Omotoso Decries Extinction Of African Languages

By IAfrica
In Nigeria
Feb 28th, 2014
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Kole Omotoso

Nkrumah Bankong-Obi

Even for an academic known for his optimism about available solutions to problems, Professor Kole Omotoso is visibly unhappy about the rate at which African indigenous languages are disappearing.

He expressed this dismay Thursday at a public lecture, a second in the series, at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, Lagos.

Speaking on the topic ‘Language Industry and Language Research in Africa: The case of South Africa and Nigeria,’ Omotoso began by sounding the alarm bell on the extinction of many African languages as a result of neglect and preference of colonial languages to indigenous ones by Africans, a practice he blames on the leadership’s lack of commitment to the nurturing of local dialects and languages.

He named what he termed the subtractive method of language acquisition in the continent as an important reason why we are losing our mother tongues.

“Learning languages in Africa has always been subtractive. The process of learning the colonial language seems to include losing our mother tongue.”

Thus, he said the 529 languages in Nigeria stand the risk of going into oblivion, as some of them are seriously threatened, partially affected or totally forgotten.

He regretted that despite the United Nations Educational and Scientific Organisation, UNESCO’s directive in 1953 that children of school age should first be instructed in their mother tongue, many years later that declaration is yet to be enforced.

He decried the situation where only 176 indigenous languages are taught in African schools, saying Africa is the only continent in the world where students are taught in colonial languages rather than their mother tongues.

Omotoso who is currently a visiting professor at the Adekunle Ajasin University, Akoko, Ondo State, singled out south Africa for developing a platform where about 12 of that country’s indigenous languages are official languages of business in that country.

The result of losing these African languages, according to Omotoso who has interacted with Arabic, French, Zulu, Afrikaans, Xosa, English and other international languages, is that  records of important landmarks, natural disasters, festivals and things of important historical importance have been lost.

Memorized material, he also noted, have been lost as a result of the shift towards colonial languages at the expense of the indigenous tongues.  He also blamed the poorly spoken and written English in the country to our de-emphasizing of our own native tongues.

“Your language is full of information. The moment you lose it you are losing your history. The reason learning a foreign language is not going anywhere in the country is because we don’t pay attention to our own languages. Our language must be given a pride of place,” he said.

Apart from governments’ lack of interest in ensuring that these languages are preserved through education in schools, he blamed the indifference on the part of the middle class as well as the poor state of education for the increasing apathy towards African languages.

In neglecting their diverse languages, the guest lecturer said, Africans have deliberately shut themselves out of the opportunities that exist in the language service industry. For example, he said the Peoples Republic of China in 2011 had over 10,500 language service providers in different sectors including ICT, entertainment, tourism among others and these constitute appreciable gross domestic returns to the country.

Omotoso drew attention to the fact that if  “development of a people is tied to their language, then, there is need for Africans to look inwards. Governments, he concluded, must begin to loosen up on the emphasis on colonial languages at the expense of African ones.

In his contribution, Professor Samuel Aje, former director-general of the French Language Village, now Coordinator of the Goodluck Jonathan Foreign Language Institute, Abuja, explained that a person’s language carries with it his customs and traditions, hence “it is not our invention but a heritage left behind for us by our parents.”

Aje stressed the need to launch a campaign aimed at retrieving, recording, researching and preserving our indigenous languages, since, as he argued, there can be no systematic development without paying attention to language.

He admonished investors to consider looking into empowering researchers to explore the development of our local languages. Part of this, the language scholar explained, had been captured in the National Policy on Education which is yet to take off due to the absence of language teachers.

The guest of honour, Ambassador Olusola Sanu, called for the bi-lingual instructional system in Nigeria.

He advised that  at least two languages be introduced –  English and French as a way of ensuring that Nigeria communicates more effectively with her neighbours of francophone Africa.

He based his submission on his experience in the Foreign Service where he said he encountered some difficulties interacting with some diplomats because of his lack of understanding of French.

Other contributors like Odia Ofeimun advocated for the need for children of school age be first be educated in the language of the locality where they attend school. In his view, Ofeimun said people who lose touch with their native languages have issues with  other languages.

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