[lg policy] The language question in Nigeria

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Mon Nov 11 19:30:06 UTC 2013

The language question in Nigeria

   - Written by  Dare Adekanmbi
   - Monday, 11 November 2013 00:00
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*DARE ADEKANMBI* examines the question of national language  as it concerns
the proposed national confab.

THE ultimate goal or national aspiration of any politically organised
people is to foster unity and development of society and its people. The
extent to which this goal is realised informs the classification of
countries into developed, developing and underdeveloped moulds. In Nigeria,
like in many other countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, development
has always been measured in purely economic and political terms. Year after
year, managers of the country’s economy reel out figures of increase in
takings from Gross Domestic Products (GDP) and how those figures mirror the
robustness of the economy, even though many observers argue that the
benefit hardly trickles down to the man on the street, a reason they say
the number of pauperised citizens has continued to go up alarmingly and
paradoxically as more revenue accrues to government coffers.

This is why public affairs commentators and economists have posited that
the standard of living, that is, the extent to which citizens are able to
satisfy their needs, should be the veritable yardstick for economic

Next as a criterion for gauging development is the consideration given to
the political system in a country, that is, whether a country is operating
a democratic system of government or not. This is because the grand
narrative in political discourse is that democracy is the best form of
government. In modern world, the binary opposition between democracy and
any other form of government is too glaring and securing Western grants and
aids is tied to embracing this form of government. Any country that does
not embrace democracy, which promises the mass of the citizens life
abundant, is labeled a pariah state or a member of the ‘axis of evil’, to
use terms in international politics and diplomacy.

There is yet another group of commentators who posit that educational
advancement should determine the level of development of any country. It is
argued by the group that the quality of the citizens, rather than the
number of skyscrapers dotting the landscape, should be factored in as an
index of development.

[image: Prof Banjo]In all of the indices of national development, little
attention is given to language as a veritable tool for achieving the
seemingly elusive national development that the country pines after.
Professor Wale Adegbite, of the Department of English, Obafemi Awolowo
University, Ile Ife, explains this thus: “Generally, it is very rare to see
scholars other than linguists who relate issues of development to language,
since the latter is seen purely as no more than an instrument of
communication. But the link between language and development is more
fundamental than that. Language is the only creative property unique to
human beings as individuals. It is the only road to thinking, as Edward
Sapir puts it.”

*Linguistic diversity*
Nigeria is not only ethnically diverse but also linguistically
heterogeneous. Like other African and Asian countries, the country is a
multi-linguistic society and ranks one of the top 10 most linguistically
diverse countries with a total of 529 languages (
http://www.sil.org/ethnologue). According to language experts, linguistic
pluralism should be a source of blessing in terms of development to the
country and not a liability. It should be an asset for communication at the
local, national and international levels. For national communication, it is
supposed to be an invaluable energy infusion to attaining social,
political, cultural and other national goals.

In spite of the usefulness of languages, especially indigenous ones, some
of the 529 languages listed for Nigeria are already extinct, with others
already endangered and on death row. Of the 529 languages, 522 are living
and seven are extinct. And 22 of the living languages are said to be
institutional, while 80 are tagged developing; just as 358 are vigorous; 20
in trouble and 42 are dying.

*Prospect and problem of multilingualism*
Emeritus Professor Ayo Bamgbose, while stressing the importance of
indigenous languages in the country, said: “Language, apart from being a
marker of [image: Prof Bamgbose]identity, also marks individuality and
national sovereignty.” Other scholars have also posited that language is
the key to the heart of the people and a potent instrument to unlock their
knowledge, treasures and potentialities. Adegbite added that, “In most
cases, national development may seem to correlate with language
development, as the advanced nations of the world appear to be those who
have been able to efficiently manage and utilise their language resources.”

It has been argued by some language scholars that multilingual countries
like Nigeria can develop at a higher and faster rate if due attention is
given to language development. Proponents of this view are quick to cite
examples of the Asian tigers that were once below Nigeria in human capital
development index but which utilised their linguistic resources and
consequently are reaping the benefit of development rate that is almost
catching up with that of first world countries. Scholars note that Nigeria
today imports an awful lot of finished goods worth billions of naira from
the fast-industrialised Asian countries, leaving Nigeria’s balance of trade
with those countries in deficit.

For languages scholars in the country, the political will to effectively
coordinate language resources for national development has been lacking and
this is why the country ranks low in development index. Some of the
identified problems are: lack of proper language policy and planning;
mutual ethnic suspicion, political instability, elite syndrome and so on.

*English as a colonial heritage*
In addition to the more than 500 indigenous languages in the country, there
is also the all-conquering English language which co-exists with these
languages. English forayed into the country in the 16th century through the
European missionaries who came to make proselytes of Nigerians. At the
initial stage, they were interested in getting the people to read the
Bible. But later, their mission changed to bequeathing Western-type
education through English. Not only was English the medium of instruction
in schools, it was also taught as a subject.

As Professor Bamgbose put it, the colonial overlords had a clear-cut
language policy when they berthed on the Nigerian shores. The goal was to
make bilinguals out of Nigerians with dominance in English. In other words,
they wanted Nigerians to be able to function in at least two languages with
dominance in English, in line with the colonisation policy. And this they

Nationalistic feeling at Independence in 1960 necessitated the clamour for
a replacement of English which is seen as a colonial heritage.

According to Emeritus Professor Ayo Banjo, “Governments of the federation
have exerted increasing influence on education, and their first impulse was
to ‘downgrade’ the English language within the educational system as part
of the new self-assertion. It is understandable that some of the Nigerian
nationalists should look upon the English language as the symbol of
colonialism. To such nationalists, the indigenous cultures could not
possibly come back into their own unless the English language, together
with its cultural baggage, was, if not totally eliminated, at least
considerably reduced in importance in the national scheme of things… There
were other Nigerians who counseled caution, pointing out the load that the
language (English) carried both within and outside educational system,” he

[image: Prof. Adegbite]English has furthered its domineering influence on
the world as the most widely spoken and used global language. After 53
years of Independence, Nigeria has not been able to fight off English.
Today, it is the most prestigious language in the country. It is the
official language and plays the role of national language by default. It is
used in sophisticated commerce, in offices, judiciary, administration, and
in so many other domains of communication. English is not just taught as a
subject but is also the medium of instruction in schools. This development
has occasioned what Adegbite dubbed ‘overuse’ of English and ‘underuse’ of
the indigenous languages and the reason for “our collective language
failure and the consequent national kwashiorkor.” One of the major factors
responsible for this situation is the absence of language policy.

*Provisions on languages*
The common denominator in the views expressed by language experts is that
the country does not have a coherent language policy and that what some
scholars regard as having a semblance of language policy is the official
mention of language issue in some national documents like the 1999
Constitution and the National Policy on Education (NPE). In these
documents, there are eight provisions on language that touch on use in
government, education, politics, and so on. These provisions are listed

*Section 55 of the 1999 Constitution*
The business of the National Assembly shall be conducted in English
Nigerian indigenous languages, when desirable…
The business of a House of Assembly shall be conducted in the language(s)
of the immediate environment in each State, as the House may by resolution
approve, and in English.

*NPE states inter alia:*
In addition to appreciating the importance of a language in the educational
process and as means of preserving the people’s culture, the government
considers it to be in the interest of national unity that each child should
be encouraged to learn one of the three major languages other than his own
mother tongue. In this connection, the government considers the three major
languages in Nigeria to be Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba.

…Government will…ensure that the medium of instruction will be principally
the mother tongue or the language of the immediate community.

Government will see to it that the medium of instruction in the primary
school is initially the mother tongue or the language of the immediate
community and at a later stage English.

In selecting two Nigerian languages, students should study the languages of
their own area in addition to any of the three main Nigerian languages:
Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba, subject to availability of teacher. NPE paragraph
19 (14)- Junior Secondary.

It is also included in NPE that, “For smooth interaction with our
neighbours, it is desirable for Nigerians to speak French. Accordingly,
students shall be encouraged to learn French as a subject in the
curriculum, starting from the Junior Secondary School.

The objectives of the NPE is to see language as: a means of cultural
preservation, a tool to achieving individual and national bilingualism, as
a means of unification, development of local languages, and affirmation of
cultural pluralism and so on. These objectives are central to national

*Implementation fatigue*
While many states Houses of Assembly in the North employ the use of
indigenous language to conduct their business, only a few states in the
South of the country have ensured occasional conduct of legislative
business in Yoruba language. At the National Assembly, despite the fitting
of the hallowed chambers with devices that aid language translation, the
use of local languages as a means of promoting national cohesion has been
hampered by the prejudice against native languages. Some members have
argued that technical terms of legislative proceedings cannot be rendered
in the local languages. A lawmaker was reported to have said that embracing
local languages for government business would detract from the intelligence
of politicians.

For education purposes, the role assigned to native languages as the medium
of instruction at initial stage has been usurped by English because of a
combination of factors ranging from lack of will to enforce the provisions
to the prestige attached to English. Linguists lament that many education
entrepreneurs have excluded the teaching of indigenous languages from the
curriculum. These languages, according to language experts, are seen as
vernaculars and are prohibited, while the Ministry of Education at state
and federal levels watch unconcerned. One of the implications of ‘straight
for English’ policy in education, experts observe, is that pupils would at
best acquire basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS) and not
cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP).

Scholars have blamed the misfortune of the country in education on the
inability to implement these provisions. Consequently, a high rate of
failure is recorded in examination conducted by public examining bodies
like the National Examination Council (NECO), the West African Examination
Council (WAEC) and the Joint Admission Matriculation Board (JAMB). Except
for those studying indigenous languages in post-secondary level, experts
have also bemoaned the non-inclusion of a credit pass in local languages as
requirement for admission.

It has also been argued that the misplacement of priority in the sector is
the reason for the backwardness of the country in technological advancement
and why products such as toothpick and others that could have been locally
sourced are imported with hard currency. Late former Minister of Education,
Professor Babatunde Fafunwa once said: “Africans have been unable to invest
anything of note in the scientific field because we think in a foreign
language and this tends to inhibit our native intelligence. We are forced
early in life to imitate our erstwhile colonial masters in thought, word
and action. Yet, we know the imitators are not usually capable of original
thinking, neither are they inventive by nature.”

*The national language question*
Linguists have stressed the importance of a national language or national
languages as the case may be for any country desirous of development. For
Nigeria, English is playing the role of national language. In spite of its
ubiquity in the country, only about 20 per cent of the human population is
considered by experts to use English. Of this figure, opinion is divided as
to the actual percentage of those who use the language well. Language
experts have canvassed the view that, since the mass of citizens do not
have access to information about government programmes, national
development will continue to be a mirage as long as English is not
‘downgraded’ in status. Some proposals were put forward as solution to the
national language problem.

*Proposals on national language choice*
The proposals can be classified into two: unilingual approach (the choice
of a language) and multilingual approach (which favours the selection of
two or more languages). Some have argued that since the English language
seems to unite the country and is a modern code suitable for international
intelligibility, it should continue to play the role of a national language
until any of the major millionaire indigenous languages (Hausa, Igbo and
Yoruba) is ready to take up the role. Proponents of this submission are
also of the view that English is devoid of ethnic colouration and should
continue to play the role of a national language. They further posit that
there is an abundance of literature in English that could help in the
realisation of national objectives and goal.

There is also a proposal for the choice of Yoruba as a national language,
in view of its being the most developed indigenous language. A lot of
literature abounds on the language and it is widely spoken by a lot of
people in the Diaspora, just as enough manpower is available to dispense
knowledge in the language. This choice was knocked down with the argument
that the Yoruba people will dominate the country and exclude others.

The choice of Hausa has also been opposed. Hausa is said to be easy to
learn because it is not a tonal language. It is spoken in a number of
African countries and has been nominated as an international language for
discussion at the United Nations. However, the language is considered
inappropriate because of inadequate literate manpower to propagate it.
Ethnic sentiment added to the problem against the choice of Hausa, as well
as Igbo, which is said to be the least developed and modernised of the
three major languages.

Proposal for the choice of pidgin English has not sailed through because of
the status conferred on it as the language of the unlettered. Suggestion of
GBORUSA (acronyms formed from I(gbo), Yo(ru)ba and Hau(sa) languages) or
GUOSA or even WAZOBIA, and so on, have been opposed on the strength of the
argument that human languages are natural and it will be an aberration to
blend languages into one to produce expressions such as ‘Ina son je akpu’
(I want to eat akpu). Professor Bamgbose dismissed the choice, saying “of
the possible candidates for selection as a unilingual model, some can be
dismissed out of hand. In this group, I include pidgin, artificial language
and any minority language.

The issue of national language is relatively akin to the national language
question which queries how the country can blend its multi-ethnic
nationalities into a nation. For Professor Adegbite, the solution lies
retaining English as the national language at the national level, while
delimiting its roles at state and local government levels. The don even
suggested the use of Nigerianised English. He suggested complementary roles
for English and the indigenous languages, where

*The Nexus between confab and national language issue*
Observers opine that since the Presidential Advisory Committee on National
Dialogue led by Dr Femi Okurounmu, has been saddled with the task of
collating the views of Nigerians on how they want the country to be
governed and run, the Committee should utilise well the opportunity to
re-work the country by stimulating discussions on language development,
which is considered to have been relegated to the background in national
discourse. The elite domination of the political space has been fingered as
one of the reasons for lack of action on language development, policy
formulation and implementation. Marxist consideration is given to this, as
the elite are seen as promoting the use of English for class preservation
and to maintain suppression of the majority by the minority.

Language activists have also raised issues that touch on the need to
preserve indigenous languages and fight Englishisation of the world. For
instance, some of the millionaire languages have been said to risk going
into extinction if concerted efforts are not quickly made to rescue them.
It has also been suggested that the country should not be hoping for
technology transfer when it can evolve its own technology and fuel national
development through the development of its native languages.


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