Nigeria boasts over 500 indigenous languages, and one wonders if this gigantic linguistic heterogeneity is a blessing or a curse to the country. Put straightforwardly, multilingualism will always be a tool for national development in the hands of those who can deploy it prudently.
Countries of the world are clearly polarised into developed and underdeveloped countries, and the long inclusion of Nigeria in the latter category has somewhat created the impression that no good comes with our linguistic might. As observed by Adegbite (2004), it is very rare to see scholars relate issues of development to language since the latter is seen purely as no more than an instrument of communication.
But the link between language and development is more fundamental than that. In line with this observation, this piece will address the multilingual situation in Nigeria and suggest ways by which Nigerian multilingualism can serve as strength in the quest to become a developed country.
One challenge that comes with the utilisation of the Nigerian multilingual situation for national development is linguistic hegemony. Scholars have explained linguistic hegemony as a feature that associates national identity, unity and education with a few languages of dominant groups.
This hegemonic tendency plays out in two major ways which are the eminent status of the English language and the dominance of three ethnic languages among over 500 languages. These two categories of skewed prevalence have been institutionalised for political and educational purposes.
Undoubtedly, the role of the English language is significant for the coordination of independently existing nations lumped together for colonial exploits. However, after 109 years of amalgamation, the sister nations that constitute Nigeria ought to have devised other instruments of unification and peaceful co-existence besides English. This is because of the several other issues surrounding the use of the English language as the Nigerian official language.
First, as observed by Adegbite (2004), English is seen as an elitist status symbol which the leaders have used as a means of exclusion and exploitation of the masses. When one considers the population of Nigerians who cannot speak English, it becomes easy to ascertain the percentage of the country’s population that has been excluded from active participation in politics and governance.
While the role of English remains significant, especially as the window through which Nigerians access the world, it has been argued that English does not have to dominate other languages so considerably and be so prominent as the language of education.
Further, it has been argued that the dominance of English has resulted in the overdependence of African countries on foreign support, even for basic products that any country should be able to manufacture and use. There is also linguistic imperialism where the Nigerian languages appear inadequate, and parents would rather speak English with their children. These challenges have incapacitated the Nigerian indigenous languages from being instrumental in national development. The question, at this point, is: where do we go from here?
It should be mentioned that language is the only road to thinking, which makes human living possible and also makes the pooling together of individual capacities (of human beings) for social development become inevitable (Afolayan 1994; Adegbite 2004).
Das Gupta (1968) affirmed that the successful new nation will be that whose leaders acquire the political art of holding diverse units together in a national community. The multilingual strength of Nigeria will bring about national development if the country will consider two levels of governance, which are the local government level and the federal level, as has been proposed by some scholars.
While the local government level will cater for local (intra-ethnic) community interests, the federal level will link all local governments together in a federation. Sofunke (1990) opined that with this arrangement, the state level, with its cumbersome and expensive political paraphernalia, will be avoided, and the federal government may find it convenient to have some administrative, rather than political, centres to coordinate official activities between the nation and the local governments. This arrangement will be a two-way benefit for the country.
On the one hand, it will ensure better and stronger grassroots involvement in governance and will likewise make room for traditional ingenuity which will boost transformation from the grassroots level. I must add that this will also make for the growth of the Nigerian indigenous languages in terms of speakership.
On top of that, such political reform will definitely foster economic advantage as societies will have an increased morale to dig into their resources for natural endowments that can be traded or exchanged for other values. This reform should equally mitigate low literacy level and language-related ethnic conflicts which have been listed among factors affecting a country’s gross domestic product (GDP).
In the area of education, the policy that students should be taught in only their mother tongues in the first three years of schooling (which is even not properly implemented) has been described as rather unfortunate given the benefits of mother tongues, as listed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
The elaboration of indigenous languages and assignment of higher roles to mother tongues in education in African nations will have a positive impact on national development by improving the quality of education, reducing illiteracy, increasing policy awareness in public programmes and, thus, encouraging mass participation in public affairs (Adegbite 2004).
In conclusion, it must be mentioned that the process of utilising indigenous languages for national development will prove expensive considering the huge cost of graphisation, standardisation and modernisation of languages, development of materials and teacher training.
Nevertheless, the numerous benefits of such investment will outweigh the cost, as evidenced by the political stability and economic prosperity of countries that utilise their indigenous languages such as China.