes when you have the totality of your cultural experience providing the springboard, and one aspect of your culture that helps to provide that springboard is your language. It is the only way you can communicate your own philosophy of life, the only way you can direct attention to your technology which must tell those friends that they are getting it wrong.”
Other advantages of local languages to a growing child, Prof Babawale said, which is the reason you include the development of his cognitive ability. “If your child cannot speak indigenous language and he lives within your environment, his ability to understand the environment is limited because he speaks English. For instance, it is not everything indigenous to us that have English translation. How do they grasp that without understanding their local languages? So, the point here is for us to raise awareness, to call the people to contribute to the effort directed at preventing these languages from going to extinction. We also call on government to see this as a serious task that must be done.”
Babawale, however, called for collaborative relationship with individuals and institutions in the task of reviving African dying treasures.
In a similar vein, the Vice Chancellor of University of Abuja, Prof. Yakub, stressed that African languages are strengthening and as such, he could not understand why most Africans prefer foreign languages. He asked if those people fail to capture the essence of language.
“As you know, language is essential, bedrock on which culture is built and progressively handed to the future.” He hoped that Africans will be able to express themselves as well as document their achievements in indigenous languages in future. This, he said, can only be possible when efforts are made at preserving them through their frequent usage.
“It is instrumental to our unity. A stranger, who understands your language is loved and adopted into the community.”
Calling for public policy on the preservation of indigenous languages, the V.C, said it would enable Nigerians forge ahead in enforcing the use and preservation of local languages, especially in schools.
Even the student participants were not left out in the quest to revive their mother tongue. While regretting the inability of most of them to speak indigenous languages, they also blamed political leaders and the affluence in the society for sending their children abroad for various reasons, who often return to intimidate them with foreign accents.
“We also want to speak like them, we feel inferior when they come back from overseas and speak foreign accents. So, we try to imitate them by also speaking foreign languages and imitating foreign accents”, said one of the students.
Others believed that though they missed earlier in life, having indigenous language teachers could do the expected magic of educating them on various Nigerian languages.
Guests were entertained with cultural dances and drama presentations that attempted to highlight the importance of local languages in national development and unity.
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