First things first, I wish the readership in Nigeria Happy Independence Day. I hope no one said “Happy Independent” or “Happy Independent Day”. No day is dependent on another, so other days are as independent as the Day of Independence or the Independence Day. Moving on, at 63 years of existence, Nigeria should expectedly have developed in all areas; not leaving out the topic of its official language or national language.
The controversy around whether or not English should serve and/or remain as the country’s official language is, in my opinion, a fruitless one. In addition to English being the official language, the indigenous languages can play their roles in several other capacities such as serving as the languages of early school education and the alternative languages during legislative sittings. The major challenge facing the Nigerian indigenous languages at the moment is not the official status of the English language in the country but the attitude of many Nigerians toward these indigenous languages.
With the exception of many Northern Nigerians, in how many western and eastern homes are Yoruba and Igbo spoken as the languages of the home, especially among the elite? It appears like a double standard to desire relevance for our languages at the national level, as official languages, when we do not even use them as the languages of the home. Language plays more roles in informal and unofficial settings. If each tribe speaking the over 600 Nigerian languages deploys these languages as the languages of the home, they will attain the relevance and popularity we crave for them even with English still functioning as the official language. The first submission in this piece is, therefore, that Nigerians need a better attitudinal disposition towards their indigenous languages. This must precede the question of whether or not they can replace the English language as the official language of the country.
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Another challenge affecting the prominence of indigenous languages in Nigeria is the non-implementation of the National Policy on Education. Note that section 20(d) of this policy states that, “The medium of instruction in the primary school shall be the language of immediate environment for the first three years in monolingual communities. During this period, English shall be taught as a subject.” Unless the government is deliberate about the implementation of this policy, it is not likely that the fate of the indigenous languages in Nigeria will change.
Sadly, Nigeria is one country where more laws are created even when earlier ones have not been implemented. It was reported on the Daily Trust news of December 9, 2022, that the former Minister of Education, Mallam Adamu Adamu, while addressing reporters after a meeting of the Federal Executive Council, said that the mother tongue would be used exclusively for the first six years of education, adding that it would be combined with the English language from Junior Secondary School. This, matter-of-factly, is laughable given that these languages are not even used in the early years of schooling as contained in the NPE for years. Therefore, the government must be serious about the implementation of policies concerning the use of indigenous languages.
Away from the controversy and reality of the indigenous languages, some scholars have proposed the use of Nigerian Pidgin, now called Naija, as an alternative to English as the official language in Nigeria. In the argument of Dr Bode Ekundayo, one of the leading scholars arguing for the use of Naija as the official language in Nigeria, “What Pidgin truly lacks is uniformity of orthography, not the lack of it. At any rate, even English orthographies are not uniform worldwide. So, this should not prevent its being made our national language.” Other scholars such as Professor Mahfouz Adedimeji have opined that the argument in favour of Naija as Nigeria’s official language is a mere academic exercise, given the circumstances surrounding Naija as a language or dialect. In my opinion, beyond the problem of orthography and other linguistic issues, Naija is liable to all the challenges faced by the English language as the official language in Nigeria.
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It is, therefore, my position that rather than contemplating the replacement of the English language as the official language of the country, efforts can be intensified at codifying Nigerian English which has been sufficiently nativised, indigenised and domesticated to reflect the Nigerian socio-cultural reality. As noted by Ogunsiji (2007), many words and expressions that are outside the repertoire of the users of English as a mother tongue or first language are identified in the speeches of Nigerians. Some of such words are extra tyre, put to bed (for childbirth), go slow (for traffic jam), chewing stick, and branch (as a verb). Another such contextually appropriate expression is “big mummy/big daddy” in place of “aunt/uncle” for one’s parent’s elder sibling. This is to establish that Nigerian English can, in itself, be called a Nigerian language given the level of indiginisation that this variety of English has been subjected to.
In conclusion, wishes are not horses, so beggars cannot ride. Indigenous Nigerian languages will not grow except the government, academics and Nigerians as a whole play their roles in the promotion of the languages. With the inclusion of 25 Nigerian English words which include “chop-chop”, “mama put”, “tokunbo” and “danfo” in the Online Oxford Dictionary in 2020, it is clear that the native owners of English are even more committed to consolidating the English language in Nigeria than Nigerians are determined to grow their indigenous languages. In the wake of this, it is all hands on deck to raise the status of Nigerian languages to the stage where they can maximally collaborate with the English language.