Local Languages: a Cultural Heritage Or Vice?

Daily Champion (Lagos)

April 21, 2005

Okoro Theophilus

THE rate at which the nation’s languages is gradually being subsumed by the influence of western cultures – languages – cannot be quantified. To many parents, they cannot just find a simple reason why they should bequeath to their children the native language – a cultural heritage.

In education, Nigeria has a mother tongue policy which requires that every child be taught in a mother tongue at the pre-primary and during the first three years of primary school. The policy states that where the mother tongue cannot be used, the language of the immediate environment, i.e. the dominant language of the community which the child already speaks is recommended.

In some regions in Nigeria especially the South-South, ‘pidgin’ has acquired a mother tongue status, such that many youths are unable to communicate in the local languages any more. Language experts or educationists in time past had advocated for the usage of Nigerian ‘pidgin’ in teaching especially in this area. This was the thinking of the National Commission for Mass Literacy Adult and Non Formal Education in 1992 which was introduced to produce literacy materials in Nigeria ‘pidgin’ unfortunately the project has since been suspended.

It is not uncommon to find parents teaching or communicating in English with their children without recourse to the necessity of first bequeathing their native languages to them. This imported city practice(s) has spread colossally to different parts of Nigeria, most especially the South East and the South-South areas.

This practise is quite becoming an acceptable norm for majority of the people, though it might not be condemned in its totality. But the parent must ensure that the child as a matter of priority UNDERSTANDS the mother tongue and SPEAKS it, before they (may) decide to change the code and educate him or her on the other. Civilization does not presuppose the abandonment of culture or one’s language, rather it requires an integrative approach in which such local languages are developed via the instrumentalities of communication in our day-to-day existence.

In our society today, thousands of our youth are unable to speak their native languages, and for this group, it is most likely that their lineage(s) will be affected seriously because they cannot bequeath to the generations to come what they don’t know.

That is why many foreigners who are resident on Nigeria and who are not of the English stock, such as Indians, Chinese, French, Japanese etc see the importance of their mother tongues and bequeath them to their children through the process of cultural transmission, before any other language would follow. This observation, shows that our Nigerian parents have got it wrong from the start, either due to ignorance of the wrongs of civilization as it relates to local languages or a clear show of apathy in its communicative uses due to personal ego and pride or put succinctly, of complexes which only a genuine and thorough appraisal of the unquantifiale disastrous consequences it portends for the future of local languages will correct. There is need for re-orientation for both parents and the youths who have ignorantly accepted this practice of speaking only foreign languages as a norm and view the local languages as a vice to be done away with.

The intimacy between a language and people who speak it are inseparable because a language lives only so long as there are people who speak and use it as their mother tongue, and its greatness is only that given to it by the people. That is why classical latin is a dead language because it has not evolved or changed and not used as a language of public communication. Lack of use might have accounted for the death of many local languages in the South-South today and in no distant future the South East will suffer the same fate if the people do not evolve an attitudinal change towards their culture.

A language is important because those who speak it are important politically, economically, culturally. English, French and German are great and important languages because they are the languages of great and important people.

If the native or local languages are not bequeathed to our children, how can the language(s) evolve over time from this present state of complexities to a process of progressive simplification in line with modernization? How can it become the language of great and important people? How can it preserve our cultural heritage? Greek for instance is studied in its classical form because of the great civilization which its literature preserves.

Information and culture are not matters of leisure. They are life and death issues in the world of today. We have to defend the culture of the people, because once the mind is conquered, the body will follow. If we allow the people outside to colonize us mentally, intellectually and culturally, then we are just slaves.

This doesn’t mean that English language is not important, it is an international language, a language of law, commerce, politics, administration, and of education and most importantly our lingua-Franca, hence, must be learnt, but not to be used as a substitute for our local languages. That is why the schools as agents of socialisation offer the opportunity for a child to be educated in English while his or her mental facilities are still alert to language acquisition.

Research and observation have shown that a child is capable of speaking as many as 8 different languages; the onus now is on the parents to minimize these potentialities inherent in the child as it relates to language acquisition. But by refusing to culturally transmit these local (native) languages to their wards at their prime in preference for English alone, it becomes very difficult for these youths to acquire these native languages when they become adolescent. Thus the child is ill-equipped to communicate, using other mediums in a dynamic and multi-lingual environment like ours, hence, preparing the native languages for imminent death.

J. Oswald Sanders once said that “the eyes that look are common, the eyes that see are rare.” It is neither a mark of wisdom nor of greater knowledge and understanding for the parents and the youths to continue this practice. We must begin to see the fate about to befall our local languages. Our youths are fast losing their cultural heritage due to neglect of indigenous languages and if nothing is urgently done to reverse the trend, Nigeria’s cultural heritage and linguistic diversity would be lost and the nations personality subsumed by other cultural influences.

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  1. Annette Cantoran Says:

    Some interesting insights there, what would you recommend a newcomer to all of this read from here?

    • Yeye Akilimali Funua Olade Says:

      Annette Cantoran just type “saving yoruba language” and saving african languages” on your search engine and read on.

      Annette Cantoran, just type “saving yoruba language” and saving african languages” in your search engine and read on. Also all the articles we have here under “african languages are endangered”!

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