“Say hello to uncle” sub-culture cannot drive major Nigerian languages into extinction – Professor Sola Oke at Iju Forum

October 1, 2012

Iju Public Affairs Forum

by Tola Adenle

The Nation on Sunday, August 17, 2008

This is the third year of the Iju Forum, an initiative of Professor Ladipo Adamolekun, a one-time professor of Public Administration at the University of Ife whose last employment with the World Bank before retirement was headship of the Togo Mission.  Even though Adamolekun is more renowned as a public administration authority, a University of Ibadan 1st Class Honors in French, several written books and articles on French West Africa – he’s an Oxford University D.Phil. in Politics – made it imperative that one of the presenters at his quarterly forum would eventually have to be a French language expert!

The Forum is an arm of a public research library – at his own cost – strategically located in his native Iju, Akure North to serve Adekunle Ajasin University of Ondo State; Ado-Ekiti University and the Federal University of Tech at Akure.  The three institutions are all within an hour’s drive from the library location.  Speakers at the Forum have come from within and outside the country, including Professor Kole Omotoso who now calls South Africa home; he gave the first presentation back in February 2006.  There has also been Dr. Victoria Kwakwa of the Abuja Office of the World Bank.  Subjects touched at this public affairs forum have been as varied as the speakers it has attracted and these have been covered in this column these last two years.

Back in the days of of rtd. Gen. Obasanjo’s imperial presidency, Omotoso’s presentation, “Nurturing Democratic Societies in Africa:  Lessons from South Africa” was spot on and was summarized in this column as “Subversion of societal institutions short-changes democracy” on February 5, 2006.  A plea for free hand to states to be enshrined in the Constitution was made by Mr. Dare Babarinsa in “The Political Restructing that Nigeria Needs” and was titled in this column of November 12, 2006 as “Nigerian President, a Leviathan presiding over puny states”.  On a light note, I’m not sure the celebrated journalist dare describe his party’s oracle as a “leviathan” these days now that he’s taken shelter under the PDP’s umbrella!

At the latest outing of the Forum on July 31, Professor Olusola Oke, another UI alumnus and a Professor of Modern Languages at the University of Ife where, after retirement, he’s still available to younger academics and students as a contract professor especially in his specialization, French Language – took his turn to present a paper on Language, Education and National Consciousness.

The session was attended by the regulars:  university academics, retired top civil servants, NGO conveners, health professionals, etcetera; also present was Ambassador Laleye, the new Benin Republic envoy to Nigeria.  As a Beninois of Yoruba ancestry, Ambassador Laleye’s presence – and contribution – shows the urgency that many Africans seem to recognize for the subject of language and culture.

Professor Oke’s presentation focused on many areas, including Language and Nigerian Education, Multilingualism and the Inevitability of Bilingualism, and Official Language and National Consciousness but judging from the lively questions and answers segment after the presentation, it seems the most important areas of the presentation can be summarized with the following questions:  what are the assumptions behind the neglect of the indigenous language?  What is the position of indigenous languages in Nigerian education?  What is the relationship between Indigenous languages and national consciousness?

The title of this essay derives from Professor Oke’s reference to Nigerian kids, especially Yoruba, that are often told by parents to say hello to older males – and females – in English even though the “uncle” or “auntie” is also Yoruba because the kids do NOT understand their mother tongue, including even those born and raised in Yorubaland.  This came up under the assumptions behind the neglect of Nigerian indigenous languages.  Professor Oke believes – and most older Nigerians would agree – that “the Nigerian elite, especially, the younger and youngest generations allow their children to speak them [colonizers’ languages’] as mother tongues because they see these languages as being more beneficial to the kids’ future career development.  He traces this abandonment of our own languages in favor of English in the Nigerian situation to colonial times when “African languages were usually associated with ‘low status, humiliation, slow-footed intelligence and ability or downright stupidity … and barbarism’ as contended by Ngugi (1968).

A participant’s contribution seemed to confirm Oke’s fears that Nigerian languages are seen by elites as not being more useful than – as the participant jokingly put it – “communicating with the grandparents”:  a tool that is not really needed because all the people in the socialization of the child and his/her later professional life understand English, anyway.  These elites must wonder at the need to (sort of) burden a child with indigenous languages that are “almost totally irrelevant especially as far as benefits and privileges are concerned … At job interviews, any mention of the applicant’s competence in an indigenous language is likely to be laughed off as an irrelevant attribute or could be interpreted as an attempt to attract ethnic sympathy from the interview panel …”

Are indigenous languages just to socialize at “local level” or to say hello to the uncles who do not understand English?  Professor Oke’s argument on the important roles of indigenous languages and national consciousness is a clarion call not to just the elite but also to government whose Policy on Education as regards the teaching of the main Nigerian languages seem only to be lip-service driven:

“It is indisputable that language is part of self-identification and part of cultural heritage. … it defines us culturally, morally and predetermines … the value that we attach to economic life, to public life (emphasis mine) … The fear of losing one’s linguistic heritage is an unmistakable aspect of people’s resistance to foreign cultures …”  Here Professor Oke touched the naming of children in Yoruba, for example which now seems to have completely gone wild, no thanks to the influence of religion, specifically Christianity.  Young Yoruba elites, instead of looking to their background or the circumstances of their children’s births to select names as their parents and ancestors have always done, now give long and winding sentences as names.  In the same manner, traditional festivals that used to mark different events:  new yams, etcetera, are also fast disappearing.

It may interest the young elites that their children stand to gain more than communicating ability with their rural relations by mastering their mother tongue.  Here is backing for that from Professor Oke’s presentation:  “A child’s readiness to learn is probably not facilitated by his or her external needs only but perhaps also by the innate predisposition which the mother tongue shapes and is probably better suited to actualize.  A Yoruba child who has been socialized primarily in the Yoruba community is certainly more likely to make faster and more significant progress in formal (emphasis also mine) education if he or she does not have to ‘purge himself/herself of the mother tongue’ in order to facilitate the learning of English …”

At a practical level can be seen the fact that older Nigerian elites who went to school when the ONLY socializing languages were the different mother tongues mastered the English Language to a degree matched only, perhaps, by kids who attend top-drawer private elementary and secondary schools today.

Professor Oke sees Nigeria’s inadequate attention to indigenous languages in education as being, at least, far ahead of countries like Benin Republic and South Africa where “the introduction of indigenous African languages into formal education is still an issue”.  A South African child reportedly burst into tears when told of the plan to teach Zulu!  Ambassador Laleye believes the Yoruba-speakers of Benin would benefit from sticking to the alphabet patterns of Nigeria’s Yoruba so that they can access the abundant literature published in Nigeria.  His turn at the Forum comes up April 30 next year.

Professor Oke believes that government can – and must fight – “the assault of the Nigerian elite that has caught the fever of monolingualism” against an education policy that aims to entrench “official multilingualism” through the teaching of the three major languages, Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa.  He mentions the Obafemi Awolowo University experiment at the Education Faculty back in the 70s in “a Six-Year Primary Project in which Yoruba was used as medium of instruction while English was taught by specially-trained teachers … At the end of the six-year period the pupils who were taught in Yoruba performed better than their counterparts who were taught in Yoruba in the first three years and in English in the last three years in practically all subjects including English” (emphasis mine).  Replicating Professor Fafunwa’s initiative, as well as embarking on public awareness of the place of indigenous languages by the Federal Government would show the elite why the mother tongue must be retained at home for children.

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