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Is English affecting Nigerian languages?

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By Abraham Adekunle

Runsewe claims foreign languages are affecting Nigerian languages.

By the day, the number of people speaking indigenous languages in Nigeria is reducing. Even those that are speaking these languages are often involved in code mixing and code switching, which reduces the fluency of the present speakers. Code mixing is a situation where a speaker uses words from two or more languages in a single utterance, such as it is often done with English and another local language. Code switching refers to when a speaker switches from one language to another during the same conversation.

This is one of the major reasons why the Director-General of National Council for Arts and Culture (NCAC), Otunba Segun Runsewe, has expressed concerns over how preference for foreign languages was affecting Nigerian languages. He said that the current trend is disturbing and if nothing is done, a lot of the languages would go extinct in the near future. An extinct language is one that has no speakers especially if it has no native speakers alive. Runsewe said that the rate at which parents and schools now promote English, a foreign language, is alarming. Assuredly, if indigenous Nigerian languages are not transmitted from the elders to the younger ones, they would sooner than later become extinct.

At least 500 indigenous languages being spoken in Nigeria.

Nigeria has often been described as “a microcosm of Africa.” In other words, in terms of language, Nigeria is a mini-Africa. According to Ethnologue, there are 512 languages being spoken in Nigeria. Other sources have varied numbers, but they record at least 500 indigenous languages being spoken in Nigeria, excluding dialects. In the language classification, Africa has four language groups (Niger-Congo, Nilo-Saharan, Afro-Asiatic, and Khoisan). Three of these groups are found in Nigeria. Also, Nigeria is the country with the most languages, second only to Papua New Guinea with 860 indigenous languages.

These many languages can create problems in trade, commerce, transportation, information technology (IT), banking, and more. For instance, if the Yoruba people of the Southwestern part of Nigeria decide to stick to only their indigenous language, there are many more in the Southwest and the neighboring Southsouthern region, Southeastern and Northcentral regions of Nigeria. Languages such as Gungbe (known as Egun), Igala, Kanuri, Ibibio, Efik, Igbo, Nupe, Hausa, Fula, Anang, etc. also have their own respective native speakers. When the percentage of bilinguals in indigenous languages (people who speak two Nigerian languages) in Nigeria are considered, one will discover that the number cannot prevent problems in communication.

Is English as an official language a necessary evil?

This is why the English language has been adopted has the official language of business, politics, government and administration, and education in Nigeria. After Nigeria gained independence, there was a national discourse about which language to adopt. Wole Soyinka, Nobel Laurate and Writer, has urged nations since the 1960s to adopt Swahili as the language for Africa, with some sources quoting him as saying that Swahili should be adopted to douse the language debate in the country. Presently, Nigeria still adopts English as an official language, earning us English proficiency test exemption in notable universities.

But there has also been an increased awareness on the effect a foreign language such as English has on indigenous languages in Nigeria. Is Nigeria’s adoption of the English language a necessary evil? Surely, it has weakened its use, fluency in Nigerians, and preference in social settings. However, when one objectively examines the condition, one will agree that English has solved the language barrier problems that Nigeria would have faced without it or another foreign language. English acts as a factor in the unity of Nigeria.

How to strike a balance between foreign and local languages.

While the effect of foreign languages cannot be denied, it is Nigeria’s reality that a foreign language such as English cannot be removed entirely. English is now the most common language used worldwide. It is used in education, business, trade, the military and in IT (programming languages are written majorly in English). What can be done, nonetheless, is to strike a balance between the foreign language and our indigenous languages. Linguists have proven through studies show that a child can have fluent use of two languages if they grow up in an environment where the two are used at the same rate. Also, parents, schools, the media, religious organizations and the government should not demonize or neglect indigenous languages. Instead, it should be encouraged through funding, accolades, and creation of forum for learning for the younger generation, such as having a comprehensive syllabus for indigenous languages as well as hiring competent language teachers.

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