Growing up in Lagos, I was surrounded
by people who only spoke English to me.
From the teachers at school to my friends’ parents during parties and sleepovers, there was an assortment of perfect speakers of the English Language to ensure that I spoke the best English possible, and speak it I did. But I am one of the few people whose parents hardly ever spoke English to them. At home, we were spoken to in our native Igbo Language.
One summer afternoon, having come back home after lessons, my mum asked me in Igbo: “Nda ihe mereiji i zaghi ulo tupu g’apuwa?” (“What made you not
sweep the house before you went out?”), “I forgot mum. I’m sorry.” I replied
in English. My dad looked at me and asked, “O ji beke juo gi ajuju ahu?” (“Did
she ask that question in English?”) I could not and did not give any reply.
It may seem dramatic to say but, my
dream of attending Queens College died that day and I ended up being sent to a
Federal school in Eastern Nigeria to enable me learn the Igbo Language. And that I did.I am one of the few who can speak their native language as well as the official English Language. A great number of young people in Nigeria don’t understand their native Nigerian language and a greater number can’t speak it.
The streets are flooded with people who don’t know what Local Government Areas their villages fall under let alone how to get to their villages. These are those who are called the, ‘My Mama Say I From’, because all they know about their native language and people, is the information their parents gave to them.
The number of individual languages listed for Nigeria is 526. Of these, 519 are living and seven are extinct (no longer has any speakers, especially if the language has no living descendants).* Languages can die gradually, which is probably the most natural way for it to happen, but many times there are outside influences involving the struggles of a minority community against the majority society in which they live.
The death of a language can start in the home when the language isn’t taught to the children, or it can start in some area as high up as the government or aristocracy.
Probably the most common cause of language death is when a community that previously only spoke one language begins to speak one or multiple languages. The community first becomes bilingual, not discarding their native tongue, but gradually, they begin to use
the new language more and more, until their native language is no longer used.
Sounds a lot like what’s happening in Nigeria right? Different people have
blamed different factors for this death of the ‘mother tongue’ in Nigeria. Some people believe that colonialism is to blame; it was the beginning of our loss of
a number of things, which made us special, way before the internet came along.
They may not be wrong about its contribution to the state of things, but we are the ones who adopted the Western ways to such an extent that we are losing our own ways. Whatever the reasons that have led to the gradual death of our different native languages, it is ultimately on us to keep the remaining 519 living languages alive.
- Stats provided by Ethnologue: Languages of the world.