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World Mother Tongue Day: Awaiting Kerry Washington’s tweet for Nigerian children


Kerry Washington, an African-American Hollywood actress, made headlines in Nigeria last week when she tweeted in one of the country’s three dominant languages, Igbo. The tweet, reported by the News Agency of Nigeria, was a birthday message to another Hollywood actress, Uzo Aduba.

Both actresses have connections to Igbo, an ethnic group in southeastern Nigeria with more than 30 million speakers of the language. Washington is married to an Igbo, Nnamdi Asomugha, an NFL player. Her colleague, Aduba, is Igbo.

Ncheta Ubochi omumu gi. Ekele diri Chineke.” Washington tweeted to Uzo, meaning “Happy Birthday. Thanks to God.” Uzo then replied in Igbo, “Heh Nwannem Nwanyi, Ina asu Igbo??!!. Maka odi mma! Nwanne daalu maka ubochi Omumu m.” That is: “My sister, so you speak Igbo? It is good. Thank you for wishing me a happy birthday.” Washington’s tweet became an instant sensation and was one of the most searched items on the social media in Nigeria.

The celebrities’ written communication in Igbo impressed Twitter users because few young Igbo, even if educated, are literate in their own language.

“There is a remarkable decline in the usage of our indigenous languages by our children and youth; many of them cannot read or write in their mother tongue,” Lai Mohammed, Nigeria’s Minister of Information and Culture, says.

Lai believes that indigenous language news publications could play a role in reviving the fortunes of the nation’s endangered languages and serve as a catalyst for cultural renaissance. But the biggest threat to the survival of indigenous languages seems to be the failure of Nigerian educational system to teach children in their mother tongues.

Since 1981, schools have been called upon to teach young children in their native languages. The National Policy on Education stipulates that “the government will see to it that the medium of instruction in primary school is initially the mother tongue or the language of the immediate community and at a later stage, English”. The policy holds that English should only become the medium of instruction from Primary Four, but in practice, most children are taught principally in English from pre-primary school.

A special report by the ICIR showed that this emphasis on English has disrupted education for Nigerian children and denied them head-start in learning. Many pupils graduate from primary school without learning how to read in either English or mother tongue.

Research has consistently shown that children do better if they are taught in their home languages in their early years of schooling. But the stakes in discussions about mother-tongue instruction may go beyond improving academic performance and learning achievement.  Some argue that making local languages a bigger part of the educational curriculum would instill pride in children about their culture, and thus encourage them to preserve it.

“If you lose your language, you lose your culture,” Scholastica Tiguryera, a professional development specialist with RTI International in Uganda told the ICIR. “We dream in our local languages, and most eloquent speakers are those who were educated in their local languages.”

Nigeria, which traditionally has been a multilingual country with about 400 languages, is becoming dominated by English and Pidgin English. Linguists believe that if current trends continue, most local languages in the country will become extinct within a few generations.  That would end the debate about native-tongue education since the languages that once defined Nigerian cultures would disappear from usage.

Language begins to die when people stop reading and writing it. The process begins with children. As the children grow up, they lose their indigenous languages along with the cultures they transmit.

“I believe that the best way to give our children good knowledge of history, values, and tradition is to ensure that they read and write in their own local languages,” Anthony Anwukah, a Professor and the Minister of State for Education, said.

Anwukah said Nigeria’s indigenous languages could become extinct due to decline in their usage by the children and youth. He added that “language is the most potent instrument for preserving and developing a people’s cultural heritage”.

The threat of losing indigenous languages, not only in Nigeria but across the world, prompted the United Nations (UN) to declare International Mother Language Day. Since 2000, it is celebrated every year on 21 February to draw attention to preserving linguistic diversity and promoting mother tongue-based multilingual education.

According to UN, more than a half of the approximately 7,000 languages spoken in the world are likely to die out within a few generations. Most – 96 percent of the total – is spoken by a mere 4 percent of the world’s population. Only a few hundred languages are taught in schools or used in the public domain, and fewer than a hundred are used in the digital realm.

With the 2018 celebration focusing on “linguistic diversity and multilingualism count for sustainable development,” UN noted that local languages do not only ensure mastery of basic skills of reading, writing, and numeracy but also transmit cultures, values, and traditional knowledge

Language experts suggest that the implementation of the policy on the medium of instruction in early years remains the best means to stem the tide of losing Nigerian’s indigenous languages. This view was echoed by Peter Okwoche, the Nigeria Editorial Lead for the Igbo and Yoruba Services of BBC, which were launched on Monday.

“But it cannot just be the BBC,” Okwoche said. “The government has to get involved.”

He suggested that government should review the school curriculum, and predicted that the BBC’s new digital services for Igbo and Yoruba would galvanise the young people to engage with the languages.

The consequence of losing indigenous languages, according to Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún, a Nigerian writer and linguist, is worse than any other form of poverty.

“There are different kinds of poverty, all of them damaging to the dignity of man,” he says. “A deprivation of language is one that is more pernicious than the rest because it deprives not just the body, but also the mind.”

Linguists warn that globalisation poses a threat to the survival of indigenous languages but also presents an opportunity for language revival. A simple gesture like Kerry Washington and Uzo Aduba tweeting in Igbo, on the occasion of the International Mother Language Day, can make young people realise that communicating in their mother tongue is as cool as English.

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