By Josfyn Uba, Christine Onwuachumba and Bianca Iboma
Ifeoma Okoye, 15, is the first child in a middle class family of four. She hails from Mbano in Imo State but was born in Lagos. Her parents, Okey and Favour, met and got married in Lagos.
While her parents visit home occasionally, Ifeoma and her siblings have never been to their village. Apart from Ifeoma’s younger brother, Chidi, who understands Igbo slightly, none of them can speak their dialect.
Although, their parents usually talk to themselves in their native dialect but they hardly speak it to their children. They all understand and speak English and Yoruba fluently. For their father, Ifeoma and her siblings will pick up Igbo language as they grow up.
Two years ago, an incident happened between Ifeoma and her friend in school. Chijioke, her friend, teased and abused her thoroughly in Igbo language but she didn’t understand a single word of it.
According to her, the boy made fun of her and everyone around laughed at her while she just wondered why the others were so amused. Since she could not understand all that Chijioke said, she only laughed it off.
However, she later understood what had hit her. In anger and shame, poor Ifeoma resolved to learn her native Igbo language. Today, not only does she speak, she writes and communicates very well in Igbo. Ifeoma is just one out of the million Nigerian children who do not understand their languages.
Parents are fond of communicating with their children in English but when discussing between themselves, they do so in their local dialects, thus unwittingly shutting their children away from imbibing their local languages. It has also become popular to see illiterate parents forcing themselves to speak English language to the kids at home.
Even grandparents, who should help pass on the culture of retaining our local dialects also speak English to these kids. Unfortunately, much as these kids appear fluent in English language, their results in English language are usually nothing to cheer about. It is almost becoming a fad to see young people proudly telling their friends that they neither speak nor understand their mother tongue.
Based on this worrisome situation, the Bayelsa State Government vowed to restore the Ijaw dialects from going into extinction. The state recently mobilised teachers to various schools through the Ministry of Culture and Ijaw National Affairs headed by Dr. Felix Tuodolor, to embark on a process of developing curriculum for the teaching of Ijaw.
There is grave concern over the rapidly shrinking wealth of local languages and dialects in the world. The situation prompted the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), to dedicate a special day for their preservation. In fact, UNESCO has factored the use of indigenous mother languages into the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
The idea is to ensure the use of local languages in the teaching of children to enable them gain a solid grounding in vernacular before embracing the orthodox lanugages of instruction at higher levels. February 28 is declared annually as the World Mother Tongue Day since 1962 for nationalities to communicate and express themselves in their mother tongues. Although, it only started in Africa with its celebration in 2000
This year’s International Mother Language Day, which fell on February 21, was a huge reminder that many Nigerian languages and dialects are among hundreds of mother tongues on the verge of extinction.
How do we lose our languages?
Languages go extinct when they fall out of use and there are few people alive who can speak them. This takes place when the act of transferring these languages from one generation to another weakens or no longer takes place because the people have turned to the use of a foreign or non-native language.
Certain factors such as migration, urbanisation, Westernisation and globalisation are responsible for the erosion of our local languages. A people that cannot sustain their identity and roots are not a proud Nation. Sadly, one can only find a pocket of young people in urban cities who fluently speak their local languages and dialects.
While English language is our second language just like many other countries of the world, such foreign countries like Russia, China and Iran have made conscious efforts and deliberately evolved a culture to sustain their native languages. South Africa now has nine official languages, and most South Africans speak more than one of these languages. It is a product of deliberate effort to maintain their National identity
According to the UNESCO Director General, Irina Bukova, the use of our mother tongue will not only further our integration but will strengthen our national identity.
The Ooni of Ife, Oba Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi, had also at this year’s Mother Tongue Day celebration in Ile-Ife, Osun State, advised Yoruba to prevent their mother tongue from going into extinction by using it as a means of communication at homes, schools and other places. He lamented a situation where derivative languages are prioritized over the mother-language of which, he said can only be detrimental and counter-productive.
Even if, Nigeria was colonised by Britain, which of course, bequeathed the use of English language to us, should we struggle to speak and understand our mother tongue?
Daily Sun sought to know who is to blame between the father and mother.
Oba Momodu Afolabi Asafa, Onijanikin of Ijanikin Kingdom
“There is an alarming rate of children who cannot speak their mother tongue and it is so sad. Parents are allowing our tradition and values to fade away. It is not only in the area of dialect. Every African value and tradition is fading away. English language has gained more prominence in both official and private circles in the nation today.
“People are not able to achieve fluency when they speak their mother tongue. They prefer communicating with English to their children. This preference by parents is a major cause of children’s inability to express themselves in their local languages. Also, the act is exposing the indigenous languages to extinction. English is our official language to communicate generally but the mother tongue should be part of the training a child should get from his parents. Parents now pay lip service to our cultural values and this will spell doom for the future of the next five generations.
“Most children born in the city cannot even utter a word from their mother tongue. The educated elite in our mist prefer their children to be trained in foreign languages even go a distant mile in paying heavily for them to speak this foreign languages such as Spanish, French. Our indigenous mother tongue is our identity, English language is for colonial masters.
“The school is to blame because of the harsh conditions placed on the children. It is punishable for these children to communicate in their mother tongue and they make them pay fines. This has really discouraged the children from learning because the interest is not there.
“Mother tongue is termed vernacular. The parents should be blamed if their children cannot speak their native dialect not just the wife of the man. They must clear the air for the children and build interest for them to express and communicate confidently in their mother tongue.”
Victoria Uche Ayozie, parent
“Basically, communication starts from when a child is a toddler. At this stage, a mother opens her mind to understand in details what the toddler wants. A mother equally speaks to the toddler and she understands. If children cannot speak their mother tongue, it is the woman’s fault.
“Although, there are many factors responsible for children not speaking their mother tongue, the parents should also encourage the children by supporting them and pay teachers to teach foreign languages They see it as a thing of pride when they speak foreign languages.
“My husband is from Abia State and I am from Delta. It has been so difficult for me to teach my children Igbo language because I cannot really speak my husband’s dialect. I communicate with them in my mother’s tongue but they are not fluent. They can also speak Yoruba but it is a challenge for them to speak mine let alone, their father’s dialect.”
Jubril Musa, author
“Parents are to blame. Globalisation is the bane of our culture and tradition. The influence of western education and culture, inter-tribal and cross marriages are the major causes of these problems too. When the couple are from different tribes and they do not understand each other’s language, what happens? Confusion sets in. The children are left in a confused state.
“English language becomes the only way to communicate in such a family but even at that. I think parents should make deliberate efforts to speak their languages to their children. It doesn’t cost anything, instead, it adds more value and more beneficial when the children can speak more than one language because their parents are from different places. They should start with the basic things like greetings and identifying objects.”
Prof. Anthony Gozie Anwukah, Minister of State for Education
“Our societal and cultural value is gradually fading away due to civilization of which the mother tongue is one essential aspect of our culture. Education is complete when morals, norms, customs and value are sustained.
“Given the way things are going now, with our local languages, if it is not addressed seriously, the next five generations would not be able to speak the indigenous languages of Nigeria. An old man who dies is a library on its own because we can’t get people to preserve the culture. How many children can chant eulogies in their mother tongues?
“I know that presently, the secondary school curriculum has become over burdened due to technology. The educational system has to meet with the pressure of technology to give these children qualitative education, but our mother tongue should not be ignored at the expense of modern technology. The schools are ready to use modern facilities available to impact knowledge. Why can’t parents play their role of teaching children their mother tongue?
“It is not the schools’ responsibilities to teach children their mother tongue. Schools should only assist in teaching them. If a child cannot express herself in her mother tongue, then the parents are to be blamed. It is not only a woman who teaches the children the native dialect. When a family sits together, they should communicate in their mother tongue.
“If parents can pay for these children to learn foreign languages, why can’t they adopt the same method to help develop their children? They can actually get people that communicate in their mother tongue to teach these children with little fees, if we must strike a balance between academics and our norms. The parents too should understand that it is their role to teach their children how to communicate in their mother tongue.”
Washington Uba, artist
“Both parents should be blamed for the inability of their kids to speak their language irrespective of the fact that it is called mother tongue. Simple reason being that both parents have a role to play in the cultural upbringing of their children. UNESCO research has warned that if nothing is done about sustaining indigenous languages, by the end of this century, humanity would lose half of the 6,000 plus languages. For me, when this eventually happens, it will be a colossal loss for everyone.”
Dr. Stephen Ailkabeli, lecturer, Mass Comm Dept., Moshood Abiola Polytechnic, Abeokuta, Ogun State.
“If children cannot speak their native dialect the mother should be blamed. Although the major cause a child cannot speak her mother tongue is bicultural issues, a phenomenon that is fast becoming the order of the day.
“Cross cultural marriages poised threat to our native dialect. Love and culture clash. Children have mixed heritage and very difficult communicating with them in native dialect when both parents speak English language to each other. Except on a rare occasion when a wife decides to learn and speak her husband’s mother tongue.
“It is complicated to marry someone out side your own culture. Marriage comes with a lot of responsibilities but bi-cultural marriage is much more challenging. Nigeria is a place where bi-cultural marriages are common but language to be spoken at home remained a source of material conflicts in the family. Some families settle for a common means to communicate basically in English language, others don’t reach any agreement which usually result to conflicts in the home.
“Most women in exogamous marriages speak their mother tongue to the kids and some men may not like it. Except the man does not have issues with it but I tell you it is grievous to most men. Parents in bi-cultural language should teach the children both languages, but the way it is right now, if it persists, only a few languages would be safe from extinction threat.”
Diepreye Dokubo, teacher
“We were told that language is important in the identity of a people. It gives them voice while it helps sustain their culture and tradition. But today, it appears not so anymore because of various factors.
“Unfortunately, these days, you find people in some self acclaimed high brow schools and elitist environments making fun of the few who speak their dialects. The phenomenon of copying everything foreign has eaten deep into the fabric of our great nation. I also think that both parents should be blamed for this because they are responsible for the total welfare of the child. They should make conscious efforts to speak their language at home.”