FEBRUARY 21 of every year has been set aside by the UNESCO as the International Day for Mother Language, otherwise known as Mother Tongue Day. It is a day set aside for us to remind ourselves of the importance of our indigenous languages.
The annual commemoration serves as a gentle reminder that without our indigenous language, we risk becoming a stranger to ourselves.
As a school teacher in Lagos state, I once asked my students if anyone could name the various ethnic groups that make up Nigeria. One of them, James Green stood up before anyone else could. And with a sense of pride, he reeled out Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba, leaving out about 200 others. He was greeted with cheers from his mates.
And with a sense of fulfillment, he sat and waited to be crowned with all the ‘welldones’, congratulations and other complimentary remarks which are wont to accompany every brilliant answer by a student. But this was not to be; rather, to my utmost surprise, my next comment, and a simple follow up question, completely unsettled the 14-year old SS 1 student.
The question was: “To which ethnic group do you belong, James?”
And he became frozen for some seconds, stared at me, googled his eyes in bewilderment clearly written all over his face, and confessed with a tone laden with defeat “I don’t know sir” Just imagine that!
James belongs to the Okrika ethnic group in Rivers state, but sadly enough, he didnt even know that. He only understands and speaks English as his mother tongue. Even his name — James Green — contributes in no small measure distancing his little mind from his cultural identity. His parents, of course,
failed to transmit to him, a clear cultural and linguistic identity, and that is a fastest way to kill a culture. More than seven Nigerian Languages have already been certified dead and with them a repository of knowledge in medicine and history.
Dr. Crystal Davies, a language conservationist puts it more clearly, Languages often hold the only record of a people’s history, including their songs, stories, and ancient traditions. In particular, many indigenous cultures contain a wealth of information about the local environment and its floral and faunal resources, based upon thousands of years of close interaction,
experience, and problem-solving. With the extinction of a language, therefore, mankind also loses access to local understanding of plants, animals, and ecosystems, some of which have important medicinal values, and many of which remain undocumented by science. Thus, the survival of threatened languages, and the indigenous knowledge contained within, is an important aspect of maintaining biological diversity.
If the predictions by the Living Tongue Institute of Languages that “Languages are now becoming extinct faster than birds, mammals, fishes or plants; and, out of the estimated 7,000 unique languages spoken in the world today, nearly half are likely to disappear this century, with an average of one lost every two weeks” is anything to go by; then it is most likely that in less than 30 years from now, some major Nigerian languages, if not sustained, could also become extinct.
This is a disheartening possibility for anyone who cares about our indigenous languages, the history and the unrecorded knowledge embedded in them.
There is a major reason why everyone should be concerned. This is in a new study by the Living Tongue Institute of Languages which shows that already about 6 Nigerian languages in Bauchi state alone have already gone into extinction and with them, their repositories of knowledge and history of the people.
Bauchi state in North East Nigeria is home to the once famous Yankari games reserve. It is also the home to over 60 ethnic groups, which most people, out of convenience or demographic laziness, continue to lump together as Hausa-Fulani. Before the Jihad of 1804 and the subsequent conquest of that area, it was and is still populated by the Hausa, the Fulani Ajawa, the Gamo-Ningi, the Kubi and Mawa, Lere, Shau and Ziriya, among others which include: Bure, Bole, Daza and Deno in Darazo Local Government Area. There is also the Dugiri, Dass, Giiwo who are found in Alkaleri Local Government Area and so on.
These tribes flourished in their uniqueness, preserving their heritage, tradition, knowledge of medicine, folklore and their God given distinctiveness which were all embedded in their languages. They were part of the colours of the cultural rainbow with which the creator decorated the world. But the coming of the Jihadists, followed closely by the colonialists, changed all these.
In a shortest time, the Hausa language became the language of commerce and administration, followed closely by the English language, which sought to upstage the Hausa as an official language. At the receiving end of this dual linguistic onslaught however, were the indigenous ethnic nationalities of the Bauchi area. Unfortunately, the indigenes themselves took things for granted.
Like James Green’s parents, they became a willing accomplice by failing to pass on to their children their linguistic heritage, and soon, Hausa gradually replaced their indigenous languages, not just at the regional level, but also at the family level, and, like a terminal disease, their second language ate away their mother tongue, with subtle but devastating effects.
The values which bore much weight in their original tongue were lost, while proverbs and anecdotes through which high moral standards were sustained, fizzled away. And like most Igbo speakers of today, the Bauchi tribes of the yester years must have thought to themselves, “it doesnt matter, so long as we can communicate anyway”
By way of a gradual but grinding process, most of the 58 tribal and linguistic groups became subdued, while 7 have completely lost their sense of unique identity — their languages, their culture and entire heritage. Seven languages see slowly died unannounced and unmourned.
The Living Tongue Institute of Languages (in 2007), in partnership with the National Geographic Society officially listed: Ajawa, Gamo-Ningi, Kubi and Mawa, Lere, Shau and Ziriya as among the dead languages of the world; and all these were in the present moment-day Bauchi state of Nigeria.
These tribes whose descendants still exist can now be likened to bats — an animal that is neither a bird nor a mammal — having no clear identity. Members of these tribes who appear to be totally absorbed into the Hausa group, now speak Hausa and English fluently, yet they are neither Hausas nor Britons.
They know who they are not, but they are not certain who they are, because the proof of any distinct group identity lies in their language, and culture, both of which are totally lost to members of these once vibrant ethnic groups. It is indeed a great disaster for one not to know where he is coming from.
The fate that befell Ajawa, Gamo-Ningi, Kubi and Mawa, Lere, Shau and Ziriya is clearly staring other languages at the face, except if parents, governments and well meaning Nigerians wake up to their responsibilities.
Unless an attempt is made to reverse the decline in the use of mother tongue, even the so-called major languages risk a steep decline. The decline has already set in, and the Igbo language appears to be worse hit. The United Nations Educational and Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has warned that the Igbo language risks going into extinction in the near future.
Igbo parents are generally responsible for the dangerous decline in the use of the Igbo language. According to Mrs. Madichie, the proprietor of the Ethnic Centre in Ikoyi, Lagos state which is an NGO for the promotion of major Nigerian Languages; Igbo parents think that speaking English to their children is a class status symbol.
She goes further to say that though some parents desire to teach their children Igbo language, they lack the capacity to do that, since most of them have lost touch with the language.
This of course is not to suggest that children should not learn languages other than theirs, Professor Ngugi Wationgu, the author of ‘Weep Not Child’ said once said: “If you know all the languages of the world and you do not know your language, that is enslavement. On the other hand, if you know your language and add all the other languages of the world, that is empowerment”
Ugbaja is the founder of Save Our Indigenous Language (SOIL) Movement, a cultural enthusiast and presenter of, ‘Ozioma Odinani’ (Odinani Radio Show) on ABS (Anambra Broadcast Service)
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