Beatrice Ejiogu is a 400 level university student. She had her primary and secondary education in South Africa before she returned to Nigeria for her university education.
Both of her parents are of the Igbo stock, but Beatrice is unable to speak the language. It was always a problem for her to interact with her grand-parents each time she visits her home town.
Beatrice’s inability to speak Igbo is due to her parents’ adoption of English as the language of communication for her and her siblings.
Her return to Nigeria did not help matters, as her daily interaction with her peers and fellow students is in English.
Beatrice’s case is a common finding among many Nigerians, especially the youth, who find it difficult to communicate in their mother tongues.
Language experts opine that while the “old brigade Nigerian” affluent in their mother tongues as well as in their adopted languages including English, the younger generation of Nigerians seem not to be interested in their indigenous languages.
The declining interest in indigenous languages among the youth, experts say, is a global concern that is becoming worrisome.
Former South African President Nelson Mandela underscored the importance of indigenous language when he said: “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.”
UNESCO, the global cultural organisation, is also making serious efforts to check the declining interest in mother tongue as it has set aside February 21 of every year as the International Mother Language Day.
Ms. Irina Bokova, the Director-General of UNESCO, in a recent message stresses the need for mother tongue in the face of multilingualism, thus: “Use of the mother tongue at school is a powerful remedy against illiteracy. The challenge remains, however, to ensure this truth is actually acted on in the classroom. Excluded population groups, such as indigenous people, are often those whose mother tongues are ignored by education systems. Allowing them to learn from a very early age in their mother tongue, and then national, official or other languages, promotes equality and social inclusion.”
Bokova notes that linguistic diversity is man’s common heritage, but lamented that nearly half of the 6,000 languages spoken in the world could “die out’’ by the end of the century.
She says that the development is a sad one, as, “language loss impoverishes humanity. Each language conveys cultural heritage in ways that increase our creative diversity. Cultural diversity is as important as biological in nature, and they are closely linked.”
The UNESCO chief executive stresses that linguistic potential is an asset for sustainable development and must be shared for the benefit of all.
Dr. Barclays Ayakoroma, Executive Secretary, National Institute of Cultural Orientation (NICO) also expresses worry about the declining interest in mother tongue by vast majority of Nigerians.
Ayakoroma, who was speaking at the 4th Nigerian Indigenous Language Programme, says Nigeria’s estimated 400 languages risked extinction. “Our languages are dying. Many of our country’s estimated 400 languages are moribund as they are no longer being learned by our children and are in danger of becoming extinct in the few decades when they will have no speakers left.”
According to him, the challenge facing Nigerians is to ensure that this does not happen. “We have to constantly speak our native languages so that the languages can endure, to always be around to nurture our children, to reinforce their identities and to perpetuate our cultures.”
For Dr. Ayo Ojebode, Head of Department of Communications and Language Arts, University of Ibadan, colonial rule is to be blamed for the misfortune of indigenous languages. “One of the evils that came with colonialism, which has lived with us today, is the derision with which we hold our culture and cultural practices.”
Ojebode, who is a researcher in indigenous communication systems, says it is of interest because “communication was the major weapon of colonial warfare.”
While not blaming colonialism entirely for the cultural woes, the communication expert queried: “English is the world language’ who made it so?”
He adds that, “our policy insists that if you want to study engineering or even mathematics in the university you must have a credit in English,” and questioned the rationale behind the policy.
Ojebode says that it is an irreparable loss if a language dies. “What is lost is more than a set of meaningful sounds. What is lost includes life, meaning, knowledge, science and technology. What is lost indeed is a significant part of humanity – so significant that the living is incomplete.”
For Mr. Ukegbu Kazi, the Principal of Mgboko Umuanunu Community Secondary School, Obingwa Local Government Area of Abia State, blames parents for contributing to the woes of mother tongue. He wonders why parents of the same language group should always speak English to their children.
“I and my wife are teachers, and we speak Igbo language to our children at home. Although I did not study Igbo in the university, I can write letters to my mother in Igbo because she writes and speaks Igbo language.”
Kazi says that many Nigerian children are facing crisis of identity as they cannot write nor speak any indigenous languages.
According to him, the situation is made worse when parents belong to different language groups, adding that children of such marriages are often lost as they cannot communicate in either of their parents’ mother tongue.
He advises parents in this category to always speak their indigenous languages to their children, adding that a person is greatly disadvantaged if he cannot speak any indigenous language in the land of his birth.
As experts say, one of the challenges facing Nigerians is ensuring the survival of their numerous indigenous languages which, by extension, means Nigeria’s survival as a sovereign nation.