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Language Shift in Nigeria: A Call for Action

Language Shift in Nigeria: A Call for Action

By Ozioma Okey-Kalu

The English language in Nigeria is gradually sliding away from its position as a second language to that of a first language. Observation has shown that most young children, especially those in urban areas, encounter challenges using their Nigerian indigenous languages. In fact, the younger they are, the more incomprehensible the native language is to them. Children below school age have shown very low level of competency in their mother tongue but a very high one in either English or Nigerian Pidgin. The reason behind this could be because the school-age children have been exposed to their mother tongue in school or other places they had contact with people outside their families. English is, indeed, gradually becoming Nigeria’s first language.

A number of campaigns have been carried out by different individuals and organisations to discourage children having English as their first language (L1) in Nigeria. They made several efforts to keep English in its position as the second language (L2), but they forgot one thing – English is spreading and seeping into the system as a result of the needs for the language. Let’s take a look at these needs one after the other.

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When English came into Nigeria, it did so to satisfy the needs of the English missionaries and the colonial administrators. Some people will say that the missionaries taught this language in schools so that the new converts can read the bible. This is true, but it is just one of the needs back then. The language was mainly brought into the system because without it there will be no common language through which the administrators could enforce their authorities on the Nigerian natives. English became the language of the government from the colonial era. With time, Nigerians began to cherish this language because one’s ability to speak and understand it, irrespective of how ungrammatical it was, was an indicator of one’s close association with the ‘Masters’. English from that day assumed a prestigious position in the country.

Now, the colonialists have gone, but the language is still making waves throughout the country. One could not help but wonder why. The truth is that the ‘need’ is still there, and is even expanding. The ‘White Man’, during his reign in Nigeria, brought together different people from different autonomous communities that speak different languages and have different cultures and kept them under one community known as Nigeria. Today, Nigeria can boast of about 500 indigenous languages (beside English and Nigerian Pidgin) and 250 ethnic groups. The only language, or languages, that can bind all these languages, peoples and cultures are the English language, and, of course, the Nigerian Pidgin. This is the main reason English is spoken more in urban areas than in rural parts, because people from other ethnic groups migrate more to urban areas.

What is more? The need for English also comes because it is the world’s lingua franca. Even countries that do not hitherto use the language now employ English language teachers and pay them heavily just because they want to have knowledge of the language. The need to interact with the outside world encourages the survival and permeation of English into many Nigerian homes.

Speaking of Nigerian homes, a lot of parents frown at friends, relatives and strangers speaking any native Nigerian languages to their children and wards. A woman recounted of how she told her domestic staff not to talk to her children unless they can speak the ‘Queen’s English’. Another spoke of how she discourages her children spending time in their homestead because people there speak their native language or ungrammatical English. This group of people belongs to those who need English because of the social class it will place them in. Truly, the ability of one to speak good English in Nigeria places one among the higher class in the community.

The result of these factors is that English is gradually taking up the position of the L1 while Nigerian indigenous languages are now learnt as L2 or L3, that is if at all it is learnt. This is a call for concern because these native languages could slide into extinction if they fail to find speakers. This is mainly possible if the users of the languages fail to pass it on to the younger generations. If these speakers die off, the languages die with them, especially if it does not have a written form, such as literature.

So what is the way out? Feasible and workable solutions should be sorted and implemented. I will suggest the following:

  1. Parents should encourage their children to be multilingual – the more the languages they learn and use, the better. I am not going to propose the language parents should choose as their children’s L1, but I will propose that they should not be uncomfortable if their children learn their native languages as this will not hinder their proficiency in English. This way, the native languages will continue to have speakers, even if they use them only when the needs come up.
  2. Nigerian schools – nursery, primary and post-primary – should be enforced to teach the native language of their domiciled community. This means that it is not only the Nigerian major languages that should be taught in schools, but all the existing Nigerian indigenous languages. This will encourage the owners of different native languages to develop their languages more. Of course, for this policy to be more effective, the examination bodies in Nigeria will have to acknowledge these languages by creating examination curriculum and papers for them. The Ministry of Education in the States will then ensure that these languages are made compulsory subjects in their schools.
  3. Literary artists are custodians of cultures and languages. They should endeavour to bring their native languages into their literary works. They can do this by writing the entire work in their native language, or by code-switching, code-mixing and borrowing. These literary devices are very important in writing folktales, myths and legends of a community. A published literary work can withstand the passage of time and has no geographical boundary. In other words, it can preserve and transmit languages.
  4. Primary and secondary schools in Anambra State of Nigeria observe every Wednesday as Cultural Day, whereby pupils and students wear Nigerian cultural attire to school and are free to interact in Igbo language during school hours. This policy is not the same thing with the Cultural Day observed by some Nigerian private owned schools, which is done once or twice in a year. Here, the students wear cultural attires of different ethnic groups, even the ones that are not Nigerian, and still speak English. Should all the States of the federation adopt the cultural day policy created in Anambra State, there will be little or no worries about the survival of the Nigerian indigenous languages.
  5. The economic situation of the country has taken the interest of researchers away from sociolinguistic situations in the country. No raw data could be found on languages used by Nigerians. This is a call to different researchers and research institutions to shift their gaze towards the disappearance of Nigerian languages and to proffer solutions towards their maintenance. Raw data should also be collected, analysed and stored by government MDAs, such as National Bureau of Statistics and Ministry of Arts and Culture, and non-governmental organisations to aid in the research.

In conclusion, Nigeria needs the English language, at least for a long time to come. Some people may advocate for one Nigerian language to be adopted as our lingua franca and official language. But then, whose language will be given this honour? Let us not worry about how to send the English language away. Let our headache be how we can strike a balance between our indigenous languages and the English language; we need them all. The disappearance of our indigenous language will definitely lead to the loss of our culture, and our identity.

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