The Death of African Languages: Time to wake up

By Ojurongbe, Bolaji Abdulmuiz.

I pledge to Nigeria my country.
To be faithful, loyal and honest…

In virtually all Nigerian schools, the extract above from our national anthem is recited every day by our supposed leaders of tomorrow, the vibrant readers of today. Many of these kids recite the pledge with enthusiasm hoping that the future has a colossal of success for them, and for those who hesitate to recite the poem with vigour, they are either flogged or punished by those who directly or indirectly are desecrating Nigeria’s economy and unity.
Language surpasses the line as being a means of communication; in fact, it is also a means of unity. It’s a tool that has brought many people together after getting lost and scattered in different places. Whatever language you speak, and wherever you come from, your presence will be warmly felt among the same language speakers like you. This is true especially when you are in the midst of foreigners. David Crystal in his book ‘The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English language’ (2010: 13) describes different functions of language among which is ‘the expression of identity …the signalling of who we are and where we ‘belong’. To kick against a particular language is to say the people do not exist; consequently, we are driving towards a disastrous state and a relegation of the highest order.

I have taught in different schools where I, too, have been a victim of desecration of our unity and economy; where I have either scolded or harangued students speaking their native languages. To me, I feel perturbed and know I am not faithful, loyal and honest to my country, Nigeria. But how could I help it as a teacher? I remain more confused especially when I remember that I teach in an international school where the proprietors and proprietresses profoundly want the students to speak and write posh English. Ironically, a great number of these students speak bad English and at the same time murder their native languages: what a crying shame!
As if that is not enough, many textbooks that portray the lives of the white are used in these schools, thereby boosting the economy of these countries, as Ngugi, 1986 has it

‘…imperialism continues to control the economy, politics, and cultures of Africa.’

What is the fate of young writers who are just springing up, or published writers whose books should still be making waves? Aren’t we indirectly being dishonest to our country when we don’t patronize our kindred spirit? Is it totally the fault of the schools when parents, who believe they pay exorbitantly, complain bitterly about the bad spoken English of their kids? They hardly rush to school when their kids’ Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo and other languages results are poor. But they vow to bring down the school when their kids do not do well in English. Good to say, we now have schools who have drawn plans for Yoruba and other Nigerian languages, especially those obtainable, to be used while conducting the assembly on a particular day. More to this is that, those languages become means of communication throughout that day. Funnily enough, no student is made to face the music when caught speaking the English language.

Below are some excerpts in Ngugi’s ‘The Language of African Literature.’
‘Thus one of the most humiliating experiences was to be caught speaking Gikũyũ in the vicinity of the school. The culprit was given corporal punishment – three to five strokes of the cane on bare buttocks – or was made to carry a metal plate around the neck with inscriptions such as I AM STUPID OR I AM A DONKEY.’
That is the fate of many Africans then and even now.  Chinua Achebe also reiterates this through a character called Obierika in the acclaimed novel, Things Fall Apart.

‘’Does the white man understand our custom about land?’’
‘’How can he when he does not even speak our tongue?  But he says that our customs are bad, and our own brothers who have taken up his religion also say that our customs are bad. How do you think we can fight when our own brothers have turned against us?’’
(Things Fall Apart, p. 160)

The ‘religion’ in the above excerpt goes beyond the doctrines of a particular religious group, it represents the culture and language of the white. While we were growing up, precisely in our primary school days, our teachers made some of us ‘witch-hunters’, taught us how to betray our brothers and sisters by writing down their names when we heard them speak their native languages. Success in English is overwhelmingly celebrated in schools while our language and culture cry for existence. Who says the English language is not compulsory? It is.
In fact, you are accorded respect when you speak it fluently but you command people’s respect, love, and sponsorship when you speak fluently both the English language and your native language. Sincerely, you become popular with both white and black, you become the most sought after. We are tired of a situation where our children could not speak English flawlessly and still battle with their native languages. Maybe you would have to read about Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Niyi Osundare, Ngugi wa Thiong’O, Buchi Emecheta and other notable writers, not forgetting young poets like Rahaman Toheeb (Rabtob), Gbolahan Abdulmalik, Romeo Oriogun and many more and understand the reason why one needs to uphold one’s native language to aid one’s understanding of the English language.

Ojurongbe, Bolaji Abdulmuiz teaches English and Literature-in-English. He has taught in many leading private schools and tutorials. He studied English Education in Lagos State University, Ojo, Lagos. He is a poet, short story writer and an essayist. He loves writing about women-related issues and picturing pastoral setting in his work. He has written many yet-to-be-published works, poems and short stories, especially. He wishes to use his works to correct some views about women and to appeal to people to embrace nature. To his credit are ‘My Love’ published by PenAstory, ‘Be Happy’ published by both Nantygreens and Bravearts.
Photo by Mark Rasmuson on Unsplash

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