Language is an integral part of a person’s or group’s identity. It is an invaluable indicator of a people’s heritage and the cultures they uphold. Language is very important. In a multilingual society like Nigeria, language is at the core of identity. A Yoruba is primarily identified through his language; the same goes for every other ethnic group. Nigeria is culturally diverse, with about 371 ethnic groups and over 500 languages. However, the mind-blowing truth is that fewer and fewer Nigerians command proper knowledge of their mother tongue. The invasion of the English language into Nigeria has ruffled the turf and made it even more complex.
The English language, a language of the English, was exported to almost the entire world through the British Empire. While English came in handy and facilitated a consensus language amongst the various ethnicities whose languages bore no intelligibility, it equally did some harm to the linguistic and cultural relations in Nigeria. Standing at 225 million people in 2023, just three years ago, it was just over 200 million. Nigeria is on its path to becoming a dominant purchasing power at this rate.
Of this population, about 10 per cent, or some 20 million people, speak English as their first language. This means that there are more first-language speakers of English in Nigeria than there are in Ireland, New Zealand, Scotland, and around the same number in Australia. This is ironic because many Nigerians lack what Noam Chomsky, a renowned American linguist, called competence and performance in the language’s grammar, which in this case is English.
According to Chomsky, competence is a person’s knowledge of their language, and performance is the ability to use that language. Nigerians born in Nigeria will never be able to attain native speaker status in the usage of English because the rules of the language are not innate to them. They lack proper knowledge of the language, and they do not use English as well as actual native speakers do.
Many Nigerians who speak English were not taught by native speakers of the language. They were taught by people who learned the language from people who also learned the language. Do you get the drift now? The English language in Nigeria has been diluted from one generation of speakers to the next, such that many young children can hardly construct proper sentences in the language. But these children speak this language as their first language! That is truly absurd.
In many Nigerian homes, children are not given the comfort to express themselves in their mother tongue; sometimes, they are not even permitted to speak in their mother tongue. English is used as a barometer of intelligence, even though the English spoken in Nigeria falls way short, as emphasised by Chomsky. Sadly, the use of the mother tongue in Nigeria is declining and may be nearing extinction.
Many parents who are native speakers of indigenous languages are adopting English as the lingua franca at home; their children, in turn, are left to inherit the improper English passed on to them by their parents. They are not only deprived of the benefit of a mother tongue, but they also adopt a language that is not truly a language, which leaves them defenceless against the possibility of mastering just one language to the degree of a mother tongue.
It is often easier to pass on to a child one’s first language or mother tongue; in the case of Nigeria, the outlier took mainstream. How do you intend to pass on a language for which you lack mother tongue proficiency? It would be simpler to teach your kids in your mother tongue and let the schools handle the foreign language instruction. Since English is the official language of Nigeria, it is the responsibility of the schools to teach it to the students. Sadly, though, the teachers equally lack native speaker proficiency.
When you step into a typical Igbo household, for example, what you find are two Igbo-speaking parents with children who speak English. For many of these parents, it is a source of pride that their children speak more English than Igbo. Even with children born in the eastern part of the country where Igbo is the unshakable lingua franca, you still find parents who speak to their children in flawed English and a mixture of transliterated Nigerian-broken English. What these parents do not know is that the Igbo language is one of the Nigerian languages rapidly going extinct.
In truth, the end of the language is not far behind since there is no budding generation of Igbo speakers, and when the older speakers die, the language will follow suit. Already, there is a variant of the Igbo language borne out of necessity—the lack of native Igbo speakers with mother tongue proficiency. This variant is colloquially known as Engli-Igbo—the fusion of Igbo and English in speech situations. Unfortunately, there are increasingly fewer and fewer Igbo speakers with command of the adjectives required to formulate sentences without the interjection of English vocabulary. Igbo, without concerted effort, will go extinct—and that is very painful.
This scenario can be replicated in Yoruba homes, but at a lower level. A number of Yoruba families still uphold their sense of culture through language, which is very commendable. Many of their children speak the language at home and speak English in school. But there are still situations in which children cannot make full sentences in the language, and the same applies to speakers of other Nigerian languages.
If nothing is done about this, it won’t be long before the mother tongue dissipates completely, and we are left with a variety of English vocabulary insufficient to be considered a language as our first language. An effective solution to this would be the incorporation of indigenous languages as compulsory subjects in schools. Though this is currently being done in some schools, it will only yield results when the study of indigenous languages is given the same prominence as mathematics and the English language in schools. The documentation of languages will equally aid the younger generation in learning as well as in preventing extinction. Parents should also encourage the use of their mother tongue at home by speaking to their children and accepting responses only in their mother tongue. Maybe, then, we can save our languages from dying at the expense of a foreign one.
By Anastacia Onyinyechi AZUMA