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Random thoughts on indigenous languages

In furtherance of last week’s conversation on this page, which focused on the need for decolonizing the African psyche, this column today looks at how…

In furtherance of last week’s conversation on this page, which focused on the need for decolonizing the African psyche, this column today looks at how the government, the media and native speakers of indigenous languages in Nigeria are helping to under-develop mother-tongues. While the impact of the media may be linked to modern technology, the government weak response and the lackadaisical attitude of native speakers cannot be isolated from colonial influence. Some colonial policies particularly in the education sector have, no doubt, had far-reaching consequences on the socio-cultural heritage of Nigerians in terms of indigenous languages.

Since independence, strategies for language development in many African nations including Nigeria have rather favoured the language of colonial masters over indigenous languages; conferring monopoly of official status, for example, to English in Anglophone countries as it is the case in Nigeria. Modern information technology, too, especially social media, is further making indigenous languages to lose their literary values as well as the morality of speech that is intrinsic in languages.

Nonetheless, the greatest challenge that threatens the survival of some mother-tongues in Nigeria today is, in the opinion of this writer, the apathy of native speakers towards indigenous languages. For more than half a century, this has remained a major bane to the development of many indigenous languages in Nigeria. Some Nigerian parents, probably acting as foolish Anglomaniacs, do not speak their mother tongues with their children. Instead, they make English as the language of interaction in their homes. Sadly, children from such Nigerian homes grow up with English as mother-tongue.

The ‘westernized’ class of Nigerians that accord English a home-grown status in their fatherland is only working to kill or destroy its own linguistic legacy. This negative attitude is detrimental to indigenous Nigerian languages because language develops only through usage. Let us recall that Allah (SWT) states in Qur’an 49:13 “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes that ye may know each other…” Given the interpretation of this verse, Nigerians prioritising other people’s language over theirs would simply seem to be daring God’s wisdom who provided them with their own mother tongue at birth.

In the past two decades, Nigeria made efforts to articulate some policy statements that were intended to promote the use of indigenous languages at different levels of interaction among citizens and under various socio-political and cultural settings. Many of these policy statements are contained in different official documents. They include the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, the National Policy on Education, and the National Broadcast Code among others.

Section 97 of the 1999 constitution, for example, provides that while the business of a House of Assembly shall be conducted in English, “the House may in addition to English conduct the business of the House in one or more other languages spoken in the State as the House may by resolution approve.” Only very few states implement this provision. Similarly, the existing National Policy on Education provides in Section 2 (20d) that “the medium of instruction in the primary school shall be the language of the immediate environment for the first three years in monolingual communities.” Unfortunately, the implementation of this policy yet remains more as a wish than a reality. Where a National Language Policy (NLP) exists, official declarations on indigenous languages would be available in one document. Furthermore, Nigeria’s inadequacies in mother-tongue teaching and learning particularly in schools can be addressed through a well-articulated NLP.

While we encourage Nigerians to promote the use of mother-tongues in their homes, we urge the government particularly states to do more in terms of policies that will foster the use of indigenous Nigerian languages. It would amaze readers that only one student graduated this year with a degree in the Yoruba language from the Lagos State University where Yoruba is as indigenous as the state government. On its side, the federal government could make a credit pass in one Nigerian language to be part of the general admission requirements into tertiary institutions in Nigeria. To achieve this, the curriculum would be required to list one of the three major Nigerian languages (Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba) as core subjects for students to offer one at the senior secondary school level where they are still optional.

The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) organised an Intergovernmental Conference on Language Policies in Africa, in March 1997 in Harare, Zimbabwe. At this conference, many resolutions were adopted to promote the use of African languages in all spheres of public life. Noting that only very few African countries then had comprehensive language policies just as fewer had such policies clearly mentioned in their constitutions; participants affirmed that the optimal use of African languages is a prerequisite for maximising African creativity in all matters of development. The Harare Plan of Action tasked each African country, as the immediate project, to formulate its NLP.

The use of local or indigenous languages is one of the ways of ensuring the active participation of citizens in national activities as well as in the planning and management of development projects. “Evaluation of development policies has shown that one reason for the failure of development plans is that the populations concerned have not been actively associated with them, and this is so because the plans are drawn up using a language and terminology the populations do not understand”, delegates to the Harare conference declared.

A NLP simply refers to a set of deliberate decisions, implementation strategies, and articulated policy statements put together by government for the use, promotion, and development of languages within a particular country. Usually, a NLP aims at enhanced participation of citizens through the use of indigenous language(s) in all aspects of national life. As government works to produce a well-designed NLP for the country, we enjoin citizens to value their mother-tongue and use it proudly in their homes and other places provided for by existing policies. May Allah guide us to understand the purpose of the variations in our tongues, amin.


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