By Anote Ajeluorou and Greg Austin Nwakunor
Ever wonder why many Europeans and other nationals living in African set up indigenous schools here and elsewhere with a strong bias for their respective local languages or mother tongues? The French, the Dutch, the Germans, the Turks, the Chinese; they all have their own schools that teach their respective local languages besides the broader curriculum for examination purposes. Like the tortoise and his ancient shell, these Europeans go everywhere with their local languages or mother tongues just as, ironically, they have labelled African languages ‘vernacular’ that should be banned!
As a result, African children, nay many Nigerian children, raised even in their home towns and villages now speak very little of their mother tongues preferring instead to speak ‘English’, Nigeria’s official language of communication, business and prestige. Needless to say, those with abilities to write the mother tongues are dwindling by the second. In most cases, it’s the bible that is the only surviving written material or text of most local languages; the much-talked about threat of indigenous language extinction couldn’t be more real for a majority of African languages than this.
It’s against this bleak background that some three Nigerian and African writers, scholars and academics spoke at the recent handover to Port Harcourt city UNESCO World Book Capital 2014 baton. Eminently qualified to speak on this vexing issue and condemn negative attitudes regarding neglect of mother tongues both at homes and in schools were Dr. Gabriel Okara, Prof. JP Clark and §prof. Omolara Ogundipe, currently at the Department of English Studies at University of Port Harcourt. They spoke at different sessions during the weeklong literary events that accompanied the handover ceremony designed to stimulate interests in books that open windows of opportunities to those who make them lifelong companions.
Okara, a poet and children’s writer, was responding to a question on his major prose work The Voice, which he wrote back in the 1960s, and why he peppered it with a lot of Izon elements and ambience. Okara, who turned 93 on April 24, was engaged on sundry literary and national issues embedded in his writing. For Okara, the language issue is a touching and even personal one. It’s akin to an elder watching a tethered goat give and unable to do anything to help. He affirmed that his desire to preserve his native Izon language prompted him to create an essentially Izon ambience in the novel, as a way of rescuing his language from dying out outright.
For Okara and a host of other discerning intellectuals and thinkers, a grasp of the mother tongue is a key element in deepening intellectual pursuits, as it prepared the basis for a clearer understanding of concepts. Okara maintained that Africa was losing a lot as a result of abandoning its mother tongues for foreign languages.
He said, “By using English as a means of communication, we’re losing some ofour values. When we try to translate from our languages, we lose some of our meanings and values. And if we lose our local languages, we lose our culture as well, as language is carrier of a people’s culture!”
For Clark also, poet, playwright and first African to be appointed to a chair in an English department of a university, abandonment of mother tongue that seems the modern fad in raising children both in the cities and villages by most parents is so disheartening, as it amounts to emptying out the soul of a continent and replacing it with hollowness. His mood, while speaking on the issues, was that of melancholy and loss of all that is dear and enduring. He said he was to realise the loss he was also aiding to perpetuate late in the day, and admitted being complicit in the language betrayal and but couldn’t do much about it afterwards as a writer.
Clark said he only came to realisation at University College, Ibadan that all the great English poets and writers he’d read at Government College, Ughelli, were actually writing in their mother tongue or local language. He recalled his maternal uncle, Debesi, an Urhobo, who was a great poet, composer and singer of Udje performance poetry, whom he’d seen perform as a child and compared his prodigious performance talent with those of the English poets he’d been taught in school like Chaucer, Wordsworth, Byron, Blake and the rest and found no greater talent in these English men than in his uncle. As an act of redemption and restoration, he quickly began to translate some of his uncle’s song-poems into English like ‘The Death of Okrika’, a moving dirge on the loss of a newly wed bride, and those of others he could find.
He also translated the Ijaw epic Ozidi into English and which performance he helped midwife in the 1960s; it all stemmed from this need to resurrect his mother tongues – Urhobo and Izon – into mainstream linguistic recognition.
He regretted, however, that he didn’t write his poetry and plays in either Ijaw or Urhobo (his mother being Urhobo), something he can’t start doing all over again. But having realised the mistake of his generation of writers in not using their respective local languages like their Kenyan counterpart, Ngugi wa Thiong’o (author of Weep Not Child), Clark encourages younger writers to try and reverse the trend by writing in their local languages. Clark said, “try and take back your mother tongues in your writing in indigenous languages and not just write in English alone. Let the children grow up in your mother tongue. Do it well by knowing it well. At a conference of writers, wa Thiong’o wanted us to write in our local languages but we were all doing this in English”.
Coming from a man of Clark’s stature, and being humbled by such generational mistake, as pioneer writer and thinker, this must mean something. Educational policymakers would only do well to listen and learn.
Late Prof. Babs Fafunwa’s 6-3-3-4 education policy of the late 1980s was designed to redress this language difficulty when it prescribed that the first few years of a child’s education should be in his or her mother tongue. But this was soon jettisoned for a host of logistical problems and a lack of commitment.
But to complete the mother tongue proposition at the Port Harcourt UNESCO World Book Capital 2014 was Prof. Ogundipe. She spoke at the Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God@50 Celebration sub-event commemorating Achebe’s second novel that turns 50 this year. For this first female to graduate first class in English from University of London at University College, Ibadan, the place of mother tongue in a child’s early education is key. She narrated how, as a child, her mother, an English teacher, forbade them from speaking any language other than Yoruba at home. It was not until she entered the school system and at advance classes that she first encountered English. She went on to make superlative grade in it.
For parents who erroneously assume that exposing a child to English at an early stage would aid him or her, Prof. Ogundipe has a shocker for them in her own personal experience, which should serve as shinning model. According to her, “My mother, an English teacher, didn’t encourage us to speak English at home, but I went on to get 7As in my school certificate and the first Nigerian woman to get a first class at University of London!”
She said those of them who went through that process spoke better English and charged parents to be at the forefront of instituting mother tongues in schools, as they stood more to gain by so doing. Ogundipe opined that language embodies a whole set of values, particularly African values, which she said were already being lost with the entrenchment of a foreign language. She frowned at how Nigerians, especially those in the Diaspora, shun their local languages and actively promoted its abandonment. She said efforts to set up a Yoruba language study centre in the U.S. some years ago to help Yoruba children failed because of poor parents’ attitude towards the project.
“Parents should fight for the institution of mother tongues in schools, at home and through study centres”, Ogundipe noted. “Parenting is also at the heart of the mother tongue debacle. Parents need to change their attitudes towards their mother tongues, and it should start from homes where mother tongue should be encouraged”.
Also lending his voice to the debate was former Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), Dr. Wale Okediran and National Organising Chairman (NOC) for the Arrow of God@50 Celebration. He argued that Achebe, the late literary icon, although wrote his prose works in English, was passionate about his Igbo language and tradition, which he made popular in his works. He said Achebe also wrote some of his poems in Igbo language, adding, “The Achebes, even though had western education, were steeped in African tradition. Too bad we moderns forget the traditional ways as we educate our children in English”.