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It’s High Time to Modernise Nigerian Languages

Largely because of entrepreneurial private schools now spread all over the country, most parents now wish only English language to bespoken to their children in school. Some parents even wish only that language spoken to their children everywhere, including the home. They are said to do this because they feel or believe that English is far superior to any and every one of our indigenous languages.

But what exactly does it actually mean to say that one human language is superior to another? In other words, what specific aspect or aspects of language do claims of that kind actually refer to? It would appear that they could only be referring to the following two aspects of language, namely, structure and function. Prestige, which some people might be tempted to add here as a third aspect of language, is deliberately left out, as it is no more than a reflection of the numerical strength, economic power, and technological know how and achievements of the people that have a particular language and speak it as their native language.

As far as structure is concerned, and subject to only one exception that will be discussed under vocabulary below, every human language features or provides for just those things that it needs for effective communication within its exclusive native environment. Sounds constitute the first structural aspect of all human languages. Thus, Yoruba language, for instance, has only as many different sounds as are needed for differentiating all the words in it from one another. For this reason, one can correctly say that the sounds of Yoruba were tailor-made for Yoruba and for no other language. In the same manner, the sounds of English language were tailor-made for that language and for no other language anywhere. In these circumstances, therefore, it is not possible and neither does it make much sense to compare the sounds of Yoruba with those of English for superiority. Both sound systems are equally efficient for their individual needs. And that’s all that ever counts as far as language sounds are concerned.

Grammar is another very important aspect of the structure of all human languages. Grammar as used here is the set of rules for arranging words within phrases as well as for arranging words and phrases within the sentences of any human language for the purpose of conveying meaning. That the Ijaw people of Delta State, for instance, use Ijaw effectively for communicating among themselves is a clear indication that the grammar of that language is perfectly adequate for it. For much the same reason, the grammar of English is similarly adequate for the English language. Nothing sensible would, therefore, be gained from comparing the two grammars for superiority.

Vocabulary, technically known as lexicon, is the third aspect of the structure of human languages that people may wish to compare. All things being equal, and as in the case of sounds and the rules of grammar, every language provides for just those words that are needed for effective communication within its exclusive native environment. More specifically, it provides words for just those objects and concepts that exist in its exclusive native environment but not for those that exist elsewhere. Thus, because there are no walruses in Hausa land, one can safely predict that the Hausa language would not have any native word for the sea creature known as walrus. Similarly, the English language would not have any native word for “ìkọ́kọrẹ́,” because the favourite meal known by that name among the Ijẹbu of Lagos and Ogun States is not known at all in the English world.

Once in a while, however, whether through trade, heavy influx of refugees, conquest, or colonisation, a language may find itself having to share its own previously exclusive native environment with another language. In other words, it may come into contact with another language within its exclusive native environment. If, as indicated earlier, the words making up the vocabulary of any language are words for the objects and concepts usually found in that language’s native environment, then one would expect the vocabularies of two different languages in contact to differ. In fact, that is always the case.The speakers of one language always discover that their native language lacks some words or expressions that exist in the other language. In other words, they discover that there is a shortfall in the vocabulary of their native language when compared to the vocabulary of the other language. That shortfall in vocabulary may be said to be small if only a few words or expressions are involved. But if hundreds or thousands of words or expressions are involved, the shortfall will be said to be huge or considerable.

In this country, all our indigenous languages have been in contact with English language for over a century now in many cases. The shortfalls that have consequently become noticeable in the vocabularies of all such languages when compared to the vocabulary of English are regrettably quite considerable. Faced with that rather daunting and embarrassing reality,some of our past thought leaders simply opted for the easiest but least honourable way out. They decided for us all to, in effect, leave our individual native languages in the lurch and shift permanently to English language,rather than shifting only temporarily to it as Indonesians did to Dutch roundabout the same time. That is the actual underlying reason for the sad pattern of language use in the country today.

Those past thought leaders did not seem to realise that their fateful decision was, and today still is, actually no less laughable than that of a man who abandons his one and only house merely because of its leaky roof, even though he has both the means and the ability to fully mend the few leaks involved.They apparently didn’t ask the right people for advice; for they would have learnt that shortfalls in vocabulary occur from time to time in all human languages.Such shortfalls never constitute a permanent disability for any language, however, unless its speakers allow them to do so through ignorance,indolence, or inaction.Nature fully foresaw the possibility of occasional shortfalls occurring in vocabularies and, therefore,equipped each language with its own inbuilt linguistic toolbox for fixing them. Thus, English language experienced an enormous shortfall in its vocabulary at one stage in its history. That was when it came into contact with famous languages like French, Latin, and Classical Greek. The members of the English intelligentsia at that time did not contemplate jettisoning their native language. Instead, they resolved to use the English language toolbox in a determined and patriotic fashion, and also for as long as was necessary. That was largely what made that language the darling and object of admiration that it is for many people today.

The lesson for us all today from this history of English is very clear. It is that, if we are not to remain the laughing stock of all nations, we must do what the English did. More specifically, we must bestir ourselves and resolve to fully remedy the shortfalls in vocabulary that are observable in our individual native languages by having as many new words created for them as are necessary to enable them to be used in full for education and governance at all levels(for languages with large enough populations) and to appropriate levels(for languages with moderate population figures). That is eminently doable for us because, fortunately unlike in the past, many individuals and institutions like the one that this writer represents are available today to help with advice and expertise in such a patriotic endeavour.

As said much earlier at the beginning, apart from structure, function is the only other thing that can be used to compare human languages. The many parents that now insist that their children be taught only in English would seem to rate that language much higher in value than all our indigenous languages.They do so very clearly only because of the social and economic value it has acquired as a result of the various high-profile roles it currently plays in the country.

It turns out, however, that those very roles are all the more reason why we should now embark on modernising our indigenous languages. To see why that is so, notice that nature certainly did not specifically assign those high-profile roles to English language alone to play in this country,meaning that some of our indigenous languages, too, particularly the bigger ones among them,in theory,could have been chosen for those roles instead of, or along with, English language. None of them was actually chosen,however, because they were all comparatively under-resourced.Worse still and as things are,none of them are likely ever to be chosen and be able to play those roles,whether by themselves or alongside English language.The only way for them to escape perpetual subservience in their otherwise exclusive native environments is for them to be developed and lexically enriched precisely as proposed earlier above.

Accordingly, taking the ethnic complexity of the country into account together with the actual roles of English language there and all over the world today, the overall proposal made here is that:

(1)    indigenous languages having numbers of speakers that make such a policy both economically viable and sustainable be developed for teaching all subjects at all educational levels as well as for governance also at all levels within their respective linguistic communities;
(2)    indigenous languages lacking the requisite numbers of speakers for use as in (1) be developed for governance up to appropriate levels and also for teaching all subjects up to appropriate levels, with English language taking over thereafter;
(3)    all students in the country regardless of their ethnic origins should study English as a language subject up to at least the School Certificate level, or even the first degree level if so desired, for communicating with speakers of other indigenous languages in the country as well as with the nationals of other countries based within or beyond our borders;
(4)    Abuja and Lagos,because of their somewhat mixed populations, be considered for one university institution each where English will be the language of instruction; and
(5)    newspapers that currently publish only in English should each add at least one regional edition of similar content and quality in the indigenous language of their respective home bases.

The positive outcomes to be expected from the proposal would be numerous. First,most children would be able to receive instruction in the mother tongue till or beyond adulthood, as is the norm elsewhere in the enlightened world. Second, no individuals would be severely disadvantaged anymore, as they currently are,merely because they lack competence in English language. With many indigenous languages playing exact same official roles on an equal footing with English,language would no longer disqualify any individuals for consideration; what would in future be expected to rightly and properly do so would be their lack of requisite levels of knowledge, experience, or expertise.Third, all literate Nigerians with requisite levels of education in English or any indigenous language would, for that reason, be able to participate equally intelligently in the economic and political affairs of their country, as advocated by the African Union in its Language Plan of Action for Africa 2006. Fourth, with the enhanced roles and capabilities of most of our indigenous languages, it would at long last be possible for Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba to be used on an equal footing with English as languages of official business in the National Assembly, as provided for in the country’s constitution. Fifth, it would also be possible to genuinely use many indigenous languages for official business in the country’s various Houses of Assembly, as also provided for in the constitution. And, finally, Nigeria would be in a position to be both properly and uniquely identified by some of its native languages, as done worldwide for nations that are known to truly value and treasure their culture.

Oladele Awobuluyi
Research Centre for Nigerian Languages
Kwara State University, Malete, Kwara State