Twenty-nine Nigerian minor languages had become extinct, while another 29 minor languages are in danger of extinction. Three Nigeria’s major languages – Yoruba, Igbo, and Ishekiri – are also endangered, according to studies by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation and views expressed by language teachers and linguists.
In 2006, UNESCO reportedly predicted the Igbo language, spoken in 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 pronounce “Mo fe 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 reportedly 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 had become extinct as listed by National Council for Arts and Culture 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 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 had only four aged speakers in 1987.
About 29 local languages in Nigeria are endangered, according to UNESCO Interactive Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, that tracks all world languages based on five criteria: safe, vulnerable, definitely endangered, severely endangered, critically endangered and extinct.
Nigeria’s “Vulnerable” language spoken by most children, but restricted to certain domains are Bade, Reshe, Gera and Reshe. Definitely endangered, that is children no longer learn the language as mother tongue in the home, are Polci cluster and Duguza. “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.
“Severely” endangered language that are spoken by grandparents and older generations, 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 language.
Nigeria is multilingual though the exact number of local or indigenous languages spread over its about 250 ethnic groups is not known, but 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 few states such as Kano, Anambra, Imo, Oyo, Osun and Ekiti are predominantly monolingual.
Hausa, lgbo, 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 Ekwere. Each of the major languages have distinctive dialects: Yoruba dialects include Ijesa, Ijebu, Egba, Awori, Ekiti, Ondo, Akoko, Ikale, Owo, and Oyo. The Igbos have an extreme dialect diversity ranging from the central/standard Igbo (Igbo Izugbe) to other forms: Owerri (Isuama), Umuahia (Ohuhu) dialects, Awka, Anambra, Onicha, Udi, Nsukka, Orlu and peripheral Igboland dialects such as Ikwerre Izzi-Ezaa-Ikwo, Ika and Ukuanni.
Apart from these major local 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 left-over 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, except the multilingual Sabogari 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 in Yoruba, Ina Kwana in Hausa, and Ututu oma in Igbo. It is ridiculous that most new generation Yoruba children, particular those in urban areas, cannot phonetically pronounce their Yoruba names or states of origin correctly. Asking new generation 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 marriages forcing parents to speak a common language rather than indigenous languages to their children.
The future of Nigeria local languages lies with the speakers. There is an option of selling our language birth right 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 foreign language. What is the way forward towards reclaiming local languages in the linguistic 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. Surprising 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 a second fiddle to the other, particularly at 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 languages, but prescribes in section 55 that the business of the National Assembly shall be conducted in English as well as in Hausa, Ibo and Yoruba when adequate arrangements have been made thereof. However, legislative business 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 businesses, occasionally, in the mother tongue.
Some State Houses of Assembly in the South West: Ogun, Ekiti, Ondo and Oyo, are reportedly conducting legislative businesses on fixed days in Yoruba languages, while several Northern states like Kano, Kebbi, Sokoto, Katsina, Jigawa, Zamfara, Kaduna, Niger and Plateau Houses of Assembly conduct business sessions mostly in Hausa. Other Federal and State public institutions 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, most school pupils in Nigeria get punished for speaking their native tongue within school premises.
Nigerian school pupils are good in speaking English as a sign of literacy and academic status, though failure in English subject in examinations is commonplace. Ironically, despite speaking English from the womb of their mothers, the proficiency of admission seeking Nigerians is not valued by native English speaking tertiary institutions in United Kingdom, Europe, Canada and America as Nigerians are requested to seat and pass various English proficiency qualifying 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 placed 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 admissions in addition to credit in English; Social clubs and ages groups should have more language days; the Centre for Blacks and African Arts and Civilisation should update the orthographies Nigerian indigenous languages to enhance their written forms; and short stories and other stories from moonlight that could make people fall 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 West Africa Examination Council syllabus, additional 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 writes from [email protected]. +234 8035 897435 is a Doctorate Researcher, Department of Health, University of Bath, UK.