According to Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, a Professor of Com
parative Literature and English: “If you know all the languages of the world, and you don’t know your language, that is enslavement.
This remark by the Kenyan-born prolific writer remains instructive in teaching and learning particularly as it affects the African Child.
In this regard, the 1976 Soweto uprising in South Africa, indeed, has left indelible mark on the sand of time in relation to developing indigenous languages in the continent of Africa.
It is common knowledge that on June 16, 1976 about ten thousand black school children marched protesting poor quality of their education.
Of paramount significance to the development of indigenous languages, the black school children also demanded to be taught in their own language.
Evidence shows that so many of them were shot dead in the protest while several others received severe degrees of injuries.
It is no surprise, therefore, that June 16 every year has been set aside as the day of the African Child.
Better still, both the African Union (AU) and UNESCO have acknowledged June 16 as Day of the African Child to honour those black school children who were killed for protesting poor quality and most importantly demanded to be taught in their own language.
From the echoes and rhythms of the celebration of Day of African Child over the years, it does appear that much has been said about the killing and the physical pains the black school children suffered while little has been done about the systematic wearing away of African Languages and death otherwise called attrition and linguicide.
It would be recalled that one of the things that brought English Language itself to limelight even in the United Kingdom was that the owners of the language demanded the use of the language particularly in the church against the use of Latin.
This is where the famous Cramer’s Book of Common Prayers published In 1549 comes to mind.
The Book of Common Prayers came to limelight after the parliament passed an Act called the Act of Uniformity which requested among other’s that the prayers should be written and spoken in English Language instead of Latin following the plan to move the Church of England away from the Catholic Church.
The introduction of the Book of Common Prayers emanating from the Act of Uniformity further led to the Famous Prayer Book Rebellion of the same year particularly by the people of Devon and Cornwall where Catholicism not only had stronghold but the fact the people of Cornwall who did not speak or understand English as much called for translation of the New Prayer Book into Cornish, the language of Cornwall.
This call was, however, rejected but it goes to show the zeal of a people to develop a language.
The lesson from this analogy, therefore, is that owners of a language must stand up to ensure that their language do not wear away and die in embracing foreign cultures and the perceived modernity.
In fact, Bamgbose in 1993 posits thus: “When all is said and done, the fate of the endangered language may well lie in the hands of the owners of the language themselves and in their will to make it survive.
Similarly, a linguist Prof Emenannjo in 1990 echoed” thus: “Language engineering requires cooperation between the speakers of the language on one hand, and linguists, and educationists on the other hand.”
The need to develop indigenous languages, therefore, should not be trivialised and banalised.
It is pertinent to observe that at the 7th Forum on Indigenous Issues held between April 21 to May 2, 2008, UNESCO disclosed that approximately six hundred languages have disappeared in the last century and they continue to disappear at the rate of one language every two weeks.
It goes further to express the fear that up to 90 per cent of the world’s languages are likely to disappear before the end of the century if current trends are allowed to continue.
Interestingly, the National Policy on Education adopted in 2004 provides that government shall ensure that the medium of instruction in pre-primary and primary will be principally the mother tongue.
The policy further states that for primary education, the medium of instruction shall be the language of the environment and same for junior secondary where it has orthography and literature.
However, where there is no orthography, the methodology of oracy shall be explored in teaching and learning.
This is why the Federal Government itself must implement key components in the said National Policy of Education 2004 which involve the development of orthography for many more Nigerian languages as well as produce textbooks in Nigerian languages.
This policy should not be the responsibility of the federal government alone to enforce but for all the states and Local Government Areas of the federation.
To this end, the various states of the country must mobilise indigenous people and ethnic groups to exhibit interest in developing and reviving their languages gradually facing extinction.
At this juncture, it is necessary to commend Rivers State for its effort at developing indigenous languages.
For instance, Rivers State which has over 20 different ethnic groups has seventeen orthographies of 17 languages approved as Nigerian languages spoken in the state.
They include Abuan, Degema, Egbema, Engene, Eleme and Gokana. Others are Khana, Etche, Ikwerre, Ibani, Kalabari, Ndoni, Odual, Ogba, Obolo, Ekpeye and Okrika.
Worthy of note too, is the fact that Rivers State has passed into law the Rivers State Education Teaching of Indigenous Languages Law of 2003.
The law provides that the teaching of indigenous languages is made compulsory in all pre-primary, primary and junior secondary schools while the state Ministry of Education shall cause the local languages to be one of the subjects examined at the end of each term or year in the first school leaving certificate and Junior Secondary School Certificate Examinations. What remains is for the state governemnt to implement the policy in the state.
Experts, however, agree that funding by government at all levels have been a major challenge to indigenous language development.
Gross disinterestedness on part of owners of indigenous languages and the fact that people first study what will put food on the table above other considerations.
It has also been observed that cross-cultural marriages do not help matters as even some parents themselves come from families whose parents had cross cultural marriage.
There are also cases of power play, egocentricism and personality clash during the process of testing and ratifying orthographies in local communities.
This ought not to be considering the fact that learning in native tongue can boost independent thought.
This fact was attested to by the Project Director Indian (space) Moon Mission Myiswamy Annadurai when he said “Learning in one’s native tongue should not be seen as a weakness but can lead to higher independent thought.”
He concluded thus: “Many of the team behind India’s first and successful moon mission had done a large part of their academic learning in their native tongues” To this end, one cannot but salute the ingenuity, courage and request of the black school children of Soweto in June 1976 when they demanded to be taught in their indigenous languages.
Government, communities, civil society and advocacy groups as well as parents must promote the use of indigenous languages for the sake of cultural identity.
Religious bodies and sects should attach premium to translating their sacred books such as the Holy Bible and Quran into indigenous languages as part of evangelism.
In as much as funding is necessary by government, owners of indigenous languages must be alive to their responsibility of sustaining their languages. The time to act is now!
Sika is a staff of Radio Rivers.