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Dept. of Sociology

Nigeria has a language problem

Why are some Nigerian languages more popular than others?

Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo are the three most popular languages in the country. But there are more
Photo:  Mariano Sayno / husayno.com

Each of us is born with the barrier of language. From when we are neonates up until the time that we become toddlers who have learned to communicate with the language of the people around us, we interact with the gaggle of enthusiastic noises we make whenever we are excited or angry. Ethologists have grouped behaviour into two (learned and innate) based on the questions they answer: What causes behaviour? How did the behaviour evolve? How does behaviour develop? And what is the adaptive efficacy of the behaviour? To answer all four in regards to the communicative behaviour of language, we transition from Baby Gaggles to regular communication because those around us use that language. It evolves from constant listening and encouraged responses, imitations from those around us, and we learn the language because at some point no one would know what we want, neither would we know how to get it, if there weren’t a quotidian means of communicating our requests. From the answers given above, the theory that can be established is that language is a phenomenon that is learned. However, I also believe that there is a void found within all men — to communicate their thoughts to another, and so I will not entirely disagree that language is  an innate entity.

The Tower of Babel is famous for its explanation of the divisions that exist across race and tribe as regards to language and differences in culture and tradition. Africa is said to be the root of the Human-plant — the place of origins and perhaps the place where the allegory of Babel is based. Maybe this is why the African man is keen on the anchorage to culture. Language is one of the most potent instruments of culture and tradition, so powerful that it is the only natural way that we can reach into the depths of another’s mind and fetch from it. It is like the first post-apartheid president of South Africa Nelson Mandela 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, that goes to his heart.” Negotiating with a Nigerian trader in her language, for example, will increase the likelihood of getting a more beneficial deal. This goes further to say that the best map to the heart of the African man, is the broad yet narrow way of language.

For a long time, language has controlled how we speak, how we understand things, how we act around people and how we see the world in general. Since the constitution evolved from colonisation, the English Language has been Nigeria’s official language. Before adopting the language alongside independence, it had already twined its way into the hearts of Nigerians as the language of sophistication – people would act differently around a person who could speak English at even basic level. Today, this twine and endearment has extended to speaking polished English and building a gigantic house of English vocabulary.

Nigeria is one of the most language-populated countries in Africa with at least 500 languages spoken by peoples within its shores. Acceptance for humans is linked with similarity – and tribe or language acceptance in Nigeria is not an exception to this rule. I know that I have become fascinated by people just because they bear names that look like mine. Despite the horde of languages, it is easy to tell the tribe a person belongs to by the way they pronounce certain letters of the alphabet – mostly vowels. It can also get confusing as the same word could mean different things for different people from different tribes. For example, in Okrika language, aka translates to “teeth.” In Igbo, the word when pronounced in the same way, translates to “hand.” That is to say that what a man makes of reality can be traced down to the efficacy of language.

Hausa, Yoruba, and Igbo are the three “major” ethnic groups in Nigeria, and the languages indigenous to these ethnic groups are accepted as the major languages spoken in and by Nigerians. It is how abi, biko, and ba have tasseled the seams of Nigerian Pidgin and English. I would not have any problem with this major-minor division if I hadn’t studied compulsory Igbo language in my secondary school located in Southern Nigeria – despite the variety of languages famed with the people of Rivers State. The inherent colonisation of the National Policy of Languages (in Education) does no good with its pretend emphasis on mother tongue when it enforces a trilingual language literacy that borders on Igbo, Hausa and Yoruba alone. A portable solution to this would be thorough conservation of languages carried out by the promotion of languages learned at a school, to be the language belonging to the community where the school is situated. If I wanted to learn Yoruba, I should school in the West, if I wanted to learn Ijaw, I should school in an Ijaw locality, etc.

I grew up calling onion by its Hausa name. Until I was six or seven, I was unsure what the English name was — all I knew was that I hated seeing onion in my food and would shriek alabasa, as I flung each translucent svelte across the dining table. My father’s family grew up in the North so making exclamations in Hausa was not out of place. It is funny now because I can hardly speak or remember most of those words. Both of my grandfathers were in the army during the civil war. My paternal grandfather fought for the Nigerian military, and my maternal grandfather fought on the Biafran side. Although my mother’s family lived in the North for a while, it is not difficult to determine why they speak little Hausa but very much of Igbo. My father’s family, on the other hand, speak fluent and flawless Hausa, and with time I have come to hunger for connection to this part of my lineage.

When I was in Primary school, I composed songs in the Igbo language because my mother spoke Igbo. I remember running up to her a few times and requesting that she translate some sentences in English to Igbo for my songs. Sometimes she would – as parents are wont to get worn out by pleading toddlers. At other times, she would look at me with her jaws tightened so much that I feared she would cut her tongue, and then she would refuse, “Go and learn to speak Okrika first.” I would frown all through the afternoon, my composing book safely tucked under my arms, hoping that somehow, I would get a revelation for what the Igbo translation to my song was. My mother was right to have rebuked me to learn my language first, and I wish I had listened earlier. I can understand Okrika because my father made his mother speak nothing but Okrika to us while she lived with us. However, after he passed on, my grandmother left with the rest of the other family and the least of my problems was learning to speak my local dialect.

I spent the last two months of 2017 and the beginning of 2018 in Western Nigeria. This period left me with an unbelievable experience of culture shock. I am unsure if this was what birthed the pseudo-tribalism I would later convince myself to develop against Yoruba people, or because I felt and experienced that they could be ethnocentric to a point. My close and longest female friend, Olayinka is Yoruba and then my younger sister has chanted about marrying a Yoruba man ever since we were little girls and I had grown to see Yorubas from their eyes alone — but not long after I travelled to Western Nigeria, I remember arguing with a few people there about how Nigeria deserved to have a fourth dominant language because most of them did not even know my tribe or state in Nigeria (honestly). I remember convincing myself that if I had a representation from the South – just any language, then my people would be recognised and taken seriously. This sometimes makes me laugh — my hypocrisy, since I am anything but fluent in my mother tongue.

In 2018, Governor Akinwunmi Ambode declared that once a week, every program of activity, study, and guidance conducted in schools located in Lagos would be carried out in the Yoruba language. Although I felt that this was a lazy means to have non-Yorubas learn the language or putting them out of jobs gradually, I admire how the Yorubas pass down their language to their children. Yes, I still squeeze my nose whenever I am with a group of friends and two Yorubas separate themselves to converse in their language because I find it rude, but it is a better sin than what we commit here in the South by picking up any language but ours. When I teased my Igbo friend who grew up in Lagos about his inability to converse in Yoruba, he stared thoughtfully at me and revealed something I had been oblivious to. “A Yoruba man will live in your land for hundreds of years and not learn a single thing in your language, but would expect you to live a week in theirs and be able to converse in their language.” Even though I had spent three months in Western Nigeria and been reprimanded by some market women for being unable to converse fluently in Yoruba, I felt he was going a bit far with what I thought was his assumption about language. Later that year, this assumption would form the basis of a theory I developed after this Yoruba woman seated beside me in a bus to Lagos unabashedly confessed that she had been married to a man from Rivers state and had lived there for more than thirty years but could not say “come” in her husband’s language.

When I began writing stories, I had characters named in Igbo. Whenever I wrote a name in Ijaw, it sounded unsafe, like people would wonder how that name worked itself to the story. My protagonist would start as a determined Tonye, and midway lose all of his courage when he became Chuka or Tomi. As my writing improved, I felt that my use of these other languages watered down my message and my writing needed pizazz, so I went on to make up characters who were and spoke Hausa — I have always thought Hausa to be the most romantic language after Spanish. I know you might disagree because the language looks like you’re fighting in fast forward – but in its defence, have you ever heard someone confess love to another in Hausa?  – Divine!

So, why would I, who barely knows how to fully express myself in my native tongue and would rather admire those of others be concerned about what other tribes do with theirs? In Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Simila published in 1991, he touches on a subject he titled Ijaw Jaundice. I’ll spare you most of the details and run straight for the paragraph that caught my attention in this chapter. Ken says, “…Ijaw history and the topography of the delta has meant that the Ijaws live in city-states or in widely-spread communities. Their language or languages are mostly underdeveloped and are on the point of extinction.” In this paragraph, Ken asserts that the reason that the Ijaw language, despite being one of the “major” minor tribes is dying out, is because its people are scattered and even in the state they dwell compact, they are made to share with a bunch of other tribes thus hindering frequent use of the language. You will agree with me that in order for a language to be maintained and spread, one must have a person to converse in it with. If I was to master using a new word, I would need to converse frequently with it at first — to someone else other than myself. As Steven Pinker expresses in his book, The Language Instinct; “Once invented, language would entrench itself within a culture as parents taught their children and children imitated their parents. From cultures that had language, it would spread like wildfire to other, quieter cultures.” This is how languages are colonised, this is how languages unused go extinct.

While I disagree with the Yorubas that their language is the easiest to learn (can you keep count with all those words for greeting alone?), I agree that it is either languages here in the South are rocket science, or we have been very lazy making our children speak. I frown at my 20-year-old sister when my mother says something in Okrika, and she wears a bewildered look. I mirror her expression. How can you be 20 and not have figured this out? It is the same look plus a mix of horror that I wear when I see JAMB or NYSC website spell Okrika as “Okirika.”

The day I saw the Netflix original film Lion Heart, my siblings, a friend of my sister and I were sprawled before my laptop screen admiring the appreciation of Igbo culture when my mother screamed from the sitting room. On National TV, a short documentary on folktale in Okrika was being screened. It was a moment of triumph for me and all of us in the sitting room that day. I filmed the entire thing. It reminded me of the first time I put up my full name in Okrika, elaborately decorated with diacritics on Facebook; I remember many people from Okrika congratulating me for “embracing my heritage.” I wasn’t necessarily embracing my heritage as they had put it, I had just decided to put up my full name because I had gotten a new Okrika dictionary that helped with the diacritics – let’s say it was an exciting case of being able to do what most people couldn’t. I now try to insert Okrika into my everyday conversations like I did with Hausa when I was younger. Like how I say pasisi instead of, please. I have improved since I began this. Sometimes I say a full sentence in Okrika before I realise it. I know that with time minorities just like Nigeria’s major ethnic groups, will be bold enough to showcase their languages in everyday use and Nigerian literature. I admire how the Yorubas still express concern over their language dying out — even with it being the most vibrant language in West Africa. I wish that minor tribes would pick this lesson and not leave the responsibility entirely to the government. For now, I hope we perfect our tongues in our languages and pass it on to our children, with the prayer that they do the same with their children. ✚

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