WHOEVER coined the word ‘mother tongue’ wittingly or unwittingly implied the language in question enjoined devotion, affection and even protection. Like a mother would to her young one, the medium of communication was to be nurtured and allowed to live. Current realities, however, show that the mother tongue, usually a person’s first language, might be succumbing to invasion by foreign languages, especially English.
A distinct feature of ethnic groups everywhere, indigenous languages in Nigeria may face extinction, owing to preponderance of the English language and relegation of, or even outright disdain, for local dialects by native speakers and their offspring. But although the languages are slowly dying, experts nevertheless argue that they may be revived if schools are equipped and people are encouraged to communicate in local mediums.
Prior to colonial rule, indigenous languages held sway. Today, sadly, many youths can hardly deliver as much as greetings in their native tongues. And even when they do, it is often with queer pronunciations and accentuations. But why would a speaker be disinterested in his local language?
With modern means of transportation and need by people to earn a living thousands of miles from their roots, children are born and bred outside their states of origin; in ‘strange lands’, as it were. Many of these never get to visit their villages or become acquainted with the cultural wealth.
As Mr. Emeka Osoji, a father of three, puts it: “Parents, out of laziness and fear of diabolical mischief by villagers, refuse to visit their villages with their children. They are so caught up in the white man’s world, and as a result speak English to the kids. Many youths in Lagos can be classified as Lagosians because they have lived all their lives in in the state. What they know about their culture is the bits garnered from books. Today’s parents are blameworthy for this. We are expected to pass on to our children cultures and languages.”
Again, some parents blame the situation on the influence of teachers, claiming children spend 80 per cent of their time in school, much more than at home with family. In this scenario, career parents, who do ‘eight-to-five’ jobs and are perhaps fully at home only at weekends, may lack ample time to impart language rudiments into their children.
According to Mrs. Patience Jacobs, a mother and banker, “In school, they speak English language. And when they come home they still speak it. It is difficult to change this because I am hardly at home with them, except at weekends. They spend more hours with their teachers than they do with us. Mondays to Friday, they are in school, 8am to 4pm, except during holidays. The best I can do is pay for language classes, which most schools do not take seriously.”
Another, Mrs. Mercy Onyewuchi, a businesswoman and mother of two, argued that the parents might not be entirely culpable, since they are merely following society’s template. According to her, teaching the language is not the big issue. The problem is: what use is an indigenous tongue in a society that favours the English language? Schools do not make the language a condition for passing an examination. English, however, is.
She said: “Let’s be practical. We criticise and blame parents for the inability of today’s youths to speak their local dialect. When you fail an indigenous Nigerian language in an examination, no one asks you to repeat a class. Fail English, however, and you are compelled to repeat. As you can see, even the society does not take the languages seriously. So, how can we?”