It is 86 years since the Igbo literary works, Omenuko, written by Peter Nwana, and popular among Igbo pupils was published. There is nowhere you talk about teaching, learning and speaking of Igbo language without citing the book. In this chat with Daily Sun, Professor Iwu Ikwubuzo, Head, Department of Linguistics, African and Asian Studies, University of Lagos, whose work, 100 years of Literary Enterprises in Indigenous Nigerian Languages: Trends, Challenges And Prospects, featured in the Journal of the School of Languages (JOSOL), Adeyemi University of Education, Ondo, speaks about the book, alongside others written in Igbo Language. An authority on oral Igbo literature, he also shoots at why there are few novels in Igbo language, the declining use of the language on daily basis and its imminent endangerment and extinction.
With language contact of many Igbo children in foreign countries, what implication does this have in writing, speaking and the preservation of Igbo language?
Igbo language or language, generally, is the key to preservation of culture, because language is an aspect of the people’s culture. It occupies a prominent place when you talk about the people’s culture. Language is also a conveyor of culture itself, and expresses culture, and very vital in the life of a people.
The Diasporic children born in in foreign countries are, by my own definition, not limited to those born outside Nigeria: U.S, and other parts of the world but also includes those born outside Igbo land, like Lagos and elsewhere, who cannot express themselves orally in Igbo language. If a people cannot speak their language, that aspect of culture is lost. So it affects the preservation of the language. But, for me, and from experience, the problem we have observed with speaking of Igbo language is that it is not with those born outside Nigeria but also those born in Nigeria.
Igbo linguistics scholars have expressed concerns about Igbo language endangerment and extinction. What is your impression about these concerns?
The issue of language endangerment or extinction as it affects Igbo language is, indeed, a cause for serious concern, and the Igbo should take a decisive action on that, and not paying mere lip service to it. I have heard a lot of people condemn it, and advocate the speaking of the language by people of Igbo extraction. But, for me, what they do is pay mere lip service to it, because the people saying all these don’t live by example. If you have a child at home, and he doesn’t speak the language, the child is not to blame, rather the parents. So when a man says that Igbo language is dying or endangered, the man is the cause and architect of it. Is he not the cause by the reason of his failure to speak the language at home? I know about the United Nations, Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation’s (UNESCO’s) concern about it; that Igbo language may not survive the next century. It is not only Igbo language. There are other languages that are also in UNESCO list. But I am concerned with Igbo language.
The problem is with the Igbo family. Igbo language is supposed to be a medium of communication every day in every Igbo family, whether in Igbo homeland or in the Diaspora. It is the mother tongue and the first language, so they must speak it and write it. If parents fail to use it as a medium of communication, the children cannot speak it on their own. There are other socialising agencies but the family is the most important socialisation agency, and it is the duty of the family –parents –to make Igbo language their communicative tool at home. The only opportunity children have to speak or write Igbo language is with their parents at home. If they don’t speak the language to them at home, they cannot learn it in school, because, out there at school, they may not be taught the language. On the streets, they also may not be taught the language. When they get to school, the medium of instruction would be English language.
How equipped are our libraries with books on the teaching and writing of Igbo language?
Igbo language is studied at all levels of the institutions of learning: primary, secondary and tertiary. So, in tertiary institutions, for instance, Igbo language, over the years,is studied up to PhD. I had my PhD in Igbo language in the Department of Linguistics, African and Asian Studies, University of Lagos. The University of Nigeria, Nssuka, University of Ibadan and other universities in Nigeria study Igbo language up to PhD levels. So they can’t be doing this without having the materials. We have the materials depending on the kind of materials we are talking about; we have materials on culture, language, and literature written both in Igbo language and English. But if you are talking about those that are purely written in Igbo language, we also have them. For instance, we have Igbo literature referred to as Omenuko, which happens to be the first Igbo novel that was published in 1933. People quickly make reference to the literary works when they talk about books written in Igbo language 86 years ago. But, today, we have many novels written on various aspects of Igbo socio-cultural life.
The only thing is that, in terms of quantum, they cannot be compared with works written in English language. Again, that is because of the general apathy of a people towards the use of their language –Igbo. We would have had more works but people are conscious. Today, many people write for commercial reasons. When you write for commercial purpose, you look at the market first, and if the prospect is not there that when you write, spend money to publish, and you are likely to get your money back, some people are not encouraged.
How have we applied Igbo language as tool for socialisation and identity practices?
Igbo people are not doing well in the use of their language in public spaces. There is no doubt that we like to speak English more than Igbo language. It is more worrisome when you are talking to your fellow Igbo speaker in the language, and he would reply you in English language. I think that is a problem with an Igbo man. You cannot find it with other ethnic nationalities in Nigeria. Igbo people are very imitative. In their earliest contact with a Whiteman, that was his observation. If you read Professor Ernest Emenyeonu’s work, The Rise of the Igbo Novel, he captured a remark by a Whiteman about how Igbo despise their culture and language, and their readiness to speak to you in English language. But when you meet a Yoruba man, he would speak to you in Yoruba language. The same thing with a Hausa man, but it cannot be said of an Igbo man, even if he doesn’t know how to speak English language very well. So, Igbo have this tendency of saying that they can learn fast, and can also imitate.
Sometimes in their bid to imitate, they want to show that they can do it better than the original owners of the language. We are not proud of our own language. This is the bane of Igbo society: our antipathy towards our language. It is really bothersome, Asusu bu ejiri mara nde (language is the identity of a people).
What is the impact of the declining use of Igbo language in the media space?
In Nigeria, generally, we don’t seem to cherish what is ours. It is Nigerian’s attitude. We’ve been talking about Igbo language, but, if you interact with an average Yoruba person, he would tell you that same antipathy we talk about in Igbo language is also experienced in Yoruba language. Nigerians, generally, embrace what is foreign. We tend to like and admire what is foreign than what is ours. This foreign mentality appears we have surrendered to Western seduction.
What is Western appeal to us, and we try to show that we are more westernised than the westerners, and it is detrimental to our literary development because the country develops better when we use our languages. It has been proven that countries develop better in their indigenous languages and children do better at school if they are taught in mother tongue. So, this negative attitude towards our language affects us in several ways; people do not know this and it is something that should be discouraged. Have we really come up with anything indigenous technology, which can be explained in Nigerian languages? If the Japanese invent anything or builds automobile, their manual is written in their language, the same with Chinese and others.
Even though they are doing it for a larger market, they have their manuals in their language, and you want it to be interpreted; you have to look for people to do it for you. It borders on how we appreciate our own, or love our language. What I am saying is that government policy, and individual attitude towards the language; if it is zero, there is little or nothing, we can do. Government pays lip service to encouragement of our languages. For the three major languages that feature in the network of the Nigeria Television Authority, there is much government can do about encouraging our languages. Unfortunately, for any other programme in Igbo Language, you discover it is either sponsored or a slot created by an individual who would be going around, scouting for sponsorships.
What is the place of some parts of southern region who also speak Igbo? Is there anything like Central Igbo language in which authors use in writing?
What you are talking about belongs to what we call a standard variety of language and the dialects. We have varieties in Igbo land and that is where dialect comes in. What we call Central Igbo is what we refer to as the standard variety. It simple means that irrespective of your locality, or the community you come from, it is a variety of Igbo language, well-spoken that you would understand it, the next Igbo person would equally understand it. If you are from Ika, Agbor in Delta State, or Etche, or Ikwere in Rivers State, you would understand their language. That is what we call standard variety, and it is used in writing novels like Omenuko. Those novels written by Tony Umesie, Tagbo Nzeako and other writers were done in standard variety of Igbo language. It is also used for casting news. Besides, every community or locality has their dialects. Our position is that nobody is saying that you must speak the standard variety, but speak your own dialect; it is still a dialect of Igbo language.