SOMETIMES I wonder if Nigerians are aware that the English language is not the only official language of our country Nigeria. I wonder how many citizens of the densely populated country are aware of the fact that in 1996, the late General Sani Abacha declared French as Nigeria’s second official language. I have read in recent times in some of our national dailies, debates and reactions to the announcement by the present Minister of State for Education, Prof. Anthony Anwukah. Some respondents argued that learning a second official language is not necessary and is a pure waste of time.
It might interest Nigerians to note that the announcement of the Minister during his meeting with the French Ambassador that “French was on its way to becoming Nigeria’s second official language” is no news at all. Officially, French has been the second official language in this country for the past 19 years. It has also been made “compulsory” in the curriculum of primary and secondary schools across the country. French is also being taught at the tertiary level in the country.
Nigerians should not over-flog the notion that there are no benefits in making French a second official language; events have overtaken that. What is most important for us to know at the moment is the importance of bilingualism or multilingualism; that is having good knowledge of at least two international languages. While other neighbouring countries have at least two international languages as their official languages, others have three to four. Nigeria must join her counterparts in the trend of bilingualism, which without doubt, has many benefits.
We must understand that being bilingual has a positive effect on our intellectual growth and enhances our mental development. According to Nanduti (2009), “being bilingual opens the door to other cultures and helps an individual understand and appreciate people from other countries.” I can assure you that our political leaders will interact better and exchange better knowledge with their Francophone counterparts without interpreters if they have knowledge of both French and English languages. Nanduti also affirms that being bilingual increases job opportunities in many careers where knowing another language is a real asset.
Nigerians will widen their horizon in the labour world with an additional international language such as French, which is the third most spoken language in the world. A lot of internationally based companies, like Total, Exxon Mobil, Air France and KLM advertise for workers from time to time with qualifications including an ability to speak either French and English or English and German. The dearth of these competences poses a great challenge to Nigerian applicants who are limited by their knowledge of only the English language.
Ludwing Wittgenstein clearly states that: “The limits of my language means the limits of my world.” This simply means that we are limited to the world of whose language we can speak. Therefore, the more different international languages we learn, the wider our economic and political horizons. Being bilingual can equally make an individual have more executive control of whatever situation he or she finds herself by the simple ability to switch from one international language or the other.
This reminds me of the first time I attempted to get a visa. For days, I went to the embassy then at Onikan Abayomi but could not even see the colour of the gate due to the large crowd I met there. On the third day, I decided to use my knowledge of French to part the red sea of applicants already crowding the gate as early as 7.30am. And so, I straightened my dress, with my head held high and confidently approached the crowd speaking and chanting French. To my greatest surprise, the crowd parted ways for me to pass through; they obviously thought I was one of the embassy workers. I moved on until I got to the entrance where I equally introduced myself to the Frenchman in his language and the gates were thrown open for me to walk in majestically. Who says language is not power?
We can all benefit from the French language as I have, if we all take it more seriously. Making French a second official language in Nigeria should go beyond paper or mere pronouncements. The Federal Government should put in place measures for execution and monitoring, to ensure that the language is widely learnt and spoken by at least 80 per cent of Nigerians in the next five years. Having French studies in the school curriculum should also be followed up with regular inspections by French-speaking Nigerian educationists for adequate monitoring in various schools. Defaulting schools should be sanctioned.
In our sister African countries, like Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt, the French language is made compulsory from the age of two years to the age of 18. Nigeria can equally adopt this policy that the French language be taught from the kindergarten to the general studies at the university level. It should also be made one of the requirements for first degrees into Nigerian tertiary institutions. With all these in place, the average Nigerian in the next five years would develop basic competence in the knowledge of the French language. French programmes should be promoted on radio and television stations across the country.
As it is said: charity begins at home. Political leaders, traditional rulers, opinion leaders and others should be encouraged to take an hour’s French class, at least twice a week. This will inspire the followers to become committed to learning the language.
To know the success or failure of a project or dream is the ability to take the first step toward achieving it. I, therefore, use this medium to call on Prof. Anthony Anwukah, the Minister of State for Education, to put words into actions and earn himself well-deserved credit in the educational sector by implementing the 1996 declaration of French as second official language in Nigeria.
Dr. Omonigho is of the Department of Foreign Languages, University of Benin.