By Ambassador Usman Sarki
The author, a former Deputy Permanent Representative of Nigeria to the United Nations in New York and a product of the ‘Zaria School of History’ and its nationalist mooring, veers into the theme of a national languages policy in a provocatively inviting piece here:
Value systems, cultures and ethical precepts as well as civic duties are constructed, articulated, internalized and transmitted through the medium of language. Language therefore, is the basis of society even as family is said to be its nucleus. Even adaptation which is one of the basic attributes of human societies, can become hampered and made impracticable where the aid of a language is missing or is improperly directed.
It is practically impossible to become part of a culture without having the means to understand and partake in the language of that community, which is the epitome of its external expression or representation. It is not eating croissant at breakfast or a baguette for lunch, for instance, that makes a Frenchman or a Frenchwoman. It is essentially the act of speaking the French language that distinguishes a person and categorizes him or her as “French”. It is in this light that one should appreciate the penchant of the French to popularize their language and establish a global community of “Francophonie” most especially in Africa.
The most important intangible living heritages of a nation are its languages by which it is uniquely identified. The geographic expression of Nigeria is given reality mainly by the people inhabiting the area and the languages they speak. The extinction of any Nigerian language will, therefore, be a catastrophic event almost unparalleled in the country’s history. The fact that almost all Nigerian languages are not written and do not have a structured system of letters and orthography, for instance, makes them vulnerable or liable to fade away when their spoken variants or vernacular become of less utility and of narrow compass of application.
Languages are preserved as a rule naturally by the sheer numbers of speakers spread over a reasonably wide area of habitation. Also they can spread and become of daily use and importance if they serve as vehicles of commerce, learning or religious practices for instance. These conditions today apply only to a few native languages in Nigeria such as Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo and to some extent to others like Fulfulde, Tiv, Nupe, Kanuri, Igala, Igbira and so forth. The vast majority of Nigerian languages can be classified truly as “minority languages” with limited numbers of native speakers and circumscribed areas of habitation.
They are also hemmed in by communities of larger language groups such as Hausa and Yoruba, which makes the speakers naturally to resort to these other mediums of communication almost involuntarily so as to communicate with outsiders. Consequently, a large number of Nigerian languages are faced with existential challenges that possibly includes their total extinction within a matter of just a few generations. This sad and catastrophic possibility should be anticipated and prevented from happening when we still have the time and resources to do so.
Once a critical mass of speakers of a language disappears either through acculturation, alienation or any other means, it becomes virtually impossible to preserve that language as a living, dynamic and functional means of communication. The sad fact will be perhaps that the language would be preserved in some recorded form and kept in a library or archive with no practical necessity for it, only to serve as a monument to our short sightedness and folly.
The establishment of a national languages policy aimed at the preservation and promotion of Nigerian languages is a matter that should therefore be seen as of the utmost urgency and importance. This will go a long way in facilitating the objectives of national integration. The idea of a “nation” is invariably linked to a people, and this is ultimately decided by ethnic nationality and language identities. Thus, for true national integration to take place in Nigeria, the idea of ethnic identity must be thoroughly studied and the role that it plays in national affairs should be clearly determined.
The idea of “conscientious citizenship” as expounded by Confucius long ago or the concept of “group feeling” that Ibn Khaldun identified, can only be realised when the individual is connected to his or her country by a language that belongs to that entity, or is part of its inherited biological assets which it possibly shares with neighbouring countries. The greatest impediment to national integration is denationalization of the people, and this happens when a people loses its ethnic and linguistic identities. This situation is happening fast in Nigeria especially with the unprecedented intermingling of peoples and urbanization across the country.
If care is not taken, and where speedy action is wanting, we stand to lose several languages that are already on the verge of extinction today. Minority identify is something that is extremely fragile and brittle, and could be obliterated within a single generation if nothing is done by way of a deliberate and conscientious policy of preservation of languages in Nigeria. As far back as 1911, Mr. Edmund D. Morel in his book “Nigeria: Its Peoples and Its Problems” had warned about the denationalization of the “native” peoples in the newly created Nigerian colony. He especially kicked against the tendency to rapidly transform the native from his inherited state to make him an educated Westerner which he deemed as inimical to the interest of the African.
The “educated native” quandary was what Mr. Morel particularly saw as a premeditated way of destroying the African’s culture and alienating him from his roots, thereby letting him float in-between two worlds belonging firmly to neither. He was emphatic in this regard with the way the “educated natives” of the Gold Coast, Sierra Leone and latterly, Western Nigeria had been made into artificial floating islands of aliens in a vast ocean of native populations. In order to prevent such a happenstance, we must strive now more than ever before to retrieve our dying languages and reform our manners accordingly.
Much as the teaching of the English language is important and indeed necessary as a unifying factor in a diverse country like ours, it should be accompanied and complemented by the teaching of Nigerian languages at the basic or elementary levels. In this way children will be exposed early on to the rudiments of their mother tongues and their cultures preserved through the use of their languages. It is only in such a manner that a truly well grounded citizen could be produced, who has the instinctive attachment to a place and a set of values associated with his or her natural language. Without such an attachment, citizenship becomes a matter of form and conformity that does not come naturally by way of having a linguistic anchor to stabilize it.
Language here can act like a ship’s ballast to keep it steady and prevent it from drifting away in bad weather. Likewise, speaking one’s mother tongue imparts a sense of confidence and assurance to the speaker, while it allows him or her the flexible disposition to learn other languages without any sense of inferiority or self abnegation due to a sense of alienation or denationalization. This essay therefore calls for the reordering of our priorities and the organisation of our school systems particularly at the primary levels to reflect the need to preserve Nigerian languages and ensure their continued survival for many generations to come.
The greatest disservice that we would do is to deprive future generations of the benefit to inherit their languages, and converse in their original tongues so to speak, as their inalienable right and natural heritage. Let us therefore, commit the nation’s resources and will to make this happen and preserve our languages for distant posterity. Nigeria contains in its space more than two hundred different languages and about three hundred dialects. Let these be the heritages that we shall bequeath to humanity if we do nothing else.