The Sun News

How native languages help children’s development, by experts

• ‘Every child can speak up to 20 languages, yet many parents make their kids speak only English’ 

Cosmas Omegoh

Many parents are doing their children great harm by limiting them to speaking English rather than allowing them learn some indigenous languages.

This disclosure was made recently as the world marked this year’s edition of International Mother Language Day.

Experts declared that every child has amazing capacity to speak as many as 20 languages and be fluent in each, and thus urged parents to encourage their kids to form their worldview by speaking their native languages.  

Two dons, Dr. Bright Chigozie Nnabuihe of the University of Lagos and Prof. Ayo Ojebode of the University of Ibadan, in separate discussions, underscored the need for language revival among Nigerians. Both men lamented Nigerians’ penchant for relegating their mother tongue to the backburner in preference for English language, which they claimed was injurious to the future of children.  

According to Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia, a mother tongue is a “first language, native language or mother/father tongue (also known as arterial language) that a person has been exposed to from birth or within the critical period. In some countries, the term native language or mother tongue refers to the language of one’s ethnic group rather than one’s first language. 

“Children brought up speaking more than one language can have more than one native language, and be bilingual or multilingual.  By contrast, a second language is any language that one speaks other than one’s first language.”

Nnabuihe, an associate professor of Igbo language, added that “mother tongue is the foremost identity God gives every individual to help them see and observe the world around them – to see things ranging from the visible to the invisible and to name them. Mother tongue is given to help us see the world from where we are domiciled and to help us shape our worldview.”

On his part, Ojebode who teaches applied communication at the nation’s premier university, told Daily Sun that “mother tongue is the language of the immediate environment, which a child acquires naturally while growing up. If you want to develop a child’s cognitive ability, you encourage him to reason in his mother tongue.

“According to a recent study, every child has this ability to acquire about 20 languages from birth and be fluent in each one of them. Therefore, limiting a child to speaking and reasoning in English language – as most parents often do nowadays – is akin to short-changing them. That means that such children might not be able to realise close to 25 per cent of their full potential.”

He urged parents to encourage their children and wards to embrace as many languages as possible, particularly the indigenous languages spoken around them, emphasising that everyone had the capacity to acquire as many as possible.

“We have over the years seen parents discouraging their children from speaking their native languages. Those who do that simply impose certain limitations on their children. It is a severe damage parents do to their children without knowing it.

“It needs to be said that there are a lot of things that are easier said and explained to children in mother tongue than any other language. For instance, it has been proven that speaking in a native language improves children’s moral and intellectual development.”

He explained that, these days, the ability of children to speak in their native languages has been found to increase their chances of bonding with their people and even securing jobs.

“In some instances, one’s ability to speak a native language can facilitate their chances of being employed. Lagos State government, for instance, has taken a step in that direction by ensuring that people get admitted into its tertiary institutions on condition that they have credit passes in Yoruba. It, therefore, might not surprise anyone if other states begin to take a cue from what the Lagos State government has started. 

“Recently, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) launched its Yoruba, Igbo and Pidgin English services. It follows that it is only those who can speak those languages fluently that will be offered the jobs.

“It doesn’t stop there. Recently, a friend of mine was offered a job in faraway Germany on condition that he spoke Yoruba language fluently. That was a job he could have lost if he were not fluent in Yoruba before going abroad.

“Even in The Netherlands, we have learnt, it might be difficult for anyone to be offered a job now if they don’t speak Dutch. Not even when one is married to a Dutch citizen. So, as it is, they are zealously promoting their language. And this is happening at a time when we in Nigeria are trying to discard our own native languages. So, parents who are preventing their kids from speaking their native languages are robbing them of their future. There is no better way to put it,” he said.

Over the years, there has been the growing fear that some indigenous languages might go into extinction, if urgent steps were not taken to safeguard them. This is happening on the sidelines of many people’s increasing insatiable appetite to speak and reason in English language.

Although Nnabuihe admitted that some Nigerian languages might be at risk, he dismissed the idea that some of them, especially the major ones, were at the verge of extinction, describing such insinuations as alarmist.

“Nigeria has over 400 indigenous languages. For sure, some of them might suffer extinction, but not the major ones.

“If a language is spoken by a mere 500 persons, one can definitely say that such language is gravely at risk and might die with time. Any language spoken by 5,000 persons is still vibrant, though at risk, but not a language spoken by 10,000 indigenous persons and above. That can hardly die.

“Admittedly, the younger ones are the future of every language. And it’s not a good sign that they don’t speak their native languages. But the health and longevity of any language are mainly measured by how many people speak such language in the homeland and not in the Diaspora.

“Take Igbo language, for instance. An alarm was raised sometime ago that it might go extinct and that might not be long. But the truth remains that if any language is spoken by at least 50,000 people in the homeland, the fear that such a language might die is absolutely unfounded.”

Beyond the fear of extinction, he reiterated that if a language was generally accepted as a foremost symbol of identity of a people, there was the need for everyone, particularly its speakers, to join hands in promoting it.

“People should often speak their native languages to themselves and their children. They should use it as a language of commerce, instruction and worship. They should use it at their town hall meetings; they should use it in everything they do and never neglect it.”

Ojebode enjoined every Nigerian to accept the challenge of promoting their native languages, recalling that there were people who have attained great heights but still hold on tenaciously to their languages.

“Nobel laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka, is one of such persons. Here is a man who has attained great heights in life but still speaks Yoruba with relish. He has not jettisoned the language as some people often like to do.

“We should all note that, if a child speaks Ijaw language, for instance, there is no proof that it will affect his chances of learning and doing well in English language or any other thing he does. Rather, that will enhance their learning capacity,” he said.

As part of governmental efforts to improve the study of Yoruba language, the Lagos State government had recently signed the Yoruba Language Protection and Preservation Bill into law.

Nnabuihe praised the law even when critics have faulted a part of its provision, which shuts out applicants without at least credit passes in Yoruba language from gaining admission into the state government-owned tertiary institutions, thereby appearing discriminatory.

The don went on to recall that, in the days of Asiwaju Bola Tinubu as governor of Lagos State, Prof. Ohiri Aniche, a former lecturer in Unilag, had suggested to his administration to adopt Yoruba language every Wednesday in parliamentary debate and that was accepted. He expressed delight that Governor Akinwunmi Ambode had taken the language promotion idea one notch upwards.

 He called on public-spirited Nigerians to endow a chair for the study and promotion of native languages, particularly Igbo, in various tertiary institutions across the country and called for scholarship awards to be given to students and individuals studying and promoting native languages. He expressed worry that a young man who recently graduated with a First Class in Igbo language from Unilag – the first in 50 years – could not be given any prize as there was none to give him.

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