Nigeria: Half a thousand languages and MDGs (1)

By Samuel Okopi
“But many will agree that language is the vehicle of culture and a core part of a people’s identity. Many will agree that some concepts in their native tongue are unique to that tongue. It is through language that the wisdom, achievements and values of a community are passed down from one generation to another; not just for the good of that community but potentially for that all of mankind!’
OUR country is now 100 years old. In the face of different ethnic tensions plaguing our nation, many Nigerians are asking themselves an important question: What is the practical value of our many languages?
   Two years ago, when I posted on The Green Heritage Facebook page, that Nigeria has the third highest number of languages in the world (after Indonesia and Papua New Guinea) and that her languages account for 7 per cent of the world total, many Nigerians sharply criticised the post, insisting that there is nothing to be proud of in having so many languages. The same reaction was drawn out OL I posted on the page that Taraba State in North-eastern Nigeria, has more languages than 30 African countries. In discussions I have had with friends, many have argued that Nigeria’s many languages do her no good but instead, are the cause of the constant ethnic strife, poverty and backwardness that plague our nation.
   But many will agree that language is the vehicle of culture and a core part of a people’s identity. Many will agree that some concepts in their native tongue are unique to that tongue. It is through language that the wisdom, achievements and values of a community are passed down from one generation to another; not just for the good of that community but potentially for that all of mankind! No wonder UNESCO said in its article, Languages Matter! That: “Languages, with their complex implications for identity, communication, social integration, education and development, are of strategic importance for people and the planet.”
   Take a look at Australia which has (according to SIL International’s Ethnologue) 241 indigenous languages. Australia knows the value of its diverse linguistic heritage, even though it is highly developed as the 2013 Human Development Report published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) clearly shows. In that report, Australia came second after Norway in the Human Development Index (HDI) rankings of 186 countries, and was rated as having Very High Human Development, while Nigeria came at a distant 153, and was classed under Low Human Development with a host of other African countries.
   So how has Australia shown it values its linguistic heritage? Paul Lynch, a past Minister of Aboriginal Affairs under the Government of New South Wales, Australia, said during his tenure: “New South Wales has a proud record of recording and teaching Aboriginal languages…. For more than 20 years, Aboriginal people have made it clear that they want their languages back as a vital part of their culture, identity and pride.” To give them their language back, the New South Wales Government (which is just a state in Australia) rolled out $300,000 in 2010, as grants to support language projects. This is in addition to over $1 million it committed to about 60 aboriginal language projects, within 2005-2010.
   You might still be wondering why it is important to invest in our many languages. You be the judge as we examine how Nigeria’s indigenous languages can help her in achieving three of the eight Millennium Development Goals, (MDGs) and continue to do so even after the target date of 2015.
  The first MDG is eradicating extreme poverty and hunger. Someone wouldn’t be speaking Greek if he says to you that millions of Nigerians are living in abject poverty. The same 2013 UNDP Human Development Report states that 54.1 per cent of Nigerians are MPI poor; that is, poor by the standards of the Multidimensional Poverty Index it computes using household deprivations in education, health and standard of living.
   Now, if about 80 million Nigerians are MPI poor, and, according to CIA World Fact book, about this same number are illiterate, you can only imagine how important it is to clearly convey critical information in the areas of health, agriculture, and other basic areas of livelihood, to the vast section of our population that are both poor and illiterate. A 2012 World Bank report puts our rural population at 50.20 per cent of our total population. Illiteracy is more prevalent in our rural areas, and it is there that we have the largest population of people actively speaking our many indigenous languages. So, drawing this group out of poverty and hunger can only be done by communicating strategies, technologies and other important ideas to them in a language they understand—their mother tongue.
   Mother tongue also becomes a window through which to approach the problem of hunger and poverty from the worldview of the cultural environment in which it manifests. The UNESCO World Report titled ‘Investing in Cultural Diversity and Intercultural Dialogue’ gives an insightful perspective on this last point: “It is often the ways in which the poor are perceived or perceive themselves that relegates them to situations of inferiority, constituting a major obstacle to their empowerment…. By looking at poverty from the inside and with a clear commitment to human-rights-based poverty eradication, local solutions can often be found in concert with the communities involved, who can themselves become the ones who find a way out of poverty.”
  SIL International gives very practical illustrations of how the language of a community can help alleviate poverty. One is that of a farmer in Benin Republic who took literacy classes in his mother tongue and as a result had better access to information about improved farming methods, the use of fertilisers and other products. Of course, these pieces of information were encoded in his mother tongue. The other case is that of a Togolese farmer who took adult literacy classes in his mother tongue. This enabled him to read a topic on managing finances and resources, and he learnt about diversification in the process. It changed his life. He put the ideas he got to practice and started breeding goats and chickens in addition to his traditional farming, thereby increasing his income and being able to pay his children’s school fees.
  Talking of children, the second MDG is directed at achieving universal primary education. The bitter truth is, learning another language is a difficult thing for many people. This is the single greatest barrier to literacy in many cases. I have come across incredibly insightful or mathematically gifted kids who could barely speak or understand English. But then, many will be quick to assume that only the most intelligent kids or adults in the rural areas get to learn English faster.
   A friend of mine, who served out his NYSC in a rural area in Niger State, spoke of how difficult it was for him to teach the class assigned to him. He started with English, no success. He switched to pidgin, still no success. His smattering Hausa didn’t help either. So, he concluded that the students were incredibly dull and unwilling to learn, and this he continually sang to my ears. But he was wrong.
   The reason those children seemed stupid and stubborn is that they were not taught in Kambari, their local language, or in Hausa, the regional language. They were not taught with books written and conceptualized in the worldview of Kambari or Hausa.
   We need to actively preserve our languages, and the various cultural images, stories and symbols they have birthed so we can speak to the hearts and minds of those children who can only communicate in their first language or the dominant language of the region they reside. In his paper on language policy and mother tongue education in Nigeria, B.M Mbah, a linguist in UNN, highlighted the fact that teaching in a child’s mother tongue is much better. He brought up the Ife Six Year project in which students were separated into two groups: One group was taught all subjects in English, and the other was taught all subjects, except English, in Yoruba. In the final exams, the students who were taught in Yoruba fared better than those taught in English.
• To be continued.

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