A Race to Save Nigeria’s Threatened Native Languages

By Ben Edokpayi/Special To The African Times-USA

Senior Contributing Editor

On an Ethiopian Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Addis Ababa en route to the Seychelles Islands, passengers were welcomed aboard by the mellifluous voice of a hostess; first in the nation’s Amharic dialect, followed by English and Mandarin versions.

For some passengers, it was a strange sequence on vinyl.

However, for Charles Anyiam, Publisher of The African Times-USA, the announcement in Amharic, even though he does not understand the language, was a symbol of African pride, and for him, an Igbo, which is one of the major languages in his native Nigeria, that moment was empowering.

“Ethiopian Airlines remains my first choice when I plan my many Africa trips, not only because Ethiopian is a first-class airline but also because they promote the rich culture and language of one of Africa’s richest cultures,” said Anyiam.

However, in the Western hemisphere, it is unconscionable how often an ignominious undertone is painfully detected in how some persons reference this vitally important aspect of our culture – the African language. Among the guilty in this regard, surprisingly include most African immigrants who almost believe that it is infra dig to teach and communicate with their American or European-born children in their native language!

Back in the continent, the local languages have not been spared this ordeal, thus occasioning the imminent danger of extinction that many of the African languages are facing today. Before reaching this worrisome conclusion, I must single out the Black South Africans as an exception to this trend. They have to a large extent remained loyal to the ethos of their Zulu and Xhosa linguistic heritage. Right beside the South Africans are of course, the Ethiopians who live and breath Amharic. Worst in this saga is Nigeria, Africa’s largest country where most of its young population can only communicate effectively in English. And alongside them and complicit in this tragedy, are most Francophone and Afro-Portuguese African countries.

 In Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, Togo, Mali, Guinea Conakry, Cameroon, Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, Benin, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, among others, it is commonplace in many of the households, especially in the so-called middle and upper middle-class homes in the urban cities where local languages and dialects have unashamedly been substituted with either English, French, Portuguese or whatever European language that each of these country’s colonial masters spoke.       

Interestingly, I experienced the power of language first hand in 1988 when I found myself in the middle of a hijacking incident on board an Ethiopian Airlines flight traveling between Dubai and Lagos, Nigeria. The incident which lasted about six hours took place at the Ndjili Airport in Kinshasa, the capital of then Zaire, now DRC. And it had to take the brilliant diplomacy of the Ethiopian Ambassador conducted in Amharic to save all the Ethiopian Airlines passengers on board ET Flight 921 from the unscrupulous Zairean officials who unbeknownst to us had taken the side of the hijackers!   

As our flight finally continued to Lagos, one of the strange thoughts that crossed my mind was what would have become of us if the hijackers did not speak Amharic and had decided to blow up our plane or use their guns on us, somebody on the flight could have been the last speaker of his native tongue since the communications were delivered in Amharic.

A decade later, a friend’s academic endeavor at the University of California, Berkeley brought to the fore the important subject of Africa’s endangered languages.

Imelda Icheji Lawrence Udoh, a classmate from the University of Calabar, Cross River State of Nigeria and a Professor of Linguistics, at the University of Uyo, in Akwa Ibom State, also in Nigeria spent one academic session at the University of California, Berkeley developing orthography (documentation) for Legbo, a language spoken in a part of the Cross River State which was facing extinction. 

At the time of her orthography project at Berkeley, there were only 20 known speakers of the language alive. And although the number of speakers still remains about the same now, the problem is that the known speakers of Kiong (who are all over 50 years old) are not even speaking the language among themselves, according to Professor Udoh.

And that means their children have no knowledge of their parents’ indigenous language at all, which is also a problem faced by some of Nigeria’s more established languages because the parents are not

passing this legacy onto their children.

“The young people are not interested. They would rather learn French or German. I am not saying that this is wrong but we also have to focus on preserving the indigenous languages,” cautions Professor Udoh on the problem which Nigeria faces with passing on indigenous languages from one generation to the other.

In 2002, when Udoh began her project at UC Berkeley, only eight out of the 37 languages spoken in her part of the world had orthographies. The same is true for many languages in the Mambila region and other parts of the country. Other Nigerians should be worried as well because with the threat of extinction comes the erosion of the nation’s rich cultural heritage.

“When these elders die, their knowledge of this language will die with them and that will be the end of the Kiong language as we know it,” Udoh told me in Berkeley, California during her research, and the fact is that with a list of up to 400 words the current speakers of Kiong may not know up to 50 words for the purposes of reconstruction of the language.

In the long run, the “the danger is that people without a language have no roots,” cautions Udoh. This is why I believe a policy statement on national languages should be a priority, especially for the legislators from areas with a population that has threatened languages.

According to the Washington-based World Watch Institute, Nigeria is one of nine countries that account for more than half of all the languages in the World. At the last count, there were 7106 languages in the world, according to Ethnologue, a website that is a repository of information for the languages of the world. Some of the other countries with linguistically diverse populations are Australia, Brazil, Cameroon, India, Indonesia, Mexico, and Papua New Guinea.

Nigeria and Cameroon have over 700 of these languages between them. That is roughly 10 percent of the World’s languages.

In preparing to write this piece, I called Professor Imelda to find out whether the threat to Nigerian languages has grown worse or improved with a lost year of school which could have been fortuitous language-wise because, for the first time in modern history, children spent more time at home with family members because of the Coronavirus pandemic.

Unsure, Professor Udoh believes it is too early to gauge the effect but that the results will become clearer soon.

In April, this world-renowned linguist will convene a National Conference to revisit the problem of Nigeria’s endangered Languages, especially post-Covid-19.