• Wednesday, February 28, 2024
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The natural law of languages: Use it—or lose it (1)


Those who complain that their language is dying must be reminded of the simple natural law that governs languages, in which also is embedded the remedy: Use it—or lose it.

If present trends continue, by the year 2150 the nation or nations occupying the geographic space now called Nigeria will be run by native-born professionals and technocrats who cannot read, write or speak any of the indigenous languages of the region.

Experts inform us that children may grow up speaking five or more languages if exposed to them in their early years. In the current Nigerian social environment this could break down as follows: First, the mother-tongue—the language the mother was born into and speaks regularly to her children from infancy (if the father’s tongue is different we may add it as a variant). Second, the language of the locality in which the family reside, e.g. Yorubas residing in Efik/Ibibioland, Igbos in Itsekiriland, Ijaws in Tiviland, Binis in Idomaland. Third, the language used in classroom instruction, e.g. English. Fourth, languages taught in school, e.g. French. Fifth, the language spoken by the nanny or maid.

Circumstances vary, and so may the combinations. But the bottom-line is that a child immersed in a multi-lingual environment may learn to understand and speak and eventually read and write a multiple of those languages with the same ease and pleasure as the native speakers.

Present-day Nigeria is precisely such a multi-lingual environment. Why then has a generation emerged that can barely understand their mother-tongue, cannot at all understand the language of the locality, and is incapable of speaking, reading or writing any of the indigenous languages?

Back in the 1940s and 50s some secondary schools prohibited pupils from speaking any indigenous languages (derisively called “vernacular”) within school premises, certainly not in the classroom. This backward policy was rationalized on the grounds that young people had to suspend the process of acquiring one language (their mother-tongue or language of the locality) to enable them learn another (English, the foreign but official language of education, government and commerce). But this was a mistaken notion; and there is no evidence that youngsters who continued to acquire sophistication in their mother-tongue were any slower in mastering English.

Now, 70 years later and 50 years after independence, Nigerian schools, now including even primary schools, have continued to enforce the same ignorant and backward policy. They have even added a new twist to their argument: that in a school with children from differing linguistic backgrounds, it is rude to speak in a language which some children will not understand. Therefore, rather than allow the children to casually pick up, absorb and learn one another’s language from their natural interactions, all the children are equally uprooted, linguistically deprived, and forcibly imprisoned in English.

It is like the proverbial basket of crabs from which no crab can crawl out and escape because the others will grab its legs and pull it back.

The situation is so absurd it would be comical if it weren’t so tragic.

Conquest and colonization can so traumatize the psyche and  disorient the mind that not only individuals but an entire nation can no longer tell right from left nor forward from backward.

It used to be that in order to counter these school language restrictions, some enlightened parents enforced a family policy of “nothing but mother-tongue at home.” You may speak what you like or are required to speak outside, but once inside the sacred precinct of home you must speak the mother-tongue (and, as needed, the language of the locality). It worked wonders. This is how some of Nigeria’s preeminent wazobians (multi-linguals) were created.

Such enlightenment is all too rare these days. What you find instead is “all-English” families—even among the best educated who ought to know better.

BUT—all is not lost! All you who missed the boat with your children, get up and get on the job with your grandchildren!! You may have missed one generation, or even two; but with a clear understanding of the task to be done, you can get it started and it will eventually be done!

National pride and practical necessity should now motivate us to a concerted effort to reclaim that multi-lingual legacy. A plausible ECOWAS-wide language conservation and acquisition program could run as follows:

From early childhood until their children are 18 or so, mothers and fathers must speak their native tongue to their children as a matter of routine, and insist that the children do the same. Mother-tongue must be every child’s first language. No excuse is acceptable for failure to carry out this critical parental duty.

In nursery and early primary school, classroom instruction should be in the mother-tongue (or the indigenous language of the locality), and if possible in English and French as well.

In upper primary and throughout secondary school, instruction should be in English AND French, accompanied by assiduous study of at least one major indigenous language.

Educational policies of the entire ECOWAS region should include the teaching and acquisition of fluency in understanding, speaking, reading and writing of both English and French equally. In other words, every child and every educated adult in West Africa should be equally fluent in English and French. The resulting easier communication will facilitate good neighborliness and cooperation for economic development of the entire region.

To be continued

Onwuchekwa Jemie