original one -This Day newspaper
This Day (Lagos)
Nigeria: Saving the Local Languages
21 June 2010
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Lagos — One of the strongest effects of western civilization is the gradual but steady erosion of the culture of the people, especially of former colonies. There is no where this has been demonstrated more than in the language of the people.
With western education came the fad of speaking the “whiteman’s language”. In Nigeria for instance, the ability to speak the English language was then, the most ready proof of “belonging” to a social class, high and above the local platform of those considered as mere natives. School children were then forbidden from speaking their local languages in the classroom. Offenders were punished for speaking vernacular. Over the years, this malaise has worsened.
Today, fewer and fewer people are able to speak, let alone write their native languages. If some indigenous languages have suffered poor orthographical development, that should not affect the ability to speak it. But modern day children, especially those in the urban centres now consider their mother tongue as a linguistic anathema.
This and other issues inform former Executive Secretary of National Universities Commission (NUC), Professor Munzali Jibril’s warning that unless deliberate measures are taken to preserve and promote Nigerian languages, they stand the risk of going extinct. Already, some languages have “died”, with nobody speaking them anymore.
According to Prof. Jibril, 45 per cent of the world’s population speak only five languages: Chinese, English, Hindi, Spanish and Russian, just as the top 100 languages of the world are spoken by 95 per cent of the world’s people. The remaining five per cent speak over 6,000 languages, with some languages having just about 100 or even less speakers. This, to say the least, is worrisome.
That Nigerian languages are dying is no longer news. The present generation of children are hardly able to understand or communicate in their mother tongues. The craze for the English Language has long become a kind of status symbol. This is even worse among the children of the elite and urban dwellers. Worse still, is the adoption of pidgin English in most cities as the unofficial lingua franca. The blame for this loss is largely on the parents, some of whom are also unable to speak their native languages, and so find it difficult to train their children in their native tongues. Left unchecked, what that means is that generation after generation in such family lineage will miss out on the mother tongue, with the grave and telling effect of a steady but gradual disconnect with the native language.
It is in a bid to rescue the languages from extinction that the Federal Ministry of Education introduced the policy of ensuring that at least, one or two major Nigerian languages are taught in schools. Almost two decades after, this has not quite improved the health of native languages. Prof Babatunde Fafunwa, former Education minister had also directed, at the time, that teachers should give instructions in native languages as a way of building and developing the local languages. But most of the languages are shallow and poorly developed. That has restricted their use as medium of instruction. Worse still, several words in the English Language have no exact equivalent in the native language. For example it may not be easy to find the Yoruba or Igbo equivalent of the word “Chlorine” or “mega watts”?
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But despite the challenges, Nigerian languages can be revived, at least in the spoken form, until more scholarly attention is devoted to their orthographical development. The place to kick-start this is at the home. Children in their early formative years have Tabula Rasa brain, literally meaning blank memory, on which parents must make initial linguistic imprints.
This is achievable even before the children attain school age. Conscious efforts must be made by parents to speak their native languages to their children, who in turn will grow to cherish the language and pass same on to their children, thereby sustaining the life of the languages. The regulated exposure of the children to Language lessons in the school is not enough to achieve the resuscitation of Nigerian languages. Parents must embrace the habit of speaking the local languages to the children. And the time is now.