[lg policy] How parents limit their children by neglecting local languages

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Sat May 12 11:05:56 EDT 2018

 How parents limit their children by neglecting local languages
Posted By: Hannah OJO <http://thenationonlineng.net/author/tunde/> On: May
12, 2018 In: Saturday Magazine
parents limit their children by neglecting local languages&body=How parents
limit their children by neglecting local languages
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   - *The dangers, by experts*

Given their penchant for choosing native names with quintessential meaning
for their children, one would be forgiven to vouch for the cultural
identity consciousness of Nigerian parents. This is because most given
names across the various tribes of Nigeria tell a story.  However, the
essence of the identity consciousness pales the moment one realizes that a
four -year-old born in the south western part of Nigeria, who has been
named Oluwafirewamiri (God has located me with favour), cannot hold a
conversation in a mother tongue but English.

There is a growing trend in Nigeria where parents shy away from speaking
their native languages to children while adopting English as a means of
communication. The tendency is fuelled by the belief that English, as the
world’s foremost language of wider communication and opportunity, signifies
upward mobility and class. However, research suggests that putting a cap on
the number of languages a child is exposed to is a disservice, as such
children are denied the ability to acquire language skills, which can be
beneficial to both local and global communities.

A language expert, Ignatius Usar, told The Nation that the child language
acquisition theory clearly explains that   children are born with a
capacity to learn various languages while growing up, since their minds are
a tabula rasa–plain slate.

“It is as a child grows that experiences, including languages, are written
on that slate. That is why a child has capacity for many languages than
adults”, he said.

Describing the decision of parents who neglect communicating with their
children in the mother tongue as poor judgment, Usar also lamented the fact
that virtually all indigenous Nigerian languages are threatened since
parents are not interested in the generational transfer of language as part
of the cultural identity.

Agreeing that intermarriages could be a reason why some parents insist on
their wards speaking English, he also conceded to the fact the
acceptability of indigenous languages for early childhood education has not
been helped by the apparent lack of a language policy in Nigeria.

“Nigeria’s language policy is geared towards English and to make matters
worse, we are promoting French and Arabic. When we do that as a matter of
policy, we are keeping our languages down and promoting other languages.
For instance, we have a Nigerian French language village in Badagry, then
we have another one for Arabic somewhere in the North, but we do not have a
centre for the study of any Nigerian language,” the linguist lamented.

The low acceptance of indigenous language as a medium of instructions
during childhood development is a global problem not limited to Nigeria. As
English continues to gain preeminence as a global language, some countries
around the world come up with deliberate language policies to ensure their
indigenous languages do not go into extinction.

However, that is not the case in Nigeria where English has continued to
gain more grounds, to the extent that many parents, both literate and
illiterate, invest time and money in ensuring their children learn to speak
English, even though scientific evidence suggests that children who first
learn to read and write in their native languages learn all subjects faster.

Nigeria’s national policy on education, initiated in the 80s, also
recognized this and there was a resolution that early childhood education
should be taught in a child’s mother tongue or language of the immediate
environment. Till date, the resolution has been a policy on paper that has
not seen the light of the day. One of the major hindrances to the policy is
that except in remote areas, many teachers do not speak the language of the
immediate community since Nigeria has over 400 languages. Another practical
consideration is that text books and instructions materials are written in
English. Majority of the indigenous languages are not codified; hence they
are not available in written documents.

Despite these challenges, Usar believes that progress can still be made if
there are deliberate attempts to ensure that indigenous languages are

“Language is a living thing. It is born, it grows, and it dies. If you want
to keep a language alive, what we suggest is that you codify by ensuring
there is a literature for it that can be transferred from one generation to
another. This is the area where Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo, the three major
indigenous languages can edge out other languages”, Usar submitted.

The apathy for indigenous languages amongst Nigerian parents is not only
restricted to the preference for English as language of communication. It’s
also extended to the point that parents want their children to speak in
British and American accent.

*The craze for British and American accent*

Ayanfeoluwa Lawal, a diction and elocution coach, has created a niche for
herself in the business of teaching people how to speak well. What
confounds her, however, is the encounter of parents and school owners who
approach her to teach their children the British accent.

“We are in a generation of parents who want their children to sound
differently.  It’s a misplaced priority and I’m so against acquiring a
foreign accent when it’s not coming to you naturally because the best you
can be is fake. This is the in-thing in schools right now”, she said.

Lawal also offered that the in-thing amongst elite schools in developed
cities around the country is that children are taught to speak in British
accent, on parents and school owner’s insistence.

“The focus should be on the proper enunciation and articulation of words.
It is sounding your words accurately. What should be emphasized is social
intelligibility, which is the ability to be heard anywhere in the world.
Nobody cares about your accent when you are eloquent because nobody expects
you to have a British accent when you are not a Briton.

“The thing with parents is ignorance and social pressure, so a parent sees
a child speaking differently and they also want to transfer that to their
children. When I teach children elocution, I start from the science of
elocution so that they can understand how sounds work and come together to
make words and also how they have to produce the sounds in a particular

Ms Lawal, who manages Quints, a foremost communication and social polish
organization in Lagos, said she has encountered situations where parents
literary caution their children from speaking their mother tongue in
public.  Lawal, who  never spoke English at home while growing up, said
even illiterate parents want their children to speak English in the public
so that they can feel important.

“I have a full mastery of my indigenous language, yet I speak English
better than those who have spoken it all their lives.  First, it’s a thing
of the mind because we feel our language is inferior; we feel it’s
vernacular; it’s not good enough so we feel that English language is
better. I am an advocate of people speaking impeccable English but not at
the expense of their local language. If you speak English language so well
and you cannot speak your local language, you have lost your identity. One
should not affect the other”, she submitted.

*Whither a comprehensive National Language policy?*

Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba have long been regarded as Nigeria’s major
languages. However, English remains the sole official language in almost
all spheres of national activities.

Scholars like Segun Awonusi of the University of Lagos suggested that
language policies that favour indigenous identity should be implemented on
a sustainable basis. Another linguist, Emmanuel Emenanjo, also declared
that Nigeria does not have a language policy but a document that could be
called a statement of intention of what a language policy could be.

Since his appointment as the chairman of the National Technical Committee
on Language Policy in Nigeria on 10th of April 2018, Adeniyi Harrison, a
professor of Linguistics and African Languages at the Lagos State
University, carried a weight of high expectations. Harrison, who is also
the president of the Linguistics Association of Nigeria, wants the Lagos
State Language Policy, which mandates all schools to teach Yoruba in Lagos,
replicated in other parts of the country.

He said the Linguistic Association of Nigeria has been advocating that
parents, irrespective of the linguistic environment, should teach their
children at a tender age to read and write in their various indigenous

“Except for the fact that some give their languages social status, there
are some languages in Europe whose speakers are not as populated as
speakers of Hausa, Yoruba, and Igbo, but for their social status in the
society, these languages are enforced on us.  Indigenous languages are an
embodiment of the cultural repository of knowledge. When the languages are
not spoken, the languages die and the identities are lost,” he said.

Prof Harrison said when children continue to bear English and biblical
names, it does not allow for information on the family background,
especially in the African context where people’s names are stories of the

“If the person does not bear the name, how do people trace one’s family?”,
he asked, adding that the same goes for food where there could be a loss of
identity and economic opportunities when there is a neglect of local

“The more languages a person is able to speak, the more the horizon widens.
We are advocating for a multi-lingual society where Nigerians learn each
other’s language in order to ensure national unity and cohesion”, Harrison


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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