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Saving indigenous languages from extinction

By Babatunde Ayedoju


In every human society, communication is one major component that cannot be done away with, as people must exchange ideas and thoughts with one another; and language is the major vehicle that drives this communication process. For proper understanding, language is a set of codes with meanings that every member of the social set up has agreed upon for the purpose of communication.

Like what is obtainable everywhere in the world, every ethnic group in Africa has its own language by which members communicate. Then, because of colonial rule which our forefathers experienced there are European languages that serve as common languages for people from diverse ethnic backgrounds.

For example, here in Nigeria, English is the lingua franca. Therefore, if a Yoruba man wants to communicate with an Igbo man, since they do not understand one another’s language, they will switch to English. Also, during formal gatherings and in schools, communication is done in English. The same thing is obtainable in many other parts of Africa, except that in some African countries the lingua franca is French, not English.

In this case, since all ethnic groups do not speak the same language and we must communicate with people from other ethnic backgrounds, one would have thought that English would be used for communication in the public and the indigenous languages in private. Alas, that is not the case. We now have a situation whereby even among people of the same ethnic group, communication is done in English. In fact, some parents now make it a taboo for their children to communicate in their indigenous languages which have been labelled as vernacular. Likewise, they would not let anybody speak the so-called vernacular to their children.

Consequently, our indigenous languages are being relegated to the background, as the population of people who speak foreign languages well but have no command of their mother tongue continues to swell. Thus, there are fears in some quarters that a bulk of our indigenous languages may go into extinction in the nearest future if nothing is done to salvage them.

Language scholars have estimated that approximately 10,000 spoken languages have existed but today only about 6,000 languages are still spoken, with more than half of these languages, especially in this part of the world, faced with the risk of being forgotten forever.

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This was buttressed in the address of former Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, at the 2017 Annual Round Table on Cultural Orientation, jointly organized by the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture and the National Institute for Cultural Orientation, NICO, in Kaduna where he stated that situation reports showed the country’s indigenous languages were endangered and could go into extinction in no distant future. He attributed this to a remarkable decline in the usage of our indigenous languages by children and youth who cannot read or write in their mother tongue.

Corroborating this alarm, a professor of Yoruba Language at the University of Ilorin, Olalere Adeyemi, stated that about 5,000 Languages, including Yoruba, which are spoken in Africa are going into extinction.

It must be noted that even the so-called three major languages in Nigeria (Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba) are not safe from this imminent danger of extinction. While Hausa language’s extinction does not look like it will happen soon, the case is not the same for the other two. For example, a language teacher and author of Ede Yoruba ko Gbodo Ku (Yoruba Language Must Not Die), Dahunsi Akinyemi, stated in 2017, that the Yoruba language could die out in 20 years or less, lamenting that many Yoruba children cannot pronounce even very basic and simple words in the language.

Likewise, a senior lecturer at the University of Benin, Maduabuchi Sennen Agbo, in a write-up titled: “Calls to use Nigerian languages at school are going unheard,” noted that calls for the compulsory teaching of Igbo had not been effectively implemented. He added that not only was there a severe shortage of Igbo teachers and teaching materials, but it also seemed that students were not interested in learning the language.

The challenge of Nigerian indigenous languages facing extinction was highlighted boldly when last year an aspirant in the forthcoming governorship election in Edo State, Asue Ighodalo, engaged an interpreter to announce his intention to his kinsmen in Esan South East Local Government Area of the state. This incident earned him knocks and criticism from people who dismissed him as “another foreign boy”, even though he claimed to be a “true Esan boy.”

Similar to this was the case of Gbadebo Rhodes-Vivour, Labour Party’s candidate at the Lagos State gubernatorial election last year, who stated in a television interview that he had to hire a Yoruba language tutor to help him improve on his command of the language.

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While it must be noted that efforts have been made to salvage our indigenous languages by teaching them in schools and producing educational materials in them, such efforts do not seem to have yielded results as much as they should. How then can we rescue our mother tongues from drowning in the ocean of the threat posed by foreign languages which colonial masters brought to us?

Since the threat to our indigenous languages began with parents not speaking same to their children, it is important to begin addressing the matter from that point. Therefore, Mr Odun Ofere, an English language teacher, pointed out that some parents choose to raise their children in English, so that those children would not feel inferior when they meet children from other ethnic groups or other parts of the world and they need to communicate. He added that some parents also raise their children in English because they want to compete with other parents whose children are already speaking English flawlessly.

Mr Ofere, however, said that a child will pick the indigenous language of his or her immediate environment, even if the parents do not make a deliberate effort to teach him or her the same. His words: “If my children are born in Yoruba land, they will pick the language naturally. The mother tongue will always take dominance.”

Talking about the possibility of indigenous languages going into extinction, Mr Ofere said that it would not happen. He said, “Our indigenous languages will survive. People had been talking about indigenous languages going into extinction before we were born but we still speak those languages. There will always be people to communicate with in our mother tongue because we can’t be in a formal setting always. I have friends whom I grew up with and when we meet we don’t communicate in English. Instead, we communicate in our dialect, not even in the general Yoruba language.”

As for the way to rescue indigenous languages, Mr Ofere who dwelt more on Yoruba language recommended that schools and parents should not teach English alone but deliberately teach vernacular, so that children can grow up with the two, saying that that was the method in the past. 

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He also advised teachers of indigenous languages to magnify their subjects by speaking the language to both colleagues and students, saying, “If I was a Yoruba language teacher, I would speak the language to all my colleagues and students every minute.

“Government can also mandate every student to learn one indigenous language. When I was in secondary school, it was mandated that every child should learn at least one indigenous language. We can make it mandatory that just as you can’t gain admission if you don’t pass English, so also you must pass an indigenous language before you can be admitted to a higher institution.”

Mrs. Nafisat Moshood, a Yoruba language teacher, lamented the attitude of parents who undermine indigenous languages by not teaching their children to speak what has been labelled vernacular. She said it is unfortunate that Yoruba children living in Yoruba land are not taught their mother tongue, whereas foreigners in faraway Europe are now learning and fluently speaking the same language we now place little or no value on.

Allaying the fear of people who believe they have to raise their children in English alone so that the children will speak English well, she said, “Training your children in their mother tongue does not stop them from understanding English because research has shown that at age five a child can learn at least five languages at a time.”

Dr Mrs. Kemi Adebola, a sociologist, noted that the speaking of vernacular had been forbidden for long, saying, “As far back as my time, speaking vernacular had been forbidden. We paid fine for it back then. It was meant to help us improve on our mastery of the English language. We never knew that it would be a threat to our indigenous languages.”

While saying that when you take away a people’s language, you have taken away at least 80 percent of their culture, Dr Adebola said, “It has taken away a big aspect of our culture. No wonder children stand up to say ‘good morning.’ Where ‘good morning’ originated from, nobody kneels down to greet.”

As a solution, she recommended that we should return to the practice of deliberately speaking our indigenous languages, adding that parents have a big role to play towards achieving it.

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