Twenty-nine minor Nigerian languages have become extinct, while another 29 minor languages are in danger of extinction. Three major Nigerian languages, Yoruba, Igbo and Ishekiri, are also endangered, according to studies by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), and views expressed by language teachers, and linguists.
In 2006, UNESCO reportedly predicted the Igbo language spoken in the south-eastern Nigeria by over 20 million people may become extinct in the next 50 years. In 2017, Dahunsi Akinyemi, a language teacher and author of Ede Yoruba ko Gbodo Ku (Yoruba Language Must Not Die), posited that the Yoruba language could die out in 20 years or less, lamenting that many Yoruba children cannot pronouce ‘Mo je jeun’ (I want to eat) in their mother tongue. A study by Oti (2014) points to the extinction of Ishekiri language in the next 50 years, while the Linguistic Association of Nigeria (LAN) reporteddly said, unless proactive steps were taken, more than 50 minority languages in the country might become extinct in a few years.
The nine local languages that have become extinct, as listed by National Council for Arts and Culture (NCAC), are Ajawa, spoken in present-day Bauchi; Basa-Gumna of Niger State; Auyokawa used to be spoken in Jigawa State; Gamo-Ningi, a Kainji dialect in Bauchi State; Homa of Adamawa State; Kubi of Bauchi State; Kpati, formerly spoken in Taraba State; Odut used to be spoken in the Odukpani area of Cross River State; and Teshenawa, formerly spoken in Jigawa State.
Roger Blench in Atlas of Nigerian Languages, 2012, listed 12 languages (including two in the NCAC’s list) as extinct. These are Ashaganna; Fali of Baissa spoken by a few individuals on the Falinga Plateau in southern Taraba State; Shirawa; Auyokawa; Kpati; Taura; Bassa-Kontagora, only 10 speakers of Bassa-Kontagora were alive in 1987; Lufu; Ajanci, a north Bauchi language; Akpondu had no competent speakers in 1987; Buta-Ningi, an East Kainji language, had no remaining speakers in 1990; and Holma, which had only four aged speakers in 1987.
At least 29 local languages in Nigeria are endangered, according to the UNESCO Interactive Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, which tracks all world languages based on five criteria: safe, vulnerable, definetely endangered, severely endagered, critically endagered, and extinct.
Nigeria’s ‘Vulnerable’ langauge spoken by most children, but restricted to certain domains are Bade, Reshe, Gera, and Reshe language. ‘Definitely endangered,’ children no longer learn the language as mother tongue in the home, are Polci cluster, and Duguza language. ‘Critically endangered’ languages in Nigeria that the youngest speakers are grandparents and older, and they speak the language partially and infrequently are Akum, Bakpinka, Defaka, Dulbu, Gyem, Ilue, Jilbe, Kiong, Kudu-Camo, Luri, Mvanip, Sambe, Somyev, and Yangkam languages.
‘Severely endangered’ languages that are spoken by grandparents and older generations, and while the parent generation may understand it, they do not speak it to children or among themselves, include Gurdu-Mbaaru, Fyem, Geji cluster, Gura, Gurdu-Mbaaru, Hya, Kona,Ndunda and Ngwaba.
Nigeria is multilingual, though the exact number of local or indigenous languages spread over its about 250 ethnic groups is not known, but it is variously estimated at between 350 and 550. Nigeria has major and minor languages, intertwined by dialects. According to Ethnologue, an annual publication on the world’s languages, 517 different languages are spoken in Nigeria. Nigeria’s multilingual diversity reflects in the heterogeneity of the languages spoken in most of the states, as only a few states such as Kano, Anambra, Imo, Oyo, Osun and Ekiti are predominantly monolingual.
Hausa, lgbo and Yoruba are the three major languages spoken predominantly in the North, South-East, and South-West, respectively. Other major languages are Fulani/Fulfulde, Kanuri, Efik/lbibio, Tiv, ljaw, Edo, Ishekiri, Urhobo, Idoma, Igala, Isoko, Fulani, and Ekweres. Each of the major languages has distinctive dialects. Yoruba dialects include Ijesa, Ijebu, Egba, Awori, Ekiti, Ondo, Akoko, Ikale, Owo, and Oyo. The Igbo have an extreme dialect diversity, ranging from the central/standard Igbo (Igbo Izugbe), to other forms, Owerri (Isuama), Umuahia (Ohuhu), Awka, Anambra, Onicha, Udi, Nsukka, Orlu, and phereipheral Igboland dialects such as Ikwerre, Izzi-Ezza-Ikwo and Ika and Ukuanni.
Apart from these major languages, there are three other languages widely spoken in Nigeria. These are English, Arabic and Pidgin. Christians may also wish to add a spiritual language, Speaking in Tongues, a fad in Pentecostal churches. English was a leftover of British colonialism. Arabic was spread, particularly in the North, through the Usman Dan Fodio jihad of the 19th Century. Pidgin is neither a local nor foreign language but emerged as an adulteration of English language by native speakers, while ‘speaking in tongues’ is imported from the spirit realm!
English language majorly spoken throughout the South has achieved predominance as Nigeria’s official national language. The relatively higher rate of illiteracy in the North has, however, hindered the onslaught of the English language, as Hausa is still widely spoken in rural and urban communities, expect the multilingual Sabon Gari areas. Many homes in Nigeria, particularly in the South, are English-speaking. In almost all urban homes in the South, children and adults don’t greet themselves in the native tongue. ‘Good morning’ has replaced ‘E kaaro’ (Yoruba), ‘Ina Kwana’ (Hausa) and ‘Ututu oma’ (Igbo).
It is ridiculous that most new-generation Yoruba children, particualy those in urban areas, cannot phonetically pronounce their Yoruba names or states of origin correctly. Asking such children to speak the local dialect is stretching a joke too far.
English language has its own advantages. Apart from being a global language, it is also unifying in a multilingual culture. However, no serious people or nation relegates its mother tongue in preference for a foreign language. Oti (2014) listed causes of local language regression in Nigeria to include mixed linguistic ecology of urban towns, forcing residents of different linguistic background to speak a common language such as Pidgin or English, and inter-lingual marriage, forcing parents to speak a common language, rather than indigenous languages, to their children.
The future of Nigerian local languages lies with the speakers. There is an option of selling our language birthright for a mess of English pottage in the manner of biblical Esau. There is the second option of reviving it and preserving its heritage. If parents refuse to speak their native languages to their children, of course, the next generation will not speak it to their offspring, leading to extinction of these local languages within the next two to three generations
As Uzochukwu (2001) submitted, we cannot achieve economic prosperity and technological breakthrough in a foreign language. What is the way forward towards reclaining local languages in the lingusitic space? Language planning is critical in national development, but Nigeria does not have a language policy, 70 years after independence from English-speaking British colonialists. Surprisingly, the issue is not topically discussed by restructuring advocates, as language is a sensitive issue in Nigeria, perhaps, second to religion. None of the ethnic groups wishes to play second fiddle to the other, particularly in these times that some ethnic minorities are decrying what is rightly or wrongly termed the ‘Fulanisation’ of Nigeria due to the activities of Fulani cattle herdsmen.
The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999, is silent on national langauges, but prescribes in Section 55 that the business of the National Assembly shall be conducted in English, as well as in Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba, when adequate arrangements have been made thereof. However, legislative bussinness is still conducted mainly in English in the National Assembly, and hoping the proposed N37 billion contract for the ‘renovation’ of the complex provides for interpretation/translation facilities and services, to enable conduct of legislative business, occasionally, in the mother tongue.
Some state’s House of Assembly in the South-West, Ogun, Ekiti, Ondo, and Oyo, are reporteddly conducting legislative business on fixed days in Yoruba, while the House of Assembly in northern states like Kano, Kebbi, Sokoto, Katsina, Jigawa, Zamfara, Kaduna, Niger and Plateau conducts sessions mostly in Hausa. Other federal and state public institutionns should emulate this step.
The National Policy on Education, 2013, states: “Every child shall be taught in the mother tongue or the language of the immediate community for the first four years of basic education. In addition, it is expected that every child shall learn at least one Nigerian language.”
This provision remains largely unimplemented as most creche and elementary schools discourage the speaking of local languages (scornfully termed ‘vernacular’). As a matter of fact, most pupils in Nigeria get punished for speakinng their native tongue within the school premises.
Nigerian pupils are good at speaking English as a sign of literacy and academic status, though failure in English subject in examinations is commonplace. Ironically, despite speaking English from birth, the proficiency of admission-seeking Nigerians is not valued by native English-speaking tertiary institutions in the United Kingdom, Europe, Canada and America, as Nigerians are requested to seat and pass various English proficiency exams like IELTS and TOEFL, as criteria for admission.
Parents should wake up to the challenge by communicating often with their children in the local language; children should be introduced to local languages from the creche; school administrators should realise that the prohibition on speaking ‘vernacular’ languages in school is really borne of inferiority complex and a relic of colonialism; teaching of local languages in primary and secondary schools should be reemphasised; credits in a local language should a prerequisite for tertiary school admission, in addition to credit in English; social clubs and age groups should have more language days; the Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilisation (CBAAC) should update the orthographies of Nigeria’s indigenous languages to enhance their written forms; and short stories and other folk tales that could make people fall in love with the local language should be written in local language.
It is heartening that there are local languages such as Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo, Ibibio, and Arabic in the West Africa Examination Council (WAEC) syllabus. More languages should be included, and human capacity trained to teach the learners.
On its part, the Federal Government should update Nigeria’s language topography and document its nuances; it should also convene a national summit on the future of Nigeria’s local languages to map out strategies of saving them from extinction.
•Babalobi, [email protected], +234 8035 897435, is a doctorate researcher, Department of Health, University of Bath, UK