Save Nigeria’s Mother Tongues

UNESCO deserves commendation for instituting the International Mother Tongue Day first observed on February 21, 2000. It is symbolic, for it was particularly chosen to honour four students who stood against all odds for the reinstatement of their mother tongue as a national language in Eastern Pakistan. The Bengali-speaking people who constituted the majority of the province demanded inauguration of their language as the official language, as opposed to Urdu which the government had instituted as a national language. The students who joined in the mass protest and extensive campaigning for their right died in the process.
They did not die in vain, however. The government resisted the protesters initially but gave in on February 21, 1952. And Bengali became the official language in Pakistan on February 29, 1956.
It is almost impossible to find any group of Nigerians protesting for recognition of their indigenous language like the heroic students from Pakistan. The mark of an “educated” person in Nigeria is their ability to speak English. If you chatted with friends in your mother tongue, you are considered a “villager”. Of the three major languages (out of perhaps 300 others), the most neglected has been Igbo; Yoruba comes second, and Hausa next. Yet, most of those who speak English in Nigeria do not even speak it well: they cannot pronounce words correctly, and, when they write, they murder the language with bad grammar.
A “de-culturised” society, it is said, breeds homosexuality and total failure of systems resulting in senseless murders and mutilations, lack of respect for societal symbols – just about everything we are witnessing in Nigeria today. Is it any wonder that today’s children no longer recognize crimes as crimes? Is it strange that suicide bombing, once thought to be alien, has found a home in Nigeria today?
The theorists of languages predict that several years of mother-tongue instruction always lead to a better second-language acquisition than being instructed in that second language from the first day of school. Today, many countries are looking for novel ways to ensure the easiest and most effective learning method for their students: mother tongue is canvassed as one of the ways.
Not yet in Nigeria. Is there any educated Nigerian today that does not consider his native tongue inferior to the English language? As minister of education in the late 1980s, Prof. Babs Fafunwa ensured that every student studied a Nigerian language. He had quoted from a study conducted then that showed students would learn better if they were taught all subjects in their mother tongue. And we believe he was right. How many books today are written in Ijaw, Urhobo or Gwari? History has been abolished in Nigerian schools, and the study of indigenous languages is threatened also.
Where are the proud speakers and writers of the Igbo language today? Many “educated” Igbo avoid speaking the language even in their own homes. Apparently in a bid to rebuke such foolish people, Ndigbo in the United States annually celebrate their heritage. One’s language is their identity, for everyone thinks in his language. Igbo parents who discourage their kids from speaking the language are fools who deserve 10 years in jail.
Those whose language is on the brink of extinction like Ndigbo would do well to think deeply and begin to walk back from the brink. Nigerians, especially the “nouveau elite” members, are reminded that English is a borrowed language and can neither convey nor institutionalise our core values in children. It cannot substitute for any of our local languages. Wa, zo, bia all Nigerians. Shame on any tribe that allows its mother tongue to go into extinction!
The Hausa have an adage, “Whoever leaves home, the home leaves it.” Our first language, that beautiful sound we heard while still in the womb, plays an important role in shaping our thoughts and emotions. A child’s psychological and personality development depends largely on what has been conveyed through the mother tongue. Our heritage, cultural and traditional values are all preserved in the mother tongue – it’s our identity, a reflection of who we are and what we stand for. And who would disagree with the great Nelson Mandela? “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
In the face of the multicultural diversity that has led to many conflicts in Nigeria, we should celebrate this diversity and appreciate its strength and power. Parents are urged to make concerted efforts to help their children develop good literacy skills in their first language. Education policymakers in countries with multiple languages such as Nigeria should continue the efforts of people like Fafunwa.

With: The Oracle Today

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