Abidjan, Ivory Coast – When I arrived in Lagos from England at the age of ten, I remember listening intently to the Yoruba language – my father’s language. I will constantly repeat in my head or verbally repeat what I thought I heard. I was not always successful. What would come out of my mouth many times would make my friends laugh.
Yoruba is a tonal language. Some three-letter words that are pronounced incorrectly or with the accent on the wrong syllable can get you in a lot of trouble.
I owe a lot of thanks to the Canadian Catholic boarding school I attended in Ondo – St. Louis. Visited Joseph’s College. At the time, the high school was known for academic accuracy and discipline. But one thing I have greatly appreciated over the years was the compulsory learning of the Yoruba language in the first two years of a five-year study. While the mass was in Latin and English, the music additionally had a generous supply of uplifting Yoruba hymns backed by traditional drums.
Looking back, I owe my love for the Yoruba language to this cultural exposure.
This is one of the reasons why I never cease to be amazed at the linguistic snobbery of many upward mobile and not too upward mobile Nigerian and African elite when it comes to imparting knowledge of indigenous languages to their children.
In the case of my fellow Yoruba, it is not uncommon to be proud of how their children only speak English.
With an affected Yoruba-English accent indicating social class, it’s so that the comments tend to go – “Ehhh … so mo pe awon omo aiye isiyin, won o gbo Yoruba mo. Oyinbo nikan ni won gbo. ” Meaning “You must realize that the modern generation Yoruba no longer speak or understand. They only speak English.”
The comment is incidentally supposed to be an honor.
Languages are threatened for many reasons. While we focus on Nigeria, the same is true for almost all African countries.
Unprecedented urban mobility and migration, in which children grow up in places where the language of their parents is not widely spoken, or where it is no longer taught in the community.
2. Inter-ethnic marriages and relationships and an appeal to the official language of English or the more widely spoken Pigin English.
A technology-driven world dominated by less than a dozen global languages. Consequently, social media, TV and digital content, children’s programs, computer games, mobile applications and news content do not favor indigenous African languages.
4. Disruption of populations due to terrorism and ethnic conflicts.
5. Economic migration that ultimately leaves older and elderly speakers of a language in rural communities. Languages cannot live without child speakers. As such, while elderly rural speakers are dying out, the survival of some languages is simply impossible.
This is the dilemma faced by the Yoruba language and numerous other indigenous languages.
Language is all-encompassing. This is not just a way to communicate. It is also a repository of values, customs, culture and history. In short, language is the embodiment of who a nation is.
Therefore, the loss or erasure of a language is simply not the inability to speak in a way and way that is commonly understood. It is the loss of identity – linguistically, culturally, psychologically and historically.
I am delighted to see that indigenous Nigerian languages are woven into the fabric of numerous recent Nollywood films. This is a step in the right direction.
According to the ‘Atlas of Languages in Danger of Disappearing’, published by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), approximately 7,000 languages are spoken worldwide today. Half the world population speaks only eight of the most common. It is said that more than 3,000 languages are spoken by less than 10,000 people each.
So what can we do about linguistic genocide?
Do we fold our arms? Do we express fate? Accept the seemingly unstoppable clash of languages with the forces of ‘modernization’ and globalization? Or do we take stock, realize what’s at stake here, turn our adversity into opportunities, and add innovative value to the vast resources of language we possess?
We have no choice.
I offer 7 suggestions to get you started.
1. Policymakers need to go back to the drawing board and make compulsory language learning compulsory from kindergarten to high school.
2. Public advocacy and campaigns must be developed to attract family members and local communities to pass on the treasure of language to the younger generation. One of the dilemmas, however, is that many young and older adults today are linguistically challenged. As such, they themselves need teaching and learning. This is a business opportunity for developers of language programs or creative radio and TV programs.
3. Debates in Indigenous Languages: When I was growing up in Lagos, one of my favorite TV shows was the live broadcast of the National High School Debates. I can still hear the opening music ringing in my ears.
Here lies another opportunity. Policymakers, content producers, advertisers, and the private and public sectors can work together to create regionally based basic and high school debates in indigenous languages.
To motivate the younger generation, generous and unallocated awards can include academic scholarships, local and national media reports and opportunities to be met and honored by leading leaders in the public and private sectors.
4. Business incubation hubs: Technically savvy entrepreneurs have an unprecedented opportunity to create innovative indigenous language content, programs and platforms. There are many opportunities for policymakers and the private sector to support and distribute annual awards for the best digital content in indigenous languages, including children’s animation programs, computer games, TV shows, vlogs or podcasts.
5. Language schools: France, the United Kingdom, Switzerland and Germany have an abundance of schools offering short or long term language programs. The French language school Alliance Française, for example, is present in almost every African country. Some foreign language programs are engrossing. Others offer tourists or business people a basic knowledge about work. This is again an opportunity for Nigerians in the Diaspora and at home.
6. Policymakers must help create an environment that promotes learning and drives the demand for content and information in indigenous languages. We can certainly learn from countries such as Ethiopia, Somalia, Tanzania and to some extent Rwanda, which use indigenous languages in their respective parliaments.
Why should proficiency in several Nigerian or other African languages not be a desirable job competency? Why should important national messages not be simulated in entirely indigenous languages in order to reach the widest possible audience? Why is there a complete reliance on English or French in public communication, as is the case in many African countries?
7. To become linguistic ambassadors: Eventually, each of us can build up our own language skills and do so with exceptional pride. Too long we bought the false narrative that ‘local’ is bad and ‘Western’ sexy. Rather, learn to speak your language with pride. Listen carefully to how it is spoken properly. Learn new vocabulary words every week. Over time, you will be amazed at the progress you have made.
Every African language is a repository of history, culture and values. When a language dies, so do history, culture, values and the intuitive sense of who a people is, where they come from and wherever they go.
There is still time to save our languages and prevent cultural genocide. It starts with each of us.
Dr Victor Oladokun is a communications consultant and former director of communications at the African Development Bank