Today, the question of preserving and encouraging our indigenous languages continues to dominate discourse around the globe, particularly here in Nigeria.
Imagine what will happen if the 6,000 different languages spoken by the over 7.3billion world population is being replaced by a single global language. This, it may be argued, means unhindered and effortless communication with each other, and elimination of the often problematic and labourious task of translation.
On the other hand, come to think of the richness and choices that the diversities apparent in multilingualism bring to the world. This is why it is deeply worrying that the world, including Nigeria, may in the near future lose many of its languages and with it, the unique diversities embedded in such languages.
But sadly, the signals oozing from the underbelly of what is often referred to as mother tongue are not encouraging, neither is it reassuming. At a National Language Policy discussions in Abuja, some years ago, Professor Munzali Jubrin, a former Executive Secretary of the Nigeria Universities Commission, NUC, gave a grim assessment of the fate of the world’s 6,000 languages, including Nigeria, which has over 250 languages. According to him, “there are fears that Nigerian languages may be abandoned by the end of the next century as a result of the onslaught of the English Language, if drastic measures are not taken to preserve and promote them’’.
Munzali, who is a professor of linguistics, added that one of the measures to be taken to preserve and promote our indigenous languages from extinction is for the Federal government to “declare all Nigerian languages as national treasures that should be developed, preserved and promoted in order to determine the true linguistic basis for its development”.
And since it is agreed that language diversity is our common heritage and its loss impoverishes humanity, it would be a tragedy if about half of the 6,000 languages spoken around the world today are extinct by the end of the century. Worldwide, however, it is believed that only four languages, namely Mandarin Chinese, English, Spanish and Arabic could be up and running beyond the 21st Century.
Another disturbing situation is that speakers of Mandarin Chinese, English, Hindi, Spanish and Russian, account for 45percent of the world’s total population. But there is even a more worrying dimension to the language crisis. The fact that the top 100 languages of the world are spoken by 95percent of the world’s peoples, leaving the remaining 5percent of the global population with nearly 6, ooo languages, some with as few as 100 speakers, means putting such languages in very perilous state. As soon as the last speakers die, the languages go with them too. Sadly, ending a heritage that may have endured for thousands of years, and this truly is a frightening situation most languages find themselves in today.
In Nigeria, for example, the country needs to take more interest in its languages. And part of our strength as a nation is in our diversity, which in large part has to do with the over 250 languages we speak. Some of them, especially minority languages, have however, over the years been more endangered than the bigger ones.
Fewer and fewer people are speaking some of these minority languages, owing to many factors and forces. It is true that English is relentless in its effort to win and retain more speakers of smaller languages and in the process drastically reducing the number of speakers of such minority languages.
Another culprit, beside the big languages, is rapid urbanisation. As more and more people move from the increasingly drab rural areas to the congested cities, it seems some of the migrants may also be leaving behind their native languages as well. It is also why children born in cities are less likely to speak their mother tongues than those in the villages, indicating that while urbanism is a sign of progress, it has its drawbacks, in this case, the decimation of smaller languages.
While, there is no doubt, multilingualism, a strong national language could help promote greater understanding among various ethnic groups in society. It is equally important to stress that the mother tongue should be one of the languages one ought to learn to speak. After all, it is said that charity begins at home.
Therefore the solution to the language crisis is to ensure that none of the country’s vulnerable languages die, aside the urgent need for a comprehensive National Language Policy, which should include the compulsory teaching of the mother tongue alongside English Language in primary schools and as teaching subjects in secondary schools.
This will give local languages a head-start and a primacy they rightly deserve in our educational system and the development process in general.
There is also the need to establish a National Language Commission to be charged with the task of among others, the identification, study, development, promotion and preservation of all the country’s languages.
Surely, our languages ought to attract even more serious attention by having a body tasked with the objective of keeping alive such an invaluable aspect of who we are as different nationalities with unique features, including languages, within one nation.
In short, preserving and promoting all the country’s languages is a very important obligation we owe our present and future generations, since languages are at the centre of man’s evolving civilisations. As the international statesman and the first black president of post-apartheid South Africa, Nelson Mandela once aptly put it, “if you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, it goes to his heart”. In other words, nothing is as sweetly beneficial and enduring, as the mother tongue, no matter who you are.