WHY INDIGENOUS LANGUAGES MATTER

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Government must take concrete steps to protect indigenous languages by enforcing the national policy on education

As the world marks the 2018 International Mother Tongue Day, it is important for all stakeholders to pay attention to the growing extinction of many of our indigenous languages and the implication to the future of our country. It is all the more remarkable that this year, the day is being marked in the same week that the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) launches Igbo and Yoruba language services in Nigeria as part of an expansion in local languages aimed at more in-depth reporting of countries around the world. “It’s time for people to try to tell their own stories,” said Peter Okwoche of the BBC.

To the extent that languages are the most powerful instruments of preserving and developing both tangible and intangible heritage, according to the United Nations, “all moves to promote the dissemination of mother tongues will serve not only to encourage linguistic diversity and multilingual education but also to develop fuller awareness of linguistic and cultural traditions throughout the world and to inspire solidarity based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue”.

Incidentally, long before the intervention by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) on the promotion of indigenous languages, the federal government had shown concerns for the plight of Nigerian languages when it sought to encourage their teaching and learning in our schools under the national policy on education. Section 1 (8) of the policy emphasises that “the Federal Government shall take official interest in, and make policy pronouncements on the teaching of the indigenous languages, instead of concerning itself solely with English Language’’.

Accordingly, the policy stipulates that every pupil must in the course of primary school education study two languages, namely, his/her mother tongue, if available for study, or any other indigenous language of wider communication in his/her area of domicile alongside English Language. The policy also requires that students in Junior Secondary School (JSS), (which is of three-year duration) must study three languages, namely, mother tongue, if available for study, or an indigenous language of wider communication in his/her area of domicile, alongside one of the three major indigenous languages in the country, namely, Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba, provided the language chosen is distinct from the child’s mother tongue. In Senior Secondary School (SSS), which also lasts three years, a Nigerian child, according to the policy, must study two languages: an indigenous language and English Language.

As we have consistently reiterated, several studies have shown a relationship between level of development and language with the attendant result that those countries that use their indigenous languages, called mother tongue, as their lingual franca have a faster rate of development than those that use a second (foreign) language. However, many schools are unable to offer these indigenous languages because of lack of teachers, a cumulative effect of several years of indifference. Obviously, the policymakers were aware of this acute shortfall when they used the phrase “if available for study” in the policy. This optional nature of the policy undermines its implementation.

Since embedded in our indigenous languages is our rich culture, history, traditions, and values, government must take deliberate and concrete steps to protect them by enforcing the national policy on education with regard to learning and teaching of mother tongue. That must be the starting point because education is the base of the future of every society.

One of the ominous signs of danger today is the incremental loss of our rich arts forms, particular in music, dance and fashion as our youths have taken to the Western genre, threatening our cultural identity as African people. What critical stakeholders must therefore never forget is that as our indigenous languages face extinction, so are other aspects of our culture, including history, traditions and values.

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