Nigeria’s National Language Issue

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Did you know that there are over 500 different languages spoken in Nigeria? No wonder the choosing of a national language isn’t going very smoothly! Dare Adekanmbi provides us with a little insight in the issue.

The Nigerian Tribune recently covered the issue of languages in Nigeria. In his article, journalist Dare Adekanmbi covers the subject of a national Nigerian language.

According to Adekanmbi, political parties always strive to create unity among the citizens of their country and establish a developed society. The degree to which they succeed in this determines whether a country can be regarded as developed, developing of underdeveloped, he says.

There are thus many ways in which the degree of development of a country can be measured: some people measure development by the government system of countries or educational advancement, for example. The Nigerian government, Adekanmbi says, have always seen development as a subject that involved economics and politics only. However, the Gross Domestic Product of the country might indicate the country’s standards of living are improving, the number of poor Nigerians has hardly decreased – it  is even going up. Thus, Adekanmbi says, the standard of living is a better way to measure the degree of economic development.

However, he says there is another element of society that can measure this but if often overlooked: language. This is explained by professor Wale Adegbite, who teaches English at the Obafemi Awolowo University. He says that scholars mainly see language as a means of communication, but he believes there is a stronger link between development and communication.

Adekanmbi then elaborates on the development of Nigeria. This country not only houses many different cultures, but many different languages too: the country is “linguistically heterogeneous,” he says.

In fact, with 529 different languages spoken within its borders, Nigeria is in the top ten of most linguistically diverse countries!

Adekanmbi says that language experts believe linguistic diversity can benefit a country greatly as it can lead to better communication on an international, national and local level.

Emeritus Professor Ayo Bamgbose believes that even though indigenous languages play a very important role in Nigeria, they are also an indication of “individuality and national sovereignty.” Moreover, Adegbite believes that national language seems to be linked to language development because the better a country has made use of their language resources, the more advanced a country is. Thus, some scholars believe that if proper attention is given to language development, multilingual countries can develop faster than monolingual ones. Thus, Adekanmbi  says, Nigerian language scholars think the lack of coordination in the language resources is to blame for Nigeria’s underdeveloped status.

English is also still widely spoken in Nigeria, Adekanmbi says. According to Professor Bamgbose, the colonial overlords that brought the language to the country planned to make all Nigerians bilingual. Over time, they eventually reached their goal: English more or less became the national language.

Adekanmbi states that in the 1960s, however, people called for a new national language that was not connected to the colonial past. Emeritus Professor Ayo Banjo elaborates on this and says that the government believed that the indigenous cultures could only flourish again if the role of English was severely diminished or completely eliminated. However, English is still very widespread in Nigeria and according to Adekanmbi, has maintained its prestigious status.

English is used in many fields in Nigeria, but Adegbite feels this is a bad development – the “overuse” of English has led to an “underuse” of the indigenous Nigerian languages which is why there is a “collective language failure”in Nigeria he says.

Adekanmbi believes this situation an mainly be explained by the lack of a national language policy. A number of national documents do feature elements about language: in the National Policy on Education, for example, it is stated that all children should be encouraged to learn Hausa, Igbo or Yoruba as their second language.

In some Houses of Assembly, these three languages are used as a means of communication, but the National Assembly does not. Here, Adekanmbi says, some members feel that the technical terms cannot be translated to indigenous languages and are thus insufficient.

In the field of education, English is also still the main language. According to Adekanmbi, this has a number of reasons, for example that English is still regarded as a very prestigious language. In many cases, indigenous language teaching has even disappeared from the curriculum. However, Adekanmbi says, experts believe the lack of language and communication skills accounts for the failing educational system in Nigeria. Adekanmbi states that as a result, some say Nigeria is behind on technological advancement. According to the late former Minister of Education, Professor Babatunde Fafunwa, the fact that Nigerians have to think in a foreign language (English) is to blame for this.

Many linguists have emphasised that a national language is vital to a country’s development. Even though English is the national language in Nigeria, national development will not occur as long as English remains its high status. Two main proposals have been made for choosing another national language: some believe only one language must be chosen (the unilingual approach), while others believe two or more languages must become the national languages(the multilingual approach).

According to Adekanmbi, critics of an indigenous national language say that English has no ethnic connotation and is thus very suitable to remain the national languages. An argument for this is that there is a lot of English literature available to help achieve the national goals. However, Adekanmbi says other Nigerian believe Yoruba or Hausa should become the national language. A blend of the three largest indigenous languages has been overruled as many believe the national language should be a natural language.

Currently, Dr. Femi Okurounmu is leading a Predidential Advisory Committee on National Dialogue. This committee has been given the task to investigate how the Nigerian people would like their government to operate. Many people believe the Committee must use this opportunity to breathe new life into the discussions regarding language development as it has been pushed aside by other matters. In fact, Adekanmbi says the elite is even promoting English instead of the indigenous languages in order to rule over the majority.

Language activists have another motive for promoting the indigenous languages – according to Adekanmbi, they fear the far-reaching Englishishisation of the world we live in today might lead to the extinction of certain indigenous languages. Moreover, some people have stated that the indigenous languages must develop further in order for Nigeria to have technology transfer.

Adekanmbi’s article shows that the reasons to use indigenous Nigerian languages over English are manifold. Whatever the outcome of the debate, the fact that the issue has been put on the agenda again will probably result in a stronger position for all of the languages.

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