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The National Language Problem in Nigeria

Posted by Edonaze on May 22, 2011 at 11:53 AM

The National Language Problem in Nigeria
Mark 0.Attah

Nigeria as a political unit came into being following the regrouping of African
territories by the colonial powers in the nineteenth century. Several
ancient kingdoms of diverse cultures were merged to form the new nation
that became known as " ~ i ~ e r i a .I"ts' enormous ethno-linguistic, religious,
and cultural diversity is therefore traceable to the partitioning exercise
which did not follow the pre-colonial socio-ethnic and politico-linguistic
groupings in Africa. The resulting diversity has long stood in the way of
national unity in Nigeria, as evidenced by the fratricidal war of 1 ~ 6 ~ - ~ 0 . '
Also highlighting the diversity is the presence of so many different languages
which, in the absence of a common indigenous medium of interethnic
communication, has created problems of language policy and planning,
including the inability to resolve the issue of a Nigerian national language.
The national language problem has generated considerable interest
and heated debate and has continued to be one of the most volatile issues
with which the country has had to contend. The following review of current
opinions on the national language question proposes a more peaceful way
out of the present deadlock over which one(s) of the numerous indigenous
languages should prevail.

The Language Situation in Nigeria
The number of languages spoken in Nigeria has been variously estimated
from 150 (Tiffen 1968) to about 400 (Bamgbose 1971). Probably the most
authoritative survey is that of K. J. Hansford et al. (1976) which identifies as
many as 394 indigenous languages spoken within the territorial boundaries
of the country. A. Afolayan (1977) suggests that the actual number may well
be higher considering that on closer investigation the Ijo language in the
Rivers state3 has been found to be seventeen different languages rather than
a single dialect. Also, Mobar, which was grouped as a dialect of Kanuri, has
now been found to be a distinct language (Bulakarima 1986).
In order to ascertain the number of indigenous languages in Nigeria, the
Federal Government now plans to map out the country's linguistic topography.
This national language survey should involve a thorough documentation
of all the indigenous languages, including their location^.^ Until this
survey is complete, suffice it to say that Nigeria is a multilingual nation
with three of the four phyla into which African languages are classified fully
represented within its boundaries.' The Nilo-Saharan phylum has three
members represented in Nigeria; the Afro-Asiatic has 103; and the Niger-
Kordofanian has 286; the only phylum not represented in Nigeria is the
Khoisan (Hansford I 976).

Other methods of classification are used by linguists to group Nigerian
languages, especially for the purpose of presenting arguments for the choice
of a national language. According to M. A. Adekunle (1976) and D. Olagoke
(1982), the different indigenous languages can be classified into four groups
based on their roles.%roup A are the major Nigerian languages which are
spoken by at least six million native speakers and used fairly widely outside
their area of origin by Nigerians whose mother-tongues are different. The
languages in this group are Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba. Group B are languages
not much used outside their areas of origin, but which enjoy official recognition
and are used at the national level. Examples are Kanuri, Fulani, Tiv, and
Edo. The number of the native speakers of each of these languages ranges
from one to three million. Group C are minor or regional languages important
only at the state level, such as Idoma, Urhobo, and Nupe. Group D are
minor languages not officially recognised even at the state level, yet they are
important at the local government or district levels7 for the purpose of
administration. About eighty percent of Nigerian languages belong to this
group, examples of which are Ogoni, Gwari, Igede, and Angas. This categorisation
has now formed a reference point for all arguments about the choice
of a national language in Nigeria. But before analyzing this categorisation,
the available arguments in favour of the proposed Nigerian national language
should be considered.

An Indigenous National Language?
English, initially imposed on Nigeria when it was a British colony, has functioned
as the official language of the country. Because of its past and present
roles in the administration and social life of the country, some Nigerians
now think that English is the greatest heritage bequeathed to the people at
the end of British colonialism (Bamgbose 1971; Kebby 1986). In fact, English
occupies such an important position in the life of the country that some
people now advance positive reasons to justify its retention as Nigeria's
national language. The name most commonly associated with the English
option is M. Kebby (1986), who is of the view that "No Nigerian language
can serve scientific and technological needs ... because none is complete."
Others argue that since English is a neutral language, no ethnic group in
Nigeria can claim ownership of it, so it will continue to belong equally to all
Nigerians. Besides, English is an international language with widespread use
in international trade and communication.

395 Attah: The National Language Problem in Nigeria
While the English option may appear to be a practical alternative, many
language experts and other Nigerians have advanced positive reasons to justify
the adoption of an indigenous national language in place of English.
Most of these arguments derive from the need for national consciousness,
unity, and pride. An argument commonly put forward for the adoption of a
local national language is the need to make a clean break with English in
order to justify Nigeria's claim to political independence. Accordingly,
English is a legacy of colonialism, to which many Nigerians find difficult it
to reconcile themselves. Olagoke (1982) argues:

There are many Nigerians who feel strongly that the country needs a "lingua
franca" other than English, not only to foster national unity but also to facilitate
self-discovery and pride convincing the world and ourselves that we are
truly independent of Britain (my italics).

Another argument is that a local national language would put an end to
the elitist society which English has created in Nigeria through its use as a
medium of instruction in Nigerian schools. The belief is that when English
is replaced by a Nigerian language as a medium of instruction in schools, the
children of the poor and illiterate will be saved the problem of having to conceptualise
in English. This reasoning is quite consistent with the claim that
teaching in the mother-tongue is more effective than teaching in a foreign
language (Shaplin and Shaplin 1969). However, what happens to the children
for whom the adopted official language is not a mother-tongue? Will it not
be as difficult for them as learning in English? I do not share Olagoke's (1982)
optimism that learning the Nigerian language would not take as long as
English or French "because of the greater first-hand contact with speakers of
the former." What opportunities would learners have for such contact outside
the area where the adopted language is used as a mother-tongue?
A more reasonable justification is the belief among proponents of indigenous
national language that such a language would sensitise the people to
the importance of national unity, since it would be a better means of crosscultural
understanding than English. To them, therefore, an indigenous
national language holds the key to national integration and cohesion. It can
be expected that national cohesion will be enhanced when all Nigerians are
able to speak one indigenous language which is comprehensible and acceptable
to all of them. This follows from the assumption that the existing prejudices
and mutual suspicions among the different ethnic groups in the country
arise from the absence of a common African language to facilitate communication.
It is also argued that it is impossible to express one's culture
fully in a foreign language (Olagoke 1982), and thus Nigerians are (unconsciously)
drawn away from their cultures by using English as their cultural

As plausible as these reasons are in justifying the call for a local national
language, will it ever be possible for the people to reach agreement on which
one(s) of the numerous languages should be selected? This is not likely
because while few Nigerians dispute the need to have a national language
other than English, most people are uneasy about to which language that
should be.

Which Nigerian Language!

One of the paradoxes of the national language question is that, while many
Nigerians express a desire for a national language other than English, few are
convinced of the need to choose a language other than their own. The proponents
may be divided into three major camps based on their expressed preferences.
First are those who want the national language to come from the
major Nigerian languages, preferably those in the previously discussed
Group A. Second are those who reject the candidacy of the major languages
and opt instead for a minor language, preferably one of those in Group D.
Third are those who prefer an entirely new language created by mixing three
or more of the existing Nigerian languages.
Those who feel that the proposed national language should come from
the Group A languages point to two reasons. First, the three languages in
this group (i.e., Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba) are already spoken by millions of
Nigerians and may be regarded as linguafrancas in view of their geographical
spread and the number of their speakers (studies show that Hausa is spoken
by fourteen million people in Nigeria, Niger, and the Sudan; Yoruba by
five million people in Nigeria, Dahomey, and Togo; and Igbo, also by five
million people but spoken only in Nigeria) (Gregersen 1977). Second, since a
sizable literature has been developed in each of these three languages, their
codification and elaboration would require no further work by the Government.
The Federal Government too seems to favour the adoption of the

Group A languages by advocating:
In the interest of national unity, each child should be encouraged to learn one
of the three major languages other than his own mother-tongue. In this connection
the government considers the three major languages in Nigeria to be
Hausa, Igbo and Yomba [FMI I 98I).
But even among the proponents of the Group A languages, there is no consensus
on which of the languages should be adopted. Some of them, however,
recommend a gradualist approach whereby the three languages are
given equal attention until one of them emerges as the clear winner
(Olagoke 1982; Rufa'i 1977).
Yet there are those who reject the Group A languages for two reasons.
First, the languages in this group have dominated the Nigerian language
scene for too long and should give way to allow the other languages the
397 Attah: The National Language Problem in Nigeria
opportunity of being developed as well. Second, the native speakers of the
three languages in this group are in the habit of looking down on other
Nigerians; the adoption of all or even one of their languages would worsen
the situation. They therefore prefer a minority language chosen from either

Group C or Group D as a better alternative to English. As they further argue,
a minority language would be a better alternative because it would end the
old rivalry between the major languages, and it would give their minority
speakers a sense of belonging to the scheme of things. Among those who
support a minority language are 0.Essien (1986) and B. Sofunnke (1986); but
they too do not agree on which of the numerous minority languages should
be chosen. Preferences have been as numerous as the proponents with
almost everyone proposing just his own particular language as the best candidate.
Finally, some favour neither the major nor the minor Nigerian languages
but want an entirely new language "because being neutral, no ethnic group
would lay claim to it" (Igbeneweka 1983). They recommend that the proposed
language should be entirely Nigerian in origin and should be created
by mixing three or more of the existing indigenous languages. Already, different
names have been suggested for the proposed new language; some
people would want to call it WAZOBIA, formed by integrating the three
major languages -Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba. In fact, "WA," "ZO," and "BIA"
-Yoruba, Hausa, and Igbo words respectively -meaning "come." But M. A.
Igbeneweka (1983)w~ ho has already started to construct a new language by
combining different local languages in the country, would want to call it
u ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ . u 8

But whether WAZOBIA or GUOSA, the proposal for a new language has
not gone down well with many Nigerians. An entirely new language is
rejected on the grounds that it is fanciful and bizarre for three reasons. First,
artificially constructed languages have never worked anywhere since languages
must spring from the emotional needs and linguistic habits of speakers.
Second, it is impossible to learn all the languages to be integrated, and
even if it was possible, how would the words in the different languages be
put together in the correct sequence? Third, the new language cannot be
"neutral" as it is claimed, since it will be formed by mixing existing languages,
and traces of the ancestral languages will be evident. Indeed, the
prospect of a consensus is quite remote.

Not British But Nigerian English
Afolayan (1977) observes:
Ethnicity rather than one strong nationality is the centripetal force most
noticeable among the peoples of the federation [of Nigeria]. The various ethnic
languages are therefore the greatest and most forceful political media.
398 CTAS/ RCEA XXI :3 1987

No ethnic group appears ready to accept the language of another group
because each of the different languages strengthens the links that bind its
speakers together as a group. Thus, each ethnic group sees its language as
the major factor that distinguishes it from other groups. This role of language
as the"carrierl' of the past and the "expresser" of the present and
future attitudes and aspirations of a people is undoubtedly the greatest
obstacle to efforts to impose a local language on a multilingual society like
Nigeria (Fishman 197 I).

Efforts to enforce an indigenous language in a multilingual area too often
result in bloodshed. An example is the Soweto case (1976) in which many
blacks and whites lost their lives when an attempt was made by the whites
to force Afrikaans on the blacks. In the Sudan, the protracted civil war is a
reaction to a government policy of Arabisation. Even in Nigeria, some language
policies have already resulted in riots. For example, the Tiv riots of
1962 were a direct result of the peoples' rejection of Sardauna's policy of
Hausa-isation in the old Northern Region of ~ i ~ e r iOan. a~ m ore peaceful
but no less serious note, the provision in the 1979 constitution for business
in the National Assembly to be conducted in Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba,
remained inoperative as English was used exclusively in all communications
throughout the life of the ~ s s e m b l ~T.h'u~s, a Nigerian national language
in place of English, in the foreseeable future, seems not only illusory
but also an open invitation to conflict. That being the case, the only apparent
rational option is to evolve a Nigerian version of English that is unique
in sound and structure and call it Nigerian English. Already there is much
agitation for Pidgin English to be so adapted and used as the national language,
in view of its facility as a popular medium in the country. However,
Pidgin is regarded by a section of the Nigerian population as a "debased" and
"corrupt" form of English (Bamgbose 1971; Adedipe 1986); the fear is that it
will not command respect, especially among the educated and elite groups
in the country.

Indeed, the type of English that needs to be developed is not Pidgin, but
an indigenised version of standard English which has respect for syntax,
grammar, phonology, etc., while remaining uniquely Nigerian. C. Achebe
(1971) has blazed the trail in the use of this type of English, as illustrated in
Arrow of God:
I want one of my sons to join these people and be my eyes there. If there is nothing
in it, you will come back. But if there is something there you will bring
home my share. The world is like a mask, dancing. If you want to see well you
do not stand in one place. My spirit tells me that those who do not befriend the
white man today will be saying had we known tomorrow ( 5 5 ) .
C. Azuonye (1977) offers another example of the type of English being advocated:
399 Attah: The National Language Problem in Nigeria
... the whole town is breaking its head because of this thing, but when you look,
there is no shame inside the eyes of Adaogu ... shame was killing me for her, but
she was flashing her eyes, flashing her eyes, flashing her eyes about like what I
do not know, and she was walking with all herself tied up as if she does not go
to latrine ...you will remember that time she came back from Ala Bekee, when
we were making funeral for her father; you remember how she march-entered
our house of tears for her own father wearing trawsa like a man ... (80-81).
Both passages are unique in the sense that they deviate from what a
native speaker of English would normally write, while keeping closely
within the norm in terms of grammatical correctness. Expressions like "be
my eyes there," "my spirit tells me," "the whole town is breaking its head,"
or "making funeral for her father," would not normally be used by a native
speaker in the same context. Nevertheless, they represent a unique way of
using English to express purely Nigerian experiences without altering the
language to the extent that its value as a medium of international exchange
is lost. Such should be the structure of the proposed Nigerian English.
Nigerianised English would also have a unique system of spelling and
pronunciation. As in American English, certain difficult spelling in British
English can be altered and spelled exactly as pronounced in Nigerian English
- an example of "trawsa" for "trouser" is already found in the second passage

A more difficult question is the determination of a pronunciation model
in order that Nigerian English can be identified by an informed listener -
one who would be able to say whether the model he hears is Received Pronunciation
(RP), Australian or American English." Any educated Nigerian
accent which best satisfies national and international intelligibility would
be acceptable. Since research has shown Hausa speakers to be more intelligible
than speakers of other Nigerian languages (Tiffen 1974)~th e type of
English speech used by educated Hausa speakers could be recommended.
However, such a suggestion renews the question of national acceptability
and places an undue obstacle in the way of the proposed Nigerian English.
Accordingly, rather than choose a regional accent of English in Nigeria, any
educated variety that permits proper pronunciation of the proposed
Nigerian English can be used.

With so many languages and with their speakers identifying so strongly
with them, Nigeria's national language issue may never be resolved amicably
in favour of an indigenous mother-tongue. Yet Nigeria needs to justify
its claim to political independence by adopting or adapting an existing language
which the people can be proud to call their national language. Perhaps
through the indigenisation of standard British English, a purely Nigerian
400 CJAS / RCEA XXI : 3 1987

dialect will evolve to better express Nigerian thoughts and cultures. The
"Nigerianess" of such English could help cement national unity by giving
Nigerians a language to cherish as their own rather than as an inheritance
from the British.

I. These included established kingdoms like the Hausa - Pulani and the Kanem
Empires from the North; the Oyo, Benin, and Igbo -Ukwu Kingdoms from the South;
and many others in between them. The partitioning of Africa in the nineteenth century
by the colonial powers and the subsequent amalgamation of Northern and Southern
Nigeria in 1914 finally brought these diverse ancient kingdoms together as one
political unit named Nigeria.
2. Many people believe that the Nigeria-Biafra war (1967-70) would not have been
fought if national unity was half as strong as ethnicity.
3. Administratively, Nigeria is divided into twenty-one states.
4. This was revealed by the Federal Minister of Education in an opening address
delivered at the 7th Conference of the Linguistic Association of Nigeria (LAN), University
of Maiduguri, 13 October 1986.
5 . In Languages of Africa (19631, J. H. Greenberg classifies African languages into
four phyla; Nilo-Saharan, Afro-Asiatic, Niger-Kordofanian, and Khoisan. All of these
phyla, except the latter, have members represented in Nigeria.
6. They actually use terms other than "Group" in classifying the languages.
Adekunle groups them into Class A - D; and Olagoke, into Major and Minor A and B. I
prefer "Group" because it is less derogatory.
7. Nigeria has three levels of government - Federal, State, and Local. The Local
Governments are made up of districts.
8. Alex Igbeneweka has just produced his Dictionary of GUOSA Language in
which sentences are made up from bits and pieces of words from the various Nigerian
languages, e.g., "Biko Funmi ruwa" - a combination of Igbo, Yoruba, and Hausa -
meaning, "please give me water."
9. The Sardauna of Sokoto, Sir Ahmadu Bello, was the Governor of the defunct
Northern Region of Nigeria who tried to enforce the use of the Hausa language
throughout his sphere of influence. This was rejected and resisted by the Tiv people
because they regarded it as an affront to their social identity. The result was a riot
which claimed many lives and destroyed property.
10. The National Assembly, comprising the Senate and the House of Representatives,
was constituted in 1979 when the Second Republic began. However, with the
military coup in 1983, the civilian government (and the Assembly) ceased to exist.
I I. "Received Pronunciation" (RP) is the British pronunciation that is "received"
(accepted as "proper") at the royal court." Victoria Fromkin and Robert Redman, An
Introduction to Language, 3rd edition, Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1983, z.5 I (Editor's

Achebe, C. I 97I. Arrow of God. Ibadan: Heinemann.
Adedipe, S. 1986. "Nigerianising the English Language." Sunday Concord 16 March
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Afolayan, A. 1977. "Acceptability of English as a Second Language in Nigeria." In
Acceptability in Language, edited by S. Greenbaum. The Hague: Mouton Publishers.
Azuonye, C. 1977 "Ada Ogu." Nigerian New Writing. Lagos: FMI.
Bamgbose, A. 1971. "The English in Nigeria." In The English Language in West
Africa, edited by J. Spencer. London: Longman.
Bulakarima, U. 1986. "Is Mobar a Kanuri Dialect"! In Annals of Borno 3. Maiduguri:
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Essien, 0.1986. "The Future of the Minority Languages in Nigeria." Paper presented
at the 7th Annual Conference of LAN, University of Maiduguri 12-17 October
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-. 1971. "Language and Ethnicity." In Language, Ethnicity and Inter-group
Relations, edited by E. Giles. London: Academy Press.
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Gregersen, E. A. 1977. Language in Africa. London: Gordon & Breach.
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Igbeneweka, M. A. 1983. "Guosa Language as a Lingua Franca for Nigeria." Paper
presented at LAN Conference, Benin.
Kebby, M. 1986. "Nigeria has a Lingua Franca." Sunday Times 9 November: 20.
Olagoke, D. 1982. "Choosing a National Language for Nigeria." IOLAN I: 197-206.
Rufa'i, A. 1977. "National Language in Nigeria." In Language and Linguistic Problems
in Africa, edited by P. F. A. Kotey. Columbia: Hornbeam Press.
Sofunnke, B. 1986. "National Language Policy for Democratic Nigeria: A Radical
Option." Paper presented at the 7th LAN Conference, University of Maiduguri
12-17 October.
Shaplin, M. L. and J. T. Shaplin. 1969. "Selected Aspects of Primary and Secondary
Schools Language Curriculum Development in Nigeria with Recommendations."
The Ford Foundation.
Tiffen, B. W. 1968. "Language Education in Commonwealth Africa." In Language in
Education, edited by J. Dakin. London: Oxford University Press.
1974. "The Intelligibility of Nigerian English." Ph.D. thesis, University of

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