Language is one of the most fundamental characteristics of being a Nigerian. It binds us to our ethnic identities and roots us in particular cultural and religious traditions. In Yorobaland, for instance, dialects are so distinct that some even constitute mini-languages of their own. Language is not just part of our heritage, it’s the key to cultural acceptance. It’s no secret that speaking the dominant language of any particular region is sure to get you better treatment by the locals – particularly in a disagreement or a negotiation. Thus, many young, urban Nigerians and Nigerians raised in the the Diaspora who don’t speak their native languages are reluctant to admit it for fear of the negative reactions they will receive.
A cultural display of African unity at last year’s Calabar Carnival.
Language plays an important role in what it means to be Nigerian, but it is still too often a source of division and contention. Many Nigerian families are more accepting of a marriage across racial lines than across tribal or ethnic ones. And campaigning for public office is often reduced to a shorthand of appealing to tribal or regional loyalties. Post-colonial authors like Chinua Achebe, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and Franz Fanon, noted that this phenomenon has its roots in colonialism which sought to define everything African as “bad” and everything European as “good”.
Perhaps this is why, despite their importance at home, native African languages still struggle to be taken seriously on the world stage. Though languages like Hausa, Swahili, Zulu and Lingala are spoken by large numbers of people across the continent – and were used to trade across borders for centuries – one would be hard-pressed to find them listed as available languages in international gatherings.
Small glimmers of change have started to appear, however. As Africans economies gain more power, their citizens – and the languages they speak – are gaining more recognition. In the UK, high street shops such as Debenams have started putting up signs in Hausa, in acknowledgement of some of their top shoppers. And as the tech giant Google moves into the African market, it has added several African languages, including Igbo, Hausa and Yoroba, to its Google Translate program.
Yet the future of many African languages is under fire. In Nigeria, fluency in one’s native language is increasingly becoming a mark of the older generations and the less educated masses. In its place, creole (hybrid) languages such as Pidgin English are gaining currency. Will our languages still retain the power to unite (and divide) us in 100 years time?
It might do us well to remember the words of Kenyan author Ngugi Wa Thiong’o: ”Language carries culture and culture carries (particularly through orature and literature) the entire body of values by which we perceive ourselves and our place in the world.”