Gradually - Nigerian languages are dying

A progressive and generational drift towards English language threatens the survival of indigenous Nigerian languages, writes CHUX OHAI

A few weeks ago, award-winning Nigerian novelist and Belgium-based academic, Dr. Chika Unigwe, visited Enugu, the capital of Enugu State, otherwise called the Coal City. She made a discovery that shocked her.

During a brief interaction with some local children whose ages were between four and 12 years, she found that most of them could not speak their native Igbo language.

“I noticed – to my dismay – that many of the children (at least the ones I saw), sadly, do not speak Igbo. They are being raised monolingual, which means they only speak English. I asked this random kid (who looked about six years old) her name in Igbo. She responded in English. I asked how old she was in Igbo. She stared at me. I asked it in English, she responded, ‘How old I am is one years old (sic).’ Apparently, this girl cannot speak any language  correctly at all,” Unigwe wrote on her Facebook page.

Predictably,  the writer’s statement drew the attention of many of her friends on the new media and, then, ignited a lengthy debate on her wall. Judging by the nature of the comments that trailed Unigwe’s observation, many of those who responded to it were unaware of the syndrome that is currently threatening the continued survival of indigenous languages in Nigeria. While experts are fast losing hope on elite kids, even many of those (children) in the rural areas can no longer speak their mother tongue.

In her last comment, Unigwe said, “It is ridiculous to see kids growing up without speaking their mother tongues, while living in that culture. Don’t kids in Nigeria pick up English at school anymore? Hopefully, the schools do a better job than some parents who teach their kids grammar.”

•‘Daddy, they are speaking rubbish’

A Lagos-based teacher ate the humble pie during the 2012 Eid-el-Kabir. He, alongside his wife and their two children, had travelled to Ila Orangun, Osun State, his home town, where they chose to celebrate the Islamic festival with his parents.

As many kids love to do, Idiat, the teacher’s four-year old daughter, was eager to mix and play with other children in the relatively large extended family. So, from the first evening, Idiat preferred to join her mates in the passage or outside the house, while her parents sat in the sitting room.

But hardly had the little girl joined them that she returned to the father and mother. Crying bitterly, she said, “Daddy, they are speaking rubbish.”

The problem was that Idiat could not understand Yoruba, which was the tongue in which the kids were conversing. Because she had not been exposed to the mother tongue, the language the innocent folks were speaking was not only an empty noise to her, it was also utter rubbish. What compounded the issue  was the fact that the other kids were speaking Igbomina, a Yoruba dialect, and not the variant regarded as the standard.

Anyway, Idiat’s parents pet her and urged her to go back to her hosts. Yet, incessant quarrels, complaints and the ‘rubbish refrain’ were the order of the day throughout the days that the teacher stayed in Ila Orangun.

“Honestly, I felt ashamed of myself,” the teacher says. “It was there it dawned on my wife and I that we had not been fair to our children, ourselves and our cultural root by not teaching the kids Yoruba, or speaking it to them.”

Experts are agitated that if a child cannot speak his or her mother tongue today, that child’s own children, say in the next 20 or 25 years, will know little or nothing about the language. After all, the dad or mum cannot teach what he or she does not know. The implication is that in the next 50 years or so, the fate of Nigerian languages would have become so dicey that they would not be far from extinction.

The situation seems worsened by the fact that the ministries of education, which are in a position to enforce the propagation of the languages, are not serious about doing so. This is evident in a recent policy of the Federal Ministry of Education, which makes the study of at least one of Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo languages optional in the Senior Secondary School, as against the initial regime that made it compulsory.

•Mixed marriage factor

Stella Johnson, a female undergraduate of a Nigerian university, speaks Yoruba quite fluently, even though it is not her mother tongue.

“I was born in Lagos and I picked up Yoruba from primary school,” she says.

Although Stella’s parents hail from Delta State, they belong to different tribes. Her father,  an Ika Igbo, speaks the language fluently, her mother is also proficient in her native Isoko language.

Unfortunately, none of both parents has deemed it necessary to teach her how to speak and communicate effectively in either of the mother tongues. To make matters worse, only English language is spoken in their home.

Stella speaks Yoruba only when she is with her friends. “Ever since I was a child, I have been speaking English at home. None of my parents understands each other’s language. So, they speak English at home. In fact, English is the mother tongue in our home,” she says.

The young woman, who turned 20 a few weeks ago, wishes she could hold a conversation in either Isoko or Ika lgbo languages, just as she does in English and Yoruba. She feels there is a  vacuum in her life that can be filled only when she finds someone who will be willing to teach her how to speak both languages fluently.

Even regular visits by Stella’s uncles, aunts and cousins to her home have not been of much help.

“Nobody has ever bothered to teach me Isoko or Ika Igbo. Whenever my parents’ relatives visit us, all they ever do is ask why I can’t speak both languages. Honestly, I feel very embarrassed. I wish that I could find somebody who will teach me one of them, at least,” she tells our correspondent.

Nowadays, more Nigerians seem to be getting married across ethnic barriers. Many of them, like Stella’s parents, may end up denying their children the opportunity and the advantage of learning their mother tongues.

Investigation has shown that in some cases, spouses that belong to the same ethnic group communicate only in English because one of them cannot speak the mother tongue. For example, although they are both Ishan, Reginald Osaro, who lives in the Alagbado area of Lagos, can only discuss with his wife, Adesuwa, in English.

“My wife does not understand Ishan.  But she speaks Igbo fluently because she grew up in her maternal grandmother’s home in Imo State. My wife’s mother is Igbo,” Reginald says.

Aware of the peculiar language situation in the country, one day, the Osaros decided to expose their son, who is barely two years old, to Ishan before he celebrates his fourth birthday.

“My wife came up with the suggestion and I felt it was a good idea. I would introduce our son to Ishan, which is his mother tongue, anyway, and she will ensure that he learns to speak good English. By the time the boy clocks four years, I am sure he will be able to speak both languages,” Reginald says.

Also, a public relations consultant, Adeola Odunowo, and his wife have devised a similar strategy to ensure that their two children become proficient in Yoruba.

“Already, my five year-old daughter speaks Yoruba well, thanks to my wife who has undertaken the task of teaching the children the language. I can’t teach them myself because I’m not proficient in Yoruba,” Odunowo says.

Odunowo blames his inability to speak his native language on the environment where he grew up.

“I grew up in the old 1004 flats on Victoria Island. My neighbours were mainly expatriates and a few Nigerian families. I never heard indigenous Nigerian languages being spoken on the estate when I was there. The language spoken in my home at that time was English. My parents never spoke to us in Yoruba. But, somehow, I managed to pick up the language from the streets,” he says.

•Blaming parents

Further investigation by our correspondent shows that many Nigerian children, even adults, across the country cannot communicate effectively in their native languages and the situation is attributed to various factors.

 A former Head of the Department of English at the University of Lagos, Prof. Akachi Ezeigbo, blames Nigerian parents for failing to introduce their children to the mother tongue at an early age.

 “Our indigenous languages are dying and I hold parents responsible for this. Parents make the error of thinking that if they expose a child to English, instead of his native language, he would learn well. But this is not true. The child will grow up being neither competent in the mother tongue nor English language,” she says.

Also, part of the blame, she adds, goes to ‘cultural imperialists’ for leading a campaign to label everything European – from food to language and clothes – as good and acceptable, while anything African is portrayed as bad and unacceptable.

Ezeigbo says early exposure to Nigerian languages will help improve a child’s cognitive development. Using her own children’s performances in the West African School Certificate Examination as an illustration, she notes that children have a better chance of learning other languages if they are exposed to the mother tongue early enough.

“I believe so much in children speaking the mother tongue. It helps them to master any other language. It is easier for children to speak all languages when you expose them to the mother tongue at the age of three. More important, it helps them to improve in their academic work,” she says.

Ezeigbo thinks it is ‘criminal’ for a parent not to teach his children the mother tongue. She says children that are exposed to Nigerian languages early enough are able to communicate ideas effectively in English language.

The award-winning novelist and poet wonders why the products of inter-tribal marriages are often unable to speak the native languages of their parents, saying that it is primarily the responsibility of the female spouse to introduce the children to the mother tongue at an early age.

“When students come into my office, the first thing I ask them is if they speak their native languages. What they tell me is that their parents never spoke it to them at home. I think this is shocking,” she says.

Inferiority complex

One of those who commented on Unigwe’s Facebook wall, a professor of sociolinguistics at the University of Roehampton in the United Kingdom, named Tope Omoniyi, blamed the current shift from the mother tongue on the poor attitude of the Nigerian elite toward indigenous languages.

Omoniyi said, “It is a shame that those who ought to know better in our society do not know at all. UNESCO and various other studies have shown, time and again, that children who have mother tongue medium of instruction and learnt English as a subject experience higher cognitive development than those who are instructed in English.

“Yet, many still see being monolingual in English as indicative of membership of an elite class. Unfortunately, it is increasingly a mark of growing stupidity on the part of parents who still cling to that warped value. That’s the message I’m taking to the West African Linguistic Society Conference at the University of Ibadan, holding between July 29 and August 2.”

Also, another commentator, Joe Okafor, described the situation as the result of inferiority complex.

“This issue is borne out of inferiority complex on the part of the parents, especially the uneducated and the half-educated. I was overjoyed, the other day, when a friend and his kids from the USA got chatting in flawless Igbo. The pretty kids dazzled me with American English and Igbo Owerri dialect,” he said.

Perhaps, speaking the minds of some Nigerians who feel that the family, as a major socialising agency for the child, deserves a large chunk of the blame, one Oburubata Nnachor said, “I live in Onitsha and I have observed that parents in the town try very hard to teach their wards English, to the detriment of their mother tongue. If you must teach your children English language at home, then what are you sending them to school to learn? Igbo?

“I think the problem is not that they teach their wards English; the problem is that they make it a rule that English should be the only acceptable form of communication in their homes. When you do that, you are invariably selling your mother tongue short and ingraining it in the mind of the child that English is superior and the mother tongue is worthless.”

•Eight Nigerian languages now extinct

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation has listed four categories of endangered languages. They are the vulnerable, definitely endangered, severely endangered and the critically endangered languages.

In the first category, most children speak the language, which may be restricted to certain domains, while the second group refers to languages that are no longer learnt as mother tongue in the home.

It is safe to conclude that if the current trend in Nigeria continues and more children are gradually denied the opportunity to learn and master their mother tongues, indigenous Nigerian languages stand the risk of being classified as definitely endangered.

In a statement posted on the website of its Endangered Languages Programme, UNESCO warns that if nothing is done, about half of 6,000 plus languages spoken in the world today will disappear by the end of the 21st century. Some Nigerian languages are among the endangered species.

The organisation added that with the disappearance of unwritten and undocumented languages, humanity would lose not only a cultural wealth, but also important ancestral knowledge embedded, in particular, in indigenous languages.

So far, about eight Nigerian mother tongues have been listed as extinct. They are the Ajawa (Bauchi State); Auyokawa (Jigawa State); Basa-Gumna(Niger and Nasarawa states); Gamo-Ningi (Ningi Local Government, Bauchi State); Kpati, Kubi, Mawa (Bauchi State) and Teshenawa (Jigawa State) languages. As concerned experts, including Prof. Akinwunmi Ishola, have noted, there are indications that many more will follow in due course.

 

•Connection to failure in English language

In August 2012, the West African Examinations Council released the results of the May/June 2012 West Africa Senior School Certificate Examination.

While announcing the results, the then Head, National Office of the Council, Dr. Iyi Uwadie, noted that a total of 1,545,004 candidates had their results fully released, while 150,874 others, representing 8.90 per cent of the total figure, had a few of their subjects still being processed due to some errors committed by the candidates at the point of entry.

Out of the total number of candidates that sat for the examination, a total of 771,731 candidates, representing 46.14 per cent,  obtained six credits and above; 952,156 candidates, representing 56,93 per cent, obtained five credits and above;  while 1,107,747, representing 66.24 per cent,  obtained credits in four subjects.

However, a total of 649,156 candidates, representing 38.81 per cent, obtained credits in five subjects and above, including English Language and Mathematics.

Interestingly, Uwadie said, the results showed a marked improvement in the candidates’ performance in the 2010 and 2011 examinations.

But the figures clearly reflect a serious decline in the ability of the Nigerian school child to express himself in English. Ezeigbo blames this on the lack of exposure of the child to the mother tongue. “This is what we get for not exposing our children to the mother tongue. None of my children had less than an A in the WASSCE. It was because my husband and I exposed them to Igbo language when they were very young. At three years, the sound system of the mother tongue seeps into the child and he is able to master any other language easily in future,” she says.

It is feared that the Nigerian child may end up losing his mother tongue if nothing is done to check this trend and urgently, too. Parents, said to be the real culprits, are daily accused of sowing the seed of confusion by neglecting this all-important language need of their children or teaching them to despise the mother tongue. This may result, experts say, in the total loss of our cultural heritage.

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