Nigeria’s Linguistic policy: Why Not Try Pidgin (1)

(By Femi Oni)

It is no gainsaying the fact that with the development and expansion of the Internet, there has been increased access to Nigerian languages. On the World Wide Web, there are over 500 websites/WebPages that address some aspect of Nigerian languages, provide resources and other information in and on Nigerian languages, including Ethnologue of Nigerian languages, which provides information on all the languages of the various ethnic of Nigeria. This wealth of information on and interest in Nigerian languages is another manifestation of globalisation. Without much gainsaying, Nigerian languages have been inserted on the world stage as a result of easy access to the Internet.

LANGUAGE serves as a mirror to a society and its cultural practices. It is through the magic of language that man comes eventually to understand to an impressive degree the environment in which he lives and, still more surprising, gains an insight into his own nature and his own condition. Language cannot be the same in terms of the assigned role and value, and it is worth mentioning that when two or more communities come together, a lingua franca or common language of communication becomes a necessity.

  In the history of many African languages, Europeans were the “authorities” developing orthographies, coining terms, compiling dictionaries and grammars, translating books, in particular the Bible. Africans addressing their own languages, in their own right is indeed an essential component of the effort to empower African languages. One might ask: what is the relationship between Nigerian languages and globalisation? Globalisation is thought of by some as the world getting smaller, the global village, so to speak. In this conception, the world would become unipolar, under the influence of giant transnational corporations, Western governments and multilateral institutions. If the world is getting smaller, then we would presumably need fewer languages to communicate, which would mean that some languages would become less important, and eventually superfluous. Raloff Janet postulates that 90 per cent of the world’s languages will become extinct this century. Howbeit, I believe that the argument of the world becoming a smaller village is an attempt to justify the use of foreign languages rather than Nigerian languages as languages of education in Nigerian states.

  It is no gainsaying the fact that with the development and expansion of the Internet, there has been increased access to Nigerian languages. On the World Wide Web, there are over 500 websites/WebPages that address some aspect of Nigerian languages, provide resources and other information in and on Nigerian languages, including Ethnologue of Nigerian languages, which provides information on all the languages of the various ethnic of Nigeria. This wealth of information on and interest in Nigerian languages is another manifestation of globalisation. Without much gainsaying, Nigerian languages have been inserted on the world stage as a result of easy access to the Internet.

  The flip side of this issue, however, is what is happening in Nigeria. The colonial legacy has rendered Nigerian languages impotent. While they are spoken more widely throughout Nigerian states than foreign languages, their respectability as conveyors of important, high status knowledge is in question.   This is manifested most clearly in the fact that most Nigerian states continue to use the former colonial language as the primary language of formal education. In most African countries education through the medium of the mother tongue may occur for the first few years of primary school, but the switch is then made to the European language. It should, however, be noted that languages are vehicles for producing knowledge – for creating, encoding, sustaining, and ultimately transmitting indigenous knowledge, the cultural knowledge and patterns of behaviour of the society. Through lack of use of Nigerian languages in the educational domain, a wealth of indigenous knowledge is being locked away in these languages, and is gradually being lost as the custodians of this knowledge pass on.

  It should be noted that knowledge and skills existed before the entrance of European explorers, missionaries, administrators on the Nigerian stage unfortunately; most of these skills and knowledge have been replaced with Europeans’ conception of what was valued. One of the ways in which the loss of some of this indigenous knowledge occurred was through formal education which was constructed by the Europeans in their languages. Regrettably, in the process of translating, coining vocabulary and developing grammar books in Nigerian languages which were reflective of settler and missionary ideology. They coined phrases and words useful for talking about Nigerians, not engaging them. They sought to understand Nigerian ethics on their own terms, and any conceptions that clashed with their own perceptions were marginalised and devalued. One result of the disuse of Nigerian languages in education, and the devaluation of the knowledge embodied in these languages, is the positioning of Nigeria as a receiver rather than a contributor. Its natural resources are good to be transported to the West to be developed and then returned to Nigeria in manufactured products or as development aid. The question that ought to have been asked the British imperialists is Why not help them improve their social, economic and political activities via the indigenous languages, rather than insisting upon them learning English, before modern technology can be introduced to them?

   A lingua franca or national language is a language described by linguists as that used by all the people in a country and which serves as symbol by national awareness. English is therefore misconstrued in this respect that it is taught all over Nigeria and also has every part of the country as its constituency geographically. One basic fact is that its area of coverage or ethnic constituency still remains small. According to Section 55 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria which relates to official language of communication, it stated as follows: The business of the National Assembly shall be conducted in English, Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba when adequate arrangements have been made from there. For now, however, apart from English Language which has been in use before and after independence, no one has been accepted as a national language among Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo, even though the trio known as ‘WAZOBIA’ have long been groomed for that but have yet to materialise.

   However, skeptics are good to point out that the multiplicity of Nigerian languages is the major inhibiting factor for the adoption of an indigenous language as a lingua franca. We have been placed in the midst of the multiplicity of languages in this great but vast country. It becomes a little bit hard to determine which of the languages is to be recommended as lingua franca to be used centrally for easy communication. However, with the hindsight of the ethnic factor that has tended to polarise one ethnic group against the other, selecting one of these languages as a lingua franca would tend to create tensions and ethnic strife. Hence, the European language is thus a neutral language that is not associated with any one ethnic group. But the question that needs to be answered is what has been the cost of this alleged neutrality?

  With recourse to China, Malaysia amongst others newly acknowledged developed countries, it should be noted that these countries have been able to develop as a result of adopting their own indigenous language from beginning to end of education. Somehow, Nigerians are quick to find all sorts of accursed reasons why in the case of Nigeria this should be different. I stand to be corrected, but I want to argue that no society in the world has developed in a sustained and democratic fashion on the basis of a borrowed or colonial language. Remarkable achievements were recorded more in science, mathematics, literature, medicine and architecture compared to post colonial era where the adoption of a British language hold the reins. Moreover, the idyllic ambience that pervaded the Nigerian political space during the pre-adoption of foreign language cannot be compared to the present political milieu where life can best be described as short, nasty and brutish.

To be continued

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