Saturday, June 19, 2010

Functional Igbo - Saving a Fading Language

By Ebenezer Edohasim, Daily Champion/All Africa

SOME years back, this writer, who is Igbo, visited a fellow Igbo family based in Lagos and was discussing in Igbo language with the head of the family.

Interestingly, the man's six-year old daughter called Nkonye, who was in primary two then, clung to her father, obviously listening to our discussion.

Suddenly, the little girl burst into laughter, rushed to her mother in the near by kitchen, and told her while still laughing that myself and her father were speaking French.

The father who felt embarrassed looked into my eyes in disappointment. I told him that if his six year old child could not identify her mother tongue, he and the wife are in real trouble.

Again, just some weeks ago at Ogudu, Lagos where we reside, my wife called a girl that hawks plantain because she wanted to buy. I asked the girl of her name and she said Ngozi, an obvious indication that she is Igbo by tribe.

Then I asked her in Igbo, Ngozi, Kedu obodo unu na ala Igbo? Meaning, Ngozi where is your town in Igbo land? She looked a bit embarrassed at my question, lifted her hands to partially cover her face apparently in shame and answered me in English Language; "I don't understand Igbo Language".

Honestly, I was disappointed. And I then asked her in English how old she was and she said 18 years. I enquired how often she travels to her home town and she said that she visited her Uturu town in Abia State only once, and that was when she was still a toddler and she cannot on her own travel home.

Cultural alienation you may say, but the reality is that there are so many Nkonyes and Ngozis born to Igbo parents scattered all over the world outside Igbo land, and this is a very disturbing signal that if Igbo Language is not revived it risks extinction in some years ahead.

However, despite lack of interest and carefree attitude of some Igbo parents to teach their children born outside Igbo land how to speak their mother tongue, one woman who took the bull by the horns to ensure her children and grand children who were already losing cultural touch with their roots, due to their inability to speak their mother tongue is Odoziaku Comfort Nwabuogo Ubosi.

She wrote a practical guide, Functional Igbo, which is indeed beginners guide to Igbo Language.

Odozoaku Ubosi, who is aging gracefully as she still looks elegant, very fresh and gorgeous at 71, told this writer that she was motivated to write the book because of the near heart break she almost suffered when she discovered that her children and grand children were not all that interested in speaking their mother tongue.

Equally, she was inspired to document the 98 page colourful book at a "time when there is suddenly an intense awareness that the Igbo language has actually gone out of fashion and the English Language has assumed the status symbol height at all levels within the Igbo system".

Again, her quest to persuade her children and grand children in particular to speak their mother tongue made her to start drawing sketches on functional Igbo which some people later encouraged her to put in book form to encourage learning of the language, not only by her own children but everybody interested in speaking the language.

That bold attempt culminated in the publishing of the book and its subsequent presentation to the public in Lagos last March. It was an occasion attended by prominent Igbos, with the five state governors in Igbo land ably represented.

A high percentage of the book deals with everyday situations and activities in the home, school or such other places. It begins with the basic Igbo alphabets commonly called abidii in Igbo parlance.

Other areas of interest are numerals, family relationships and greetings, simple instructions with relevant questions and answers, colours, some fruits, food and household items, and activities around the home.

The author also wrote on prepositions, words and opposites, with illustrations on parts of the body, few wearing apparels, cosmetics and personal hygiene. Others are animals and birds, means of transportation and traveling and finally types of buildings.

One thing the author handled very well was the use of photographs in illustrating all aspects of teachings in the book, which makes it a delight to readers, most especially children who learn faster with pictorials and diagrams.

The professional graphic touch added to aesthetics of the publication which is capable of compelling the reader to flip from page to page in order to appreciate various beautiful designs on the pages.

Equally, the quality of the bond paper used in the printing of the work is another plus as it puts this publication in a position where it could stand out in any local or international book competition in terms of paper and production quality.

The glossy bond paper of high grammage registered the colours very well, making it sharp and inviting to the eyes. On quality of production, it is a book anybody who sees it must like to open the pages to peruse the content.

There is a complimentary DVD attached to each book which gives the buyer the option of sitting comfortably to watch the electronic copy. It is available in some bookshops and supermarkets both at home and abroad, and at affordable price.

Irrespective of the accolades this vital book is receiving among Igbo and non Igbo, it major minus is that the author did not write most parts of the book in the standard or central Igbo, normally used in writing Igbo texts.

For instance, she used afele instead of efere, anala for anara, mvo instead of mbo, oloma for oroma, okwulu instead of okwuru. In numerical, she used ili na ofu for iri na otu and ili na ito instead of iri na ato among others.

However, she admitted that she wrote in her native Nibo, partly Onitsha and Awka dialects because she initially intended to address the short comings of her children and grand children in speaking the language, therefore, "they may be confused if it is in any other dialect, because that is not what they hear grandma speak"

She further attested that "Functional Igbo is written to motivate and encourage both children and parents to dialogue in the child's mother tongue. Therefore this simple book from the heart of a grandma is not expected to generate any academic heat or controversy as to Igbo grammar or correctness.

"I did not study the language at any examination level, so I take full responsibility for any lapses contained therein."

The author also affirmed that "if this book can draw attention of parents and grandparents to the danger of not passing down to their children and grandchildren, the language (Igbo) or any other mother tongue, for that matter, it would have achieved its purpose".

For Professor Chinyere Ohiri-Anicha of the University of Lagos, who wrote the book's foreword,

"Since, the writer had stated that the major objective of the book was to provide opportunity to be able to communicate with grand children, I had no problem with her choice of dialect.

"My main contribution is to ensure the manuscript conform as much as possible, to Igbo orthography"

Odoziaku Ubosi told this writer that the standard or central Igbo version of Functional Igbo is ready and shall in a short time be in the market for those interested in reading that edition.

She equally disclosed that there is a future plan to translate the book into other languages in Nigeria, especially Yoruba and Hausa.

The author regretted the apathy associated with the study of vernacular in Nigerian schools as those who study them were looked down upon by their peers, and therefore, called on federal and state government to package incentives to students who study vernacular to save our native languages from extinction.

"Governments could employ vernacular teaches on special salary scale and send them to various states, where they shall be visiting the schools in turn to teach native languages.

"Besides, they should make it compulsory for any secondary school student to pass his mother tongue and one other Nigerian language at the senior secondary school certificate level instead of the emphasis in acquiring English which is foreign".

She praised Governor Peter Obi of Anambra State for taking steps to revive Igbo language in the state and the upgrading of Ahiajoku Lecture series to an institute by Imo State Governor, Chief Ikedi Ohakim, and thereby promoting Igbo culture.

The author equally appealed to all Igbo governors to work towards upholding and preserving viable Igbo customs and traditions.

Her appreciation goes to Ndigbo Lagos and Otu Ide Ndi Igbo which offered invaluable moral and financial support to make the publication of the book a dream come true.

Odoziaku Ubosi, an educationist, holds BA (Hons) in History, M.ED in Guidance and Counseling and taught in many schools across the country before retiring in 1991 from the Lagos State Schools of Administration as a director.

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