On February 21, the world celebrated the International Mother Language Day. The celebration was first announced by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in November 1999 to " promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and multi-lingualism." The United Nations General Assembly also set aside 2008 as International Year of Languages after it has recognised the annual celebration. The first commemoration of the International Mother Language Day was held on February 21, 2000.
During the last celebration, Nigeria joined the rest of the world to review the rate at which the citizens are making use of indigenous languages. The verdict from the various fora organised across the country was negative. The indigenous languages in the country are being abadoned so fast like bad habits. The local languages are becoming extinct because not only are parents denying their children the opportunity to communicate in their mother tongue, they themselvess shy away from speaking their local dialect. The English language which is the nation's lingual franca has sadly become the preferred language of communication.
The reality of the problem of extinction faced by local languages further found expression in a statistic released by Dr. Victoria Okoronkwo, president of the Institute of Project Managers of Nigeria in which she revealed that 60 per cent of Nigerian profound dialect speakers in the country are above the age of 50. The implication is that a large percentage of Nigerians below the age of 50 cannot speak their indigenous languages. This is a national crisis which if not well managed will worsen the present threat to the values and culture in our society. Experts have said a person's language is a vital attribute of his/her socio-linguistic identity.
In our country, many parents now believe it is a symbol of elitism for their children to speak English fluently and that this ability may be impaired if the children try to speak indigenous languages. They argue that speaking the mother tongue impedes the child's fluency in English language. Such parents however forget that a society where the people have lost their mother tongue is the same as a society that has lost its cultural treasures and lore. Such society will equally lose its value system and find it difficult to develop.
Apart from parents who discourage their wards from speaking local languages, Minister of Education, Prof. Ruqqayatu Ahmed Rufai in her address at a forum to celebrate the International Mother Language Day in Abuja said other factors militating against the development of local languages include lack of interest on the part of students to learn indigenous languages, lack of motivation on the part of teachers, inadequate reading materials and poor learning environment.
We, however, believe that parents, governments, educational planners and the rest of society do not seem to know the meaning of nurturing a society where the people lack cultural identity and are victims of self-imposed and self-perpetuated cultural imperialism. The import of our indigenous languages going extinct will in the next few years start manifesting and the crises that will emanate from it will be greater than that of economic and political problems that the country presently faces.
It is for this reason that we recommmend that government and socio-political organisations should develop policies and programmes which will promote the growth and spread of our indigenous languages. The educational curriculum at all levels of the education system should be reviewed to ensure that local languages have a pride of place. For example, a pass in a local language could be a pre-requisite for securing admission into universities.
That means that apart from securing a credit pass in English Language and Mathematics, a student should also have at least a pass in an indigenous language before gaining admission to study any course in the university. Also, local languages should be part of the General Studies (GNS) in the university which every student must pass before graduating. Curriculum planners should therefore, not only develop deep and practical language instructions for schools, but should also ensure that instructional materials to enhance its teaching and learning are produced.
The study of languages must also be compulsory in all classes in nursery, primary and secondary schools. It is also important for our legislative houses to promote the growth of local languages by using them during plenary sessions. Again, we call on governments, individuals and NGOs to fund researches on local languages with a view to improving on the growth, teaching methods, promoting their spread among the citizens and creating a body of literature which can rekindle interest in the languages.
The job of saving the local languages in Nigeria is a collective responsibility and it is better to arrest their drift to extinction before it is too late.