Twenty nine Nigerian minor languages have become extinct, while another 29 minor languages are in danger of extinction. Three Nigeria’s major languages –Yoruba, Igbo, and Ishekiri are also endangered, according to studies by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation, and views expressed by language teachers, and linguists.
In 2006, UNESCO reportedly predicted the Igbo language spoken in the South-East Nigeria by over 20 million people may become extinct in the next 50 years. In 2017, Dahunsi Akinyemi, a language teacher and author of Ede Yoruba ko Gbodo Ku (Yoruba Language Must Not Die), posited that the Yoruba language could die out in 20 years or less, lamenting that many Yoruba children cannot pronouce Mo je jeun’ (I want to eat) in their mother tongue. A study by Oti (2014) points to the extinction of Ishekiri language in the next 50 years, while the Linguistic Association of Nigeria reporteddly said unless proactive steps were taken, more than 50 minority languages in the country might become extinct in a few years.
The nine local languages that had become extinct as listed by the National Council for Arts and Culture are Ajawa spoken in present day Bauchi, Basa-Gumna of Niger State, Auyokawa used to be spoken in Jigawa State, Gamo-Ningi, a Kainji dialect in Bauchi State, Homa of Adamawa State, Kubi of Bauchi State, Kpati formerly spoken in Taraba State, Odut used to be spoken in the Odukpani area of Cross River State, and Teshenawa formerly spoken in Jigawa State.
Roger Blench in ‘Atlas of Nigerian Languages’, 2012 listed 12 languages (including two in the NCAC’s list) as extinct. These are Ashaganna; Fali of Baissa spoken by a few individuals on the Falinga Plateau in southern Taraba State; Shirawa; Auyokawa; Kpati; Taura; Bassa-Kontagora (only 10 speakers of Bassa-Kontagora were alive in 1987; Lufu; Ajanci, a north Bauchi language; Akpondu, had no competent speakers in 1987; Buta-Ningi, an East Kainji language, had no remaining speakers in 1990; and Holma, had only four aged speakers in 1987.
About 29 local languages in Nigeria are endangered, according to UNESCO Interactive Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, that tracks all world languages based on five criteria: safe, vulnerable, definetely endangered, severely endagered, critically endagered, and extinct.
Nigeria’s ‘Vulnerable’ langauges spoken by most children, but restricted to certain domains are Bade, Reshe, Gera, and Reshe languages. “Definitely endangered” -children no longer learn the language as mother tongue in the home are the Polci cluster, and Duguza languages. “Critically” endangered languages in Nigeria that the youngest speakers are grandparents and older, and they speak the languages partially and infrequently are Akum, Bakpinka, Defaka, Dulbu, Gyem,Ilue, Jilbe, Kiong, Kudu-Camo, Luri, Mvanip, Sambe, Somyev, and Yangkam languages.
“Severely” endangered languages that are spoken by grandparents and older generations, while the parent generation may understand them, they do not speak them to children or among themselves include Gurdu-Mbaaru, Fyem, Geji cluster, Gura, Gurdu-Mbaaru, Hya, Kona,Ndunda and Ngwaba.
Nigeria is multilingual, though the exact number of local or indigenous languages spread over its about 250 ethnic groups is not known, but variously estimated at between 350 and 550. Nigeria has major and minor languages, intertwined by dialects. According to Ethnologue, an annual publication on the world’s languages, Some 517 different languages are spoken in Nigeria. The country’s multilingual diversity reflects in the heterogeneity of the languages spoken in most of the states, as only few states such as Kano, Anambra, Imo, Oyo, Osun and Ekiti are predominantly monolingual.
Hausa, lgbo, Yoruba are the three major languages spoken predominantly in the North, South-East, and South-West respectively. Other major languages are Fulani/Fulfulde, Kanuri, Efik/lbibio; Tiv, ljaw, Edo, Ishekiri, Urhobo, Idoma, Igala, Isoko, Fulani, and Ikwere. Each of the major languages have distinctive dialects- Yoruba dialects include Ijesa, Ijebu, Egba, Awori, Ekiti, Ondo, Akoko, Ikale, Owo, and Oyo. The Igbo have an extreme dialect diversity ranging from the central/standard Igbo (Igbo Izugbe), to other forms- Owerri (Isuoma), Umuahia (Ohuhu) dialects, Awka, Anambra, Onicha, Udi, Nsukka, Orlu, and phereipheral Igboland dialects such as Ikwerre Izzi-Ezaa-Ikwo and Ika and Ukuanni.
Apart from these major local languages, there are three other languages widely spoken in Nigeria. These are English, Arabic, and Pidgin. Christians may also wish to add a spiritual language -speaking in tongues, a fad in Pentecostal churches. English was a left-over of British colonialism, Arabic was spread, particularly in the North through the Usman Dan Fodio Jihad of the 19th century. Pidgin is neither a local nor foreign language but emerged as an adulteration of English language by native speakers, while speaking in tongues is imported from the spirit realm!
English language majorly spoken throughout the South has achieved predominance as Nigeria’s official national language. The relatively higher rate of illiteracy in the North has however hindered the onslaught of the English language as Hausa is still widely spoken in rural and urban communities, excect the multilingual Sabo Gari areas. Many homes in Nigeria, particularly in the South, are English speaking. In almost all urban homes in the South, children and adults don’t greet themselves in the native tongue. Good morning has replaced E kaaro in Yoruba, Ina Kwana in Hausa, and Ututu oma in Igbo. It is ridiculous that most new generation Yoruba children, particualy those in urban areas cannot phonetically pronounce their Yoruba names or states of origin correctly. Asking new generation children to speak the local dialect is stretching a joke too far.
English language has its own advantages. Apart from being a global language, it is also unifying in a multilingual culture. However, no serious people or nation relegates its mother tongue in preference for a foreign language. Oti (2014) listed causes of local language regression in Nigeria to include mixed linguistic ecology of urban towns forcing residents of different linguistic background to speak a common language such as Pidgin or English, and inter lingual marriages forcing parents to speak a common language rather than indigenous languages to their children.
The future of Nigeria’s local languages lies with the speakers. There is an option of selling our language birthright for a mess of English pottage in the manner of biblical Esau; there is the second option of reviving it and preserving its heritage. If parents refuse to speak their native languages to their children, of course the next generation will not speak it to their offspring, leading to extinction of these local languages within the next two to three generations
As Uzochukwu (2001) submitted, we cannot achieve economic prosperity and technological breakthrough in a foreign language. What is the way forward towards reclaining local languages in the lingusitic space? Language planning is critical in national development, but Nigeria does not have a language policy, 70 years after independence from English-speaking British colonialists. Surprising the issue is not topically discussed by restructuring advocates, as language is a sensitive issue in Nigeria, perhaps, second to religion. None of the ethnic groups wishes to play a second fiddle to the other, particularly at these times that some ethnic minorities are decrying what is rightly or wrongly termed the ‘Fulanisation’ of Nigeria due to the activities of Fulani cattle herdsmen.
The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 is silent on national langauges, but prescribes in Section 55 that the business of the National Assembly shall be conducted in English, as well as in Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba when adequate arrangements have been made thereof. However, legislative business is still conducted mainly in English in the National Assembly, and hoping the proposed N37bn contract for the ‘renovation’ of the complex provides for interpretation/translation facilities and services, to enable conduct of legislative businesses, occasionally in the mother tongue.
Some state Houses of Assembly in the South-West such as Ogun, Ekiti, Ondo, and Oyo are reportedly conducting legislative businesses on fixed days in Yoruba languages, while several Northern states like Kano, Kebbi, Sokoto, Katsina, Jigawa, Zamfara, Kaduna, Niger and Plateau state Houses of Assembly conduct business sessions mostly in Hausa. Other federal and state public institutionns should emulate this step.
- Babalobi is a doctorate researcher, Department of Health, University of Bath, UK, via [email protected] +234 8035 897435