• Thursday, November 30, 2023
businessday logo


Nigeria and the question of a national language

Nigeria and the question of a national language

A good start to this piece is to make it clear that Nigeria does not have a national language. That, then, will warrant the explanation of the term ‘national language.’ The term has been differently explained by many persons but, ultimately, it is understood among language experts as one or more languages that are indigenous to a people and are assigned the duty of official languages.

This implies that a language has to fulfil the conditions of being indigenous and serving official purposes before it can be described as a national language. With these criteria, we can claim that no language can be called a national language in Nigeria.

Although the three major languages co-exist with English which is the language of legislation in the National Assembly, they still cannot be described as national languages, given that none of them is acceptably used in all regions of the federation. It is important to enlighten the general reader that, in addition to these three major languages, the geographical entity called Nigeria harbours not less than 500 other languages.

More interestingly, some of these languages also have over 10 dialects within them. Dialects are regional varieties of a language, which are spoken within a speech community. Ijebu, Egba, Ijesha, Awori and over 10 others are dialects of Yoruba. The huge question that follows this introduction, therefore, is: is it not possible for one or more of these over 500 indigenous languages to serve as our official language(s) across the country? Why English?

…given the nativisation of the English language in Nigeria to reflect the sociocultural realities of the Nigerian peoples, as well as its development in terms of codification, the language may remain a succour in the face of the controversies.…

This piece which does not hope to answer these questions will simply present the recommended languages for the Nigerian national language, the arguments that surround their candidatures and the steps involved in the emergence of a national language.

Scholars have suggested five possible candidates as the Nigerian national language. The first suggestion is the adoption of one or more of the major languages. If one of these major languages has to be adopted, the politics of which one to choose is another issue awaiting such a significant decision.

If the three have to be simultaneously used, this also comes with the trouble of learning all three and how roles will be assigned to them. Note that having each of the three languages being used in their regions of dominance may not capture the true essence of a national language. The second candidate for the national language in Nigeria is one or more of the over 500 minority languages. The thought of which of the minority languages to be chosen and the effort of having to teach the majority of the country one or more minority languages make the option a rare one to manifest.

Some scholars have also proposed the use of Nigerian Pidgin English, which is more succinctly described as Naija. The candidature of Naija is candidly a viable one. The major challenge with the adoption of Naija is the question of variety and the development for pedagogical purposes. Note that any language to be adopted as a national language must have its standard variety.

One then wonders which among the varieties of Naija, such as the varieties spoken in Warri and Ajegunle, will be adopted as the official language. The next candidate for the national language in Nigeria is a fabricated language such as WAZOBIA. While this is yet another good option, one wonders if the country is prepared for the cost and promotion of this, considering that critical sectors of our economy require urgent attention.

Read also: Language planning will spur national development – Don

The last candidate is Kiswahili, which has been suggested on grounds of its dominance in Africa. The challenge that comes with this is the thought of how a dominant African language has to be considered when there are over 500 indigenous languages in the country. With the different sides to each option, it appears like the question of a national language might even require a referendum for a popular decision.

Moving on, there are four major steps involved in the process of choosing a national language. The first stage is the selection of the language or languages which should reflect the desire of the people. This is because an imposed national language could result in national conflict such as the resistance that greeted the choice of Tagalog and Filipino in the Philippines. Codification, which involves standardising the language, is the next stage.

It essentially has to do with the development of grammar rules and dictionaries for the chosen language. The third step is elaboration, and this has to do with the adoption of the language in new domains such as academics, medicine, governance and so on. The language to be adopted as the national language must have the potential to explain the abstract terms used in different fields.

Lastly, a national language should have the people’s acceptance. The government of a country must take the necessary steps to convince the citizens of the appropriateness of the choice made.

In conclusion, it can be added that, given the nativisation of the English language in Nigeria to reflect the sociocultural realities of the Nigerian peoples, as well as its development in terms of codification, the language may remain a succour in the face of the controversies that surround the choice of a national language in Nigeria. It must, however, be mentioned that, pending the time that the country will be ready for the national language debate, all ethnic groups in the country must ensure that their languages do not go into extinction by encouraging their offspring to speak the languages.

The government of Nigeria can also help protect the languages from going into extinction by implementing the policy of teaching pupils in the early primary school classes in the languages of their respective environment and also ensuring the policy of all students learning one or more indigenous languages in secondary schools.