The Death of Local Languages in Nigeria and the Need for an Attitude Switch

Towards the end of last year, the Minister of Education Adamu Adamu announced the launch of a National Language Policy which would entail the use of our local languages as a medium of instruction for pupils from classes Primary 1 to 6. While the policy is not ill-intentioned, it certainly comes very ill-prepared. Many of the local languages in Nigeria have not been developed orthographically or for scholarly applications. Teachers haven’t been trained in that regard and the instructional materials are not ready, for that matter.

Local languages in Nigeria
Image credit: Pulse Nigeria

In the long run—after thorough development—such a policy could do Nigeria great good, though. We live in a country where many often conflate the extent of learnedness or intelligence with a good command of our colonizer’s language. Don’t get me wrong; if intelligence is the “ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills”, then having a good grasp of English language conventions, a large word bank, and speaking and/or writing the language fluently could point to intelligence.

However, that could be said for excellent speakers of other languages too. English isn’t automatically superior because it’s the “language of the white man”. Too many of the world’s advanced countries don’t care to use English as a medium of instruction and yet have gotten to where they are. Many of the great scientists or social changemakers of times past were not fluent in English—and so it remains till today. Yet their intelligence could never be debatable.

Our attitude towards our local languages, especially regarding their frowned-upon use in formal settings, is perhaps one of the biggest reasons for their near extinction. 29 languages have even gone extinct already, according to UNESCO. In 2006, the UN agency also predicted that the Igbo language, currently spoken by over 30 million people, could face extinction by the end of the century. And then 6 years later, pushed the date of extinction to 2025.

Though it is very much unlikely that just 2 years from now, Igbo will cease to be spoken and written. Caution must still be taken to ensure the language is passed down from generation to generation. And this is not just the case for Igbo; even other major Nigerian languages like Yoruba and Itsekiri, to name a few, are also endangered.

Aside from a clear inferiority complex, it could be argued that a major reason for the prevalence of the English language in Nigeria is that we need a unifying language. Various reports place the estimates of the languages spoken in Nigeria at 300-500. Those are outstanding numbers! And perhaps it does make sense that English is the linguistic neutral ground. However, even in a country like India which has a similar language diversity, Hindi—a local language—prevails a great deal over English and stands as a
unifying language across ethnic groups.

Let’s even bring it closer to home. In most of East Africa, Swahili is the lingua franca and unifying language across over a hundred ethnic groups. In Tanzania, also a former British colony, Swahili is spoken more than English by the larger population. It is used as the official language of communication by the government and even as the medium of instruction in primary schools. The move to establish Swahili as the national, unifying language was made after they gained independence from British rule.

In Nigeria though, it’s almost inarguable that establishing one of our local languages as the unifying one could cause a lot of tribal and even political tension. Nevertheless, the attitude of these countries and sub-regions to their local languages is worth emulating.

The Way Forward from the Death of Local Languages in Nigeria

The looming extinction of our local languages is real and must be addressed. I’m no expert on linguistics, but here are some ways I think we can make real headway in securing the future of our languages.

It all starts at home…
Parents should not just speak their languages amongst themselves, but also to their children and most importantly, make sure they respond in the local languages. It is not enough for children to know what their local languages sound like; they should be able to speak it too. Receptive bilingualism is becoming more and more common these days. Even worse, there are children who don’t understand a lick of their local language because their parents didn’t encourage them to speak it.

I grew up a receptive bilingual; I was of the kids who would say “I understand what you’re saying, but I don’t know how to say it back”. In many ways, I still am, but I made a conscious effort to switch and become a more active speaker of Yoruba a few years ago. I recently had a conversation with my mother about how the snickering and mockery whenever I spoke Yoruba shoddily as a kid made me feel too insecure to continue speaking it and apologies were made.

I’m not placing all the blame on my parents, but as a kid, things like that definitely tend to have an impact on your confidence. Not everyone will outgrow that insecurity. So parents should make a conscious effort to allow their children to keep speaking the languages, no matter how bad at first, till they perfect them. Ps, even till now, I mostly speak Yoruba only when I have to and I still carry some of that insecurity with me. I’ve found that I’m more comfortable whipping out Yoruba slang and phrases in my day-to-day, though.

…But it doesn’t end at home

Outside the home, there should also be a switch in attitude towards local languages. In formal settings, people speaking in their native languages should not be frowned upon. Being fluent in a native language should not be considered “razz” or uncool.
Local languages should also be thoroughly developed for teaching in school, regardless of the curriculum. In some British schools in Nigeria, local languages aren’t taught, but foreign languages like French and Spanish are—so even more colonizer’s languages. I only realized how ludicrous this was as an adult. There’s nothing wrong with teaching other foreign languages too, but not to the
the detriment of our own.

I think schooling in Dubai, a very multicultural place, made me realize just how strange Nigerians’ condescension to fluency in our native languages is. In school, it was common for my course-mates to switch to Arabic, Hindi, or Urdu in class and even for lecturers to engage them as such. I began to see local languages more as a source of connection and belonging and I became eager to speak Yoruba to other Yoruba-speaking people I came in contact with. Our local languages are so important in that way, and they should be treated as such.

Hopefully, in the coming years, more social acceptability is given to our local languages in Nigeria, especially among the elite. There is no place too formal or sophisticated for us to embrace our culture.

Oyindamola Depo Oyedokun

Oyindamola Depo Oyedokun is a writer who's passionate about telling African stories. A self-proclaimed polymath, she refuses to be boxed into one mold. She holds a degree in aerospace engineering, but has always had a profound love for writing. As a writer, her portfolio spans news articles, educative engineering articles, content for various sites, blogs, a romance novel titled "Love and God" which has sold hundreds of copies, and her most recent work, a novella titled "Before The Light". When she's not reading about random stuff on the internet, you'll find her putting pen to paper, or in her case, "finger to keyboard".