Death of Indigenous Languages


Failure of parents to expose their children early to native tongues is one of several factors responsible for the gradual extinction of indigenous languages in Nigeria

|  By Vincent Nzemeke  |  Sep. 16, 2013 @ 01:00 GMT

YOU cannot meet Ugochukwu Obi and not be impressed by his impeccable command of the English language. The 13 year old secondary school student would almost pass for a Briton or someone who has lived abroad for a long time every time he speaks. But in spite of proficiency with the English language, Ugo leaves much to desire when it comes to communicating in his mother tongue which is Igbo. He cannot make a simple sentence in Igbo language.

Like Obi, Damilola Akeju and Dimeji, his brother both secondary school students in Lagos communicate excellently in English language. But when it comes to speaking Yoruba, which is supposed to be their native language, they stutter and feel very uncomfortable.

Obi and the Akeju siblings are not alone. There are many young Nigerians who can communicate excellently in English language but find it difficult to speak Igbo, Yoruba and other indigenous languages. They give credence to the argument of language experts who have warned that Nigerian languages are going extinct because many people now prefer to speak English. Unlike what obtains in times past, many parents now force their children to speak English. The implication of this is that many of the children cannot or find it very hard to speak their native languages.

Nigerian students unwilling to learn local languages in schools
Nigerian students unwilling to learn local languages in schools

Esther Onyekwere, a parent, who lives with her children in Lagos, was recently embarrassed in Asaba, when she travelled with her children. The children became the butt of jokes from their contemporaries in the village because they could not speak the Igbo language. “I felt very embarrassed because all the other children were making fun of my own children who could not speak our native language. It is not their fault because they speak only English at home and in school,” Onyekwere said.

There are many factors that have contributed to the gradual extinction of indigenous languages. One of them is the inter-tribal marriages which have now become very common practice among Nigerians. For instance, Onyekwere whose children cannot speak Igbo, is married to an Idoma man from Benue state. She said the children cannot learn any of the languages because she and her husband only communicate in English language.

“My husband and I are from two different parts of the country. Our languages are different, so we can only communicate in English. That is why I don’t blame my children when they can’t speak any other language. We only communicate with them in English”.

Lydia and Joshua Idah are also another example of how inter-tribal marriage contributes to the extinction of local languages. Lydia is from Delta while her husband is from Edo. Their nine-year-old son only speaks English because that is the language of communication in their home.

But in spite of the challenge posed by inter-tribal marriage, experts still blame the progressive extinction of indigenous languages on parents and the love for western cultures. Godson Aweda, a lecturer at the Linguistics Department, University of Benin, said local languages are going extinct because parents are failing in their responsibilities of teaching their children how to speak. He added that the situation has gotten so bad that many parents now prefer to give their children English names instead of traditional ones.

“Inter-tribal marriage plays a role but we cannot deny the fact that parents have also failed in their responsibility of teaching their children how to speak their mother tongue. Even if the parents are from different parts of the country, one of them can make it a point of duty to ensure that the child speaks at least one indigenous language.”

English has now become the official language in many homes
English has now become the official language in many homes

Corroborating this, Akachi Ezeigbo, a former head of the department of English at the University of Lagos, blamed Nigerian parents for failing to introduce their children to the mother tongue at an early age.  “Our indigenous languages are dying and I hold parents responsible for this. Parents make the error of thinking that if they expose a child to English, instead of his native language, he would learn well. But this is not true. The child will grow up being neither competent in the mother tongue nor in English language.”

Ezeigbo also blamed ‘cultural imperialists’ for leading a campaign to label everything European as good and acceptable, while anything African is portrayed as bad and unacceptable. She said that early exposure to Nigerian languages will help improve a child’s cognitive development. Using her own children’s performances in the West African School Certificate Examination as an illustration, she notes that children have a better chance of learning other languages if they are exposed to the mother tongue early enough. “I believe so much in children speaking the mother tongue. It helps them to master any other language. It is easier for children to speak all languages when you expose them to the mother tongue at the age of three. More importantly, it helps them to improve in their academic work.”

The situation seems worsened by the fact that the ministries of education, which are in a position to enforce the propagation of the languages, are not serious about doing so. This is evident in a recent policy of the federal ministry of education, which makes the study of at least one of Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo languages optional in the Senior Secondary School, as against the initial regime that made it compulsory.

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