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Before Google begins to teach Nigerian youths their languages

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Setting agenda for University of Nigeria witchcraft conference
Olabisi Deji-Folutile

OLABISI DEJI-FOLUTILE writes on the need to promote Nigeria’s indigenous languages in order to save them from dying.  She describes language as a vital means of identification which Nigerians cannot afford to lose.

Orientation Agency could also develop communication campaigns targeted at encouraging youths to speak their indigenous languages.   Language is a vital means of identification.  We can’t afford to lose this identity.

I have been following the ongoing debate on the origin and meaning of the word Yoruba, with Mr. Femi Fani Kayode, arguing that Yoruba was derived from the word Yariba, which means “shady and unreliable.’’ According to him, the people called Yoruba today are Anago and their language, also Anago. He said the Fulani were the first to refer to the Yoruba as Yariba. To him, the Fulani used two demeaning and insulting words namely Nyamiri meaning “the fetcher of water” in reference to the people of the South East and Yariba to describe the people of the South West. He, therefore, concluded that he is not a Yoruba, but a son of Oduduwa.

Many Nigerians have contributed to this debate, including a respected professor of history, Professor Banji Akintoye.  On his part, the historian is of the view that there are hundreds of years of history of the existence of the name Yorùbá in the history of the Yorùbá nation.  Citing the works of several other scholars, he said Yoruba was first applied to the early Yorùbá traders who used to go and trade in the countries of the Upper Niger (roughly modern Mali). This submission notwithstanding, Fani -Kayode has held on to his assertion.  He said the essence of the debate was to reject what is assumed to be an insulting label on Yoruba, especially an insult that “has deep sinister, mystical and spiritual connotations.”

In as much as the ongoing debate is intellectually tasking, it may not be more than mere intellectual exercise. It is not certain, for example, if anything tangible could come out of it in terms of policy shift.  The possibility of the Yoruba race answering Anago seems remote. I doubt if it could result in the review of Yoruba study materials or make Anago replace Yoruba in any official transaction either home or abroad.

Nonetheless, the debate has created room for the discourse of a disturbing trend in the Nigerian society. Nowadays, many young Nigerians rarely speak  their indigenous languages. A lot of them also rely on Google to interpret Nigerian indigenous languages to them. This is worrisome! At the rate the country is going, Google may soon become Nigerian youths’ all- knowing teacher  if we are not careful.

Just some few days back, one of President Muhammadu  Buhari’s daughters, Zahra, confessed that she could barely speak Hausa, her native language. Really, she has not said anything new. It’s common knowledge that many youths of her age rarely speak their indigenous languages. They prefer to speak English.

Interestingly, as Nigerian youths are shunning their own native languages, Americans and other foreigners are coming to the nation’s universities to learn the indigenous languages. Many of them spend months in the country and are attached to Nigerian families as part of their immersion programme. By the time they are through, they don’t only speak Nigeria’s indigenous languages, they speak them in an undiluted manner.

Don’t get me wrong. It is really not a big deal for a foreigner to speak Nigerian indigenous language. After all, English is also a language that many Nigerians  learned.  Although our policy makers may argue that  English is Nigeria’s second language,  we know that English is  not our mother tongue;  we are not native speakers of the language.  However, it becomes a  big deal, when we dump our language for others’ languages. In the case of other foreigners, they are only interested in learning our indigenous languages, and adding them to theirs.  They are not here because they want to abandon their languages for ours.  You are not likely, for example, to find an English man, dropping his language for German or French, dropping his for Spanish.

I remember an encounter I once had with a German as a student at the University of Lagos. I was to interview him but conducting the interview in English was a herculean task. He refused to speak English.  He insisted that the interview must be conducted in German. I spent days pleading with him before he finally agreed to speak English.  He was obviously proud of his heritage.

Unfortunately, in Nigeria, we are often chided for speaking our native languages.  Right from primary school, pupils are made to believe that communicating in their local dialect is crude and wrong.  Schools have laws that prohibit “speaking in vernacular.” Pupils are sometimes punished for conversing in their local languages.  They pay fines for speaking their indigenous languages.  Is it possible for a Chinese teacher to punish  his/her pupil for speaking Chinese in class?  Many Nigerians studying in countries where English is not the official language have had to learn the native languages of their host countries.  To study in France, for example, a student must learn French, same for Spain, the student  must  first learn to speak  Spanish. In like manner, a person aspiring to study in Russia would have to learn Russian.

Google translation is meant to help non-speakers of a language to understand it. It is not something that native speakers rely on. But, here, everything has been turned upside down.  Since Google is now the trusted teacher of Nigeria’s indigenous languages, trust the search engine, it teaches those that rely on it, what it thinks is right. For instance, it doesn’t know the difference between words that have similar meanings.  Hence, it can tell them “Obe (knife) in Yoruba, is the same thing as Obe (stew) since it has the same spelling. Even when there are intonation marks, many youths don’t know the difference.  The other time, a young lady wanted to interpret a phrase “thing of pride,’’ and asked Google, which interpreted it as “Gberaga,’’ meaning to be proud.  Imagine that.  I doubt if a Chinese will rely on Google for interpretation of Chinese language.

The nation’s educational policy is not helping matters. You need a credit in English Language before you can gain admission to higher institution. It doesn’t matter what you are going there to study.  We abandon our indigenous languages for another’s and at the end of the day, we are neither here nor there. Today, Nigeria is proud to have special language villages for French and Arabic and none for any of its indigenous languages.

As we have teachers that take delight in punishing students for speaking vernacular, there are also parents that think it is beneath their status for their children to speak their indigenous languages. Ironically, many of such parents don’t even know how to speak good English. Similarly, students would rather study English or any other foreign language than go for indigenous languages. They believe studying foreign languages is more financially rewarding.

The late Professor Babs Fafunwa was one of the scholars that believe in using indigenous language to teach pupils  for easy assimilation. Some people could argue that there are schools in some parts of the country that employ local language in teaching and students still perform woefully.  They may not be totally wrong.  Many factors, however, contribute to failure in schools. For example, teaching in local language does not mean that a teacher should not understand what he/she is teaching. How many teachers in states where pupils fail woefully, truly understand what they are teaching?  Many of them are not even trained as teachers to start with.

Before Google becomes the sole instructor of young Nigerians on indigenous languages, it is imperative for stakeholders and policy makers to intensify efforts at promoting  the nation’s local languages. The Lagos State House of Assembly conducts some of its sessions in indigenous language while Ekiti State government has adopted Yoruba as means of communication at official events. These steps are commendable.

Beyond this, government at all levels should  encourage children  to interact in their local languages in schools. Such time of interaction shouldn’t just be limited to the lesson periods of such languages. There is nothing to be ashamed of in speaking one’s local language.  Stakeholders could organise writing competitions on local languages for students to boost their interest in these languages. The National Orientation Agency could also develop communication campaigns targeted at encouraging youths to speak their indigenous languages.   Language is a vital means of identification.  We can’t afford to lose this identity.

*Olabisi Deji-Folutile is a member of the Nigerian Guild of Editors. Email bisideji@yahoo.co.uk

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