ODIMEGWU ONWUMERE investigates UNESCO's projection that Nigeria will experience a decline in the number of spoken languages by 2025. The piece explores the accuracy of the forecast while highlighting the significance of preserving people's cultural heritage and traditions embedded in their native tongue
Nigeria is a nation with a plethora of tongues, encompassing an approximate range of 350 to 550 regional or native dialects dispersed among its nearly 250 ethnic communities.
Those who are in the know say these dialects, whether they are considered significant or not, are linked through diverse vernaculars. According to Ethnologue, an annual record on worldwide languages, Nigeria possesses about 517 separate dialects, but a significant portion of these have become extinct.
The UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger determined that outside influences such as military, financial, spiritual, cultural, or educational demands can lead to a community's unfavorable view of their native language or an overall decrease in collective identity, ultimately leading to the extinction of a language.
As an example, parents may choose to raise their children in languages other than their mother tongue, with the intention of combating discrimination, achieving equal chances, and gaining financial advantages for themselves and their offspring.
Notwithstanding, professionals describe an "endangered language" as a language that is in danger of becoming obsolete as its speakers pass away or switch to using another language.
As an instance, the Igbolanguage is losing its status as the preferred means of communication for numerous Igbo individuals. The incidence of endangered languages is progressively on the rise worldwide, said language specialists.
Another illustration, many Nigerian children, particularly in urban areas, only communicate in English.
Additionally, speaking in local dialects or vernacular is prohibited in some households across the nation, and traditional facial markings have disappeared in certain regions.
Experts are anxious that even the Yoruba culture, which involves a junior lying flat on the ground to greet an elder, has become extinct, like a people without identity.
"Identity is closely linked to language. It has the ability to convey culture, which means that when someone loses their language, their culture is at risk.
“Across the globe, individuals use their language for both personal and professional communication.
“In Nigeria, many ethnic groups hold their native language in high regard," according to research conducted by academics from the Federal University of Technology and Federal Polytechnic Nekede in Owerri.
Worried by that, UNESCOcautioned Nigeria about the potential loss of its cultural heritage due to the trafficking of cultural artifacts.
The warning was reissued almost ten years ago, specifically on July 8, 2014, when Mr. Ayanwale Olayanju, the then UNESCO National Programme Officer on Culture, expressed concern in Abuja about the decreasing value of Nigerian culture.
"In the meantime, it has been reported that UNESCO predicted in 2006 that the Igbo dialect, which is spoken by more than 20 million people in South-East Nigeria, may become extinct within the next 50 years," said the report.
Dahunsi Akinyemi, a language instructor and the author of "Ede Yoruba ko Gbodo Ku" (Yoruba Language Must Not Die), expressed concern in 2017 that the Yoruba language may become extinct in 20 years or less.
He lamented that many Yoruba children are unable to pronounce "Mo je jeun'" (I want to eat) in their native language, likewise many children in the northern Nigeria who would prefer Arabic for Hausa.
Concerned by this issue, investigations have revealed that the local dialects are predominantly affected, and educators are exacerbating the situation in areas where students who comprehend the same dialect are in the majority.
The outcome of that was contained in reports from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation, as well as the opinions of language experts and linguists, saying, “Approximately 29 less spoken languages in Nigeria have vanished, and 29 others are on the brink of extinction.
“Additionally, the three major languagesof Nigeria, namely Yoruba, Igbo, and Ishekiri, are also facing the threat of endangerment.”
Checks showed that educators enter classrooms and commence lessons in the English language. Experts indicate that students in junior secondary schools situated in Igbo-speaking regions are among the many young individuals in Nigeria and worldwide who are studying a language that UNESCO proclaimed would become extinct by 2025.
In 2013, EmmanuelAsonye, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of New Mexico, cited that the expression of its speakers and the corruption of the dialect were jeopardizing the language.
According to reports, some of Nigeria's "vulnerable" languages, which are spoken by many children but limited to certain domains, include Bade, Gera, Reshe, and Polci cluster, and Duguza languages, which are "definitely endangered" because children no longer learn them as their mother tongue at home.
Sources say the 1999Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria does not address the issue of national languages. However, Section 55 stipulates that the National Assembly's proceedings should be conducted in English, as well as in Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba, when appropriate arrangements have been made.
Nevertheless, this was not happening as legislative transactions in the National Assembly are still primarily conducted in English.
According to data: "Critically" endangered languages in Nigeria are those where the youngest speakers are grandparents or older, and they only speak the languages partially and infrequently.
These languages include Akum, Bakpinka, Defaka, Dulbu, Gyem, Ilue, Jilbe, Kiong, Kudu-Camo, Luri, Mvanip, Sambe, Somyev, and Yangkam.
As stated in the 2013 Journal of the Linguistic Association of Nigeria, "It is a reality that Igbo individuals recognize that they display a pessimistic demeanor towards their dialect.
“This encompasses both the literate and illiterate community. It is actually paradoxical that those who refute UNESCO's forecast are among those who lack the ability to comprehend or inscribe Igbo - those who have not contributed to any scholarly works on Igbo language - those who confidently but unknowingly mutilate both Igbo and English language in their verbal and written communication."
In a comparable situation, Ohiri-Aniche, a commentator, cautioned that even though Igbo andYoruba, two out of three major Nigerian languages, have numerous adult speakers, they are classified as endangered languages in UNESCO's list.
It continued that in approximately 50 to 75 years, or two to three generations, the majority of Nigerian languages will be extinct and lost forever.
However, linguists who are concerned have criticized the attitude of Ndigbo, mainly, towards their language, supporting the implementation of a community-based strategy to conserve, revitalize, and advance the mother tongue.
They also suggest encouraging young people to converse, interpret, and compose in the language to prevent it from becoming extinct by 2025.
During the 2020 Umunri Colloquium on "Community-based Approach to Promoting and Sustaining Igbo Language" held in Enugwu Ukwu, Anambra State, the keynote speaker, Professor Ngozi Chuma-Udeh, highlighted that the indigenous language is among the languages that are highly endangered globally.
A Professor of African and Comparative Studies at ChukwuemekaOdumegwu-Ojukwu University, Igbariam, Anambra State, emphasized the importance of language in preserving cultural identity. He stated that when the majority of young people in a community stop speaking their native language, the language quickly deteriorates.
“A language's demise results in the loss of valuable knowledge and intrinsic components of the spoken word, such as idiophones. Additionally, oral literature, songs, history, and culture are all lost. The people's identity and way of life are embedded in their language, making it the repository of their identity,” the source said.
Chuma-Udeh stated that “many native communities across the globe have consciously or unconsciously caused the loss of their cultural identity by disrupting the natural process of transmitting their traditional languages to future generations.
“This is due to the pursuit of modernization, which has led to some self-centered motives such as adopting the colonizer's language as the official language after gaining independence.
“Consequently, the majority of indigenous languages are now at risk of extinction, experiencing a widespread phenomenon referred to as "linguicide."
Every language reflects a distinct worldview with its own value systems, philosophies, and distinctive cultural elements, according to UNESCO.
A language's extinction results in the irreparableloss of the distinctive cultural information that has been preserved in it for ages. This includes information that may be crucial for the survival of not only its speakers but also countless others, such as historical, spiritual, and ecological knowledge.
Specialists therefore suggest that the Nigerian constitution must include extra measures to safeguard the survival and growth of indigenous languages in order to cater to the political, economic, social, scientific, and technological requirements of the nation.
Odimegwu Onwumere is Director, Advocacy Network on Religious and Cultural Coexistence (ANORACC). He contributed this piece via: [email protected]