Op-Ed: Why Africa urgently needs to save its languages from extinction

PUBLISHED: Mon, 27 May 2019 20:57:21 GMT

By Victor Oladokun*

As a 10-year-old kid newly arrived in Lagos, Nigeria from Liverpool, England, I recall having a conversation with myself. At the time, I instinctively understood that if I was to be able to function properly in the future, being able to proficiently speak my father’s language – Yoruba – was going to be inevitable. Trying hard to amend or rid myself of a half London and half Liverpool accent, I would listen intently to how the language was spoken around me and repeat what I heard, or what I thought I had heard, in my head. I was not always successful since what would come out of my mouth many times caused fits of laughter among friends.

Yoruba is a tonal language. Some three-letter words pronounced wrongly or with the accent on the wrong syllable, can get you in a whole lot of trouble.

I am indebted to the Canadian Jesuit/Catholic Boarding School I attended in Ondo – St. Joseph’s College. At the time, the boarding high school was well known for its academic rigor and discipline. But one thing in particular that I’ve come to really appreciate over the years, was the mandatory learning of the Yoruba language during the first two years of a five-year study. Also, while Mass was in Latin and English, the music had a generous sprinkling of uplifting Yoruba hymns backed by traditional drums.

As I look back, I owe my love of the Yoruba language and indeed for Nigeria, to this linguistic and cultural exposure.

Which is one of the reasons why I never cease to be amazed many upwardly mobile and not-too-upwardly mobile Nigerian and African elite, when it comes to transferring a knowledge of indigenous languages to their children.

In the case of my fellow Yoruba, it is not unusual to be regaled with pride about how their children only speak English and not Yoruba. With an affected Yoruba-English accent denoting social class, this is how the laissez fair commentary goes – “Ehhh … so mo pe awon omo aiye isiyin, won o gbo Yoruba mo. Oyinbo nikan ni won gbo.”

The proud revelation and linguistic snobbery is typically followed up with a little logic as to why this is the case.

Indeed languages do become endangered for multiple reasons, including –

1.  Unprecedented urban mobility and migration, in which children grow up in places where the language is either not generally spoke or where it is no longer taught in the community.

2. Inter-ethnic marriages and relationships.

3. A tech-driven world that is dominated by less than a dozen global languages. Consequently, social media, TV and digital programs, children’s programs, computer games, mobile apps and news content do not favor indigenous languages.

4. Dislocation of populations due to military or political conflict.

5. Economic migration that ends up leaving the older and elderly speakers of a language behind in rural communities.  Since a language cannot live without children speakers, and as elderly rural speakers of the language die out, so too is it that languages cannot survive, and inevitably die.

This is the dilemma that has befallen the Yoruba language and countless African and indigenous languages globally.

Language is all-encompassing. It is not just a means of communicating. It is also a repository of values, customs, culture, and history. In short, it is the embodiment of who a people are.

Therefore, the loss or extinction of a language is simply not simply an inability to speak in a way and manner that is generally understood. It is the loss of identity – linguistically, culturally, psychologically, and historically.

According to ‘Atlas of Languages in Danger of Disappearing,’ published by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, and (UNESCO), today, there are an estimated 7,000 languages spoken worldwide. Half of the world’s total population speaks only eight of the most common. Also, more than 3,000 languages are said to be spoken by fewer than 10,000 people each.

So what can we do about it? Fold our arms? Bemoan our fate and the seemingly unstoppable collision with the train called ‘globalisation’? Or do we take stock, recognise what is at stake, turn adversity into opportunity, and innovatively add value to a tremendous resource that we own?

1. For starters, our policymakers could go back to the drawing boards and, once again, make the instruction of indigenous languages compulsory from kindergarten through high school.

2. Family and community members could and should play collective roles as custodians of national languages. The only dilemma is that in the 21st century, many younger and older adults are linguistically challenged themselves, and as such are also in need of tutoring and learning.

3. Growing up in Lagos, one of my most favorite TV programs was the live broadcast of the extemporaneous National High School Debates. I can still hear the opening music ringing in my ears.

Fast forward to 2019, policymakers, content producers, advertisers, and the private and public sector, could team up to create regionally televised elementary and high school debates in indigenous languages. To motivate the younger generation, awards should include generous academic prizes and scholarships, regional and national mentions in full-page newspaper adverts, and include opportunities to meet with and be honored by leading public and private sector leaders.

4. Business and tech savvy entrepreneurs have an unprecedented opportunity to create indigenous language podcasts and apps with valuable and creative content. I for one would love to support the creation of an award for the best digital content in an indigenous African language, be it a children’s animation program, computer game, podcast, etc.

5. Finally, each one of us can daily brush up on our own language skills and do so with exceptional pride. For too long, we have bought into the trope that ‘local’ is bad or not ‘sexy’ at all.

Every African language is a repository of oral history and collective values. Proficiency therefore provides speakers with an intuitive sense of who they are, where they have come from, who they potentially can be, and where they are going.

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