By Niyi Odebode
In 2007, the United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organisation organised a series of workshops to protect dying Nigerian languages. After the workshops, the organisation in collaboration with the Federal Ministry of Tourism and Culture planned to embark on programmes which included mapping and documentation of indigenous languages in Nigeria and organising creative writing competition in the languages.
The world body said that from August 2008 to December 2009, it would seek partnership among state governments, private sectors, international organisations and relevant stakeholders to prevent the death of the languages through a series of programmes it had mapped out.
Two years after the workshops, investigations by our correspondent showed that many parents, particularly the elite, encouraged their children to speak English at the detriment of their indigenous languages.
A resident of Ikoyi, Lagos, Mr. Solomon Akintude, narrated his encounter with a son of his friend. Akintude told our correspondent that he had visited his friend on the last Boxing Day. ”We both hail from Ekiti State. It was over a month I saw him and I decided to pay the visit,” the engineer said.
According to him, both of them were in the man‘s sitting room, conversing in Yoruba Language, when his friend’s five-year-old son came in. ”After making futile attempts to understand our conversation, the boy said, ‘daddy both of you are speaking a dirty language,” Akintunde said.
A civil servant with the Federal Ministry of Transport, Mrs. Tayo Sofenwa, whose two children, Tope and Lara, attend Kidsville School, on Odunlami Street, Victoria Island, Lagos, also said that the children were encouraged to speak English both at home and in school. When asked whether the children, whose father hails from Abeokuta, could speak Yoruba, the woman answered in the negative.
Justifying the family‘s attitude to the indigenous language, the civil servant said, ”English language is our official language. It will be wise to get the children as vast in it as possible to prepare them for a future outside Nigeria.”
Investigations showed that Nigerian indigenous languages were affected by negative attitudes of Nigerians. Last year, a member of Igbo sociocultural group, Ndigbo, Peter Umeh, urged the Igbo to preserve their language.
He said that the lgbo language was gradually becoming extinct because some lgbo children could not speak the language following the failure of their parents to teach them.
A lecturer at the Department of English, University of Lagos, Dr. Sola Osoba, explained what could have informed the engineer’s son’s reaction to his father’s indigenous language. ”Many of us have a negative attitude to our languages. We want to show visitors that our children can speak English,” Osoba said.
Osoba warned that at the rate Nigerians encouraged their children to despise their indigenous languages, some of the languages might cease to exist in future. According to him, a language dies when it has no speakers. He explains that death of a language is what is called language extinction.
According to OnlineNigeria.com, out of 521 indigenous languages in the country, 510 are living languages, two are second languages without mother-tongue speakers, and nine are extinct.
The dead languages included Ajawa spoken in Bauchi State; Auyokawa in Jigawa State; Basa-Guma in Niger State; Gamo-Nigi, Bauchi State; Homa, Adamawa State; Kpati, Taraba State, Kubi, Bauchi State, Mawa, Bauchi State and Tsehenawa in Jigawa State.
One of the reasons Nigerian parents prefer use of English by their children is to enhance the competence of the young ones in the language, which is the formal means of communication in the country. A Lagos-based lawyer, who craved anonymity, said, ”English is the official language in the country. The earlier a child is competent in it, the better. He can learn the indigenous language later.”
But Osoba described as erroneous, the view that inability to speak indigenous local languages would promote competence in English. ”We learn English in a second language environment. We don‘t learn it in the native speakers’ environment. The fact that your child cannot speak your indigenous language does not guarantee his competence in English,” the lecturer said.
Osoba stated that when one considered process of language extinction, one would know that it was possible in Nigeria because of inter-tribal marriages and attitude to local languages.
He added, ”For instance, in a family, the husband may be Yoruba and the wife Igbo. Both of them may not understand each other‘s language. The language that is mutually understandable to them is English. To such a family, the problem is not a negative attitude.”
According to experts, the common process leading to language death occurs when a community of speakers of a language becomes bilingual and gradually shifts allegiance to the second language until the speakers stop using the original language. Language extinction can also occur when their speakers are wiped out by genocide or diseases.
Linguists also believe that a language can go into extinction if it is spoken by a few elderly people. If such speakers, for example, are 50 years and above, there is a possibility that the language will die.
Some languages are endangered when there is a possibility that they may go into extinction, According to Herman Batibo, in Language Decline and Death in Africa, a language is endangered when there are fewer than 5,000 people speaking it; when the speakers are minority and they have negative attitude to their language; and when parents no longer teach their children the language.
Advising Nigerians to protect their languages, Osoba said that more roles should be assigned to them. He suggested that the languages should be codified. The lecturer noted that some indigenous languages were not codified. Osoba also said that books and newspapers should be written in the languages.
Also, a former Dean of Faculty of Social SciencesUNILAG, Prof. Lai Olorode, said those who discouraged their children from speaking their languages were culturally illiterate. According to him, such children are always alienated and lack confidence. “Inability to speak indigenous languages does not make a child intelligent,” he said.
Olorode disclosed that some Nigerians had been coming home to get teachers who could teach their children indigenous languages. He wondered why those who were resident in the country should have negative attitudes to their languages.
According to him, with what is happening in the United States, particularly the inauguration of Barack Obama, every African should be proud of his culture and language. ”We are in the era of globalisation. We should not allow our languages to die,” he said.