By Anote Ajeluorou
In spite of the strong emphasis linguists, oral folklorists, writers and experts place on the need for parents to transmit their mother tongues to their children through active usage at home, many people across the world are yet to heed this call. In nowhere else is this negligent attitude more glaring than in parts of Africa, especially among small ethnic groups with minority languages. These minority languages are battling the onslaught of majority languages fostered on them by a multitude of factors not least is rampaging globalization that is fast assimilating and annihilating secure traditional lifestyles and modes of living.
Therefore, the need to preserve minority languages from disappearing altogether is the concern of a well-researched new book by author and folklorist Dr. Bukar Usman Language Disappearance and Cultural Diversity in Biu Emirate (Klamidas Communications Ltd, Abuja; 2014).
Usman is rightly alarmed by the trend whereby his own language, Babur/Bura, among the several spoken in Biu Emirate, a minority language in North-Eastern Nigeria, faces the danger of disappearing and not being spoken at all in years to come. As a folklorist who has collected several folktales and is interested in developing and entrenching the oral tradition of storytelling on which he grew up listening to the old folks, the loss of his mother tongue and those of others in his immediate Biu locale and elsewhere, would signal an irreplaceable loss to the pool of human heritage and knowledge systems. For him and many others in the race to rescue endangered languages across the world, the mother tongue is such a crucial element of development for which concerted efforts must be made to save and preserve them wherever they face possible extinction.
The folklorist has drawn largely on the example of his local Babur/Bura language of Biu Emirate while also paying attention to situations elsewhere to amplify a global concern. According to both the United Nations and UNESCO the rate at which languages are disappearing across the globe is alarming, and unless the trend is reversed, the world will be the worst for it in the core human values that would be lost as a result.
According to the author, a number of reasons account for the loss or disappearance of a language. As he put it, “The most important reasons are the official policies and practices of imperial powers and the subjugation, consciously or unconsciously, of languages of smaller groups by those of larger or more powerful (populous) entities. The most critical casualty in any clash of culture is the language of the overwhelmed or overpowered culture. This is because language is the greatest embodiment of any culture”.
British, colonial rule in most parts of Africa engendered this subjugation on host community/Africa’s languages. And as a potent carrier of culture, colonial culture has remained entrenched in Africa even though colonial stranglehold ended some 50 years ago or more.
Military conquest and consequent imposition of the conquering forces is another reason why language might disappear; so, too, are demographic forces, especially when people are forced to move en mass from one place to another. “Historically, imperial powers were mostly colonial in nature, which meant that they imposed themselves and their cultural values on other people’s territories,” he states. But there are local domineering forces as well, especially when a local language with a looming population dominates smaller language groups, as Hausa has done in the author’s Biu Emirate council.
Usman states, “Both the colonial and local peddlers of cultural influence assert their imperial, political, or economic weight on minority languages, promoting their own languages at the expense of these, thereby paving the way for language displacement”. The administrative, socio-economic and educational policies that tend to promote the language with the larger population help seal the fate of smaller ones, as the language with the larger population becomes the language of prestige and minority speakers readily migrate away from their smaller ones.
The author further asserts, “It may be argued that some of the linguistically weaker groups, in their sheer need to communicate effectively with the larger population sojourning among them, may unconsciously find themselves using or preferring the dominant language over their own”. This shows the plight of minority language speakers who are confronted with a dilemma of choice. Usman also argues that while the UN is making efforts to encourage minority language groups not to give up on their own languages, the world body is guilty of entrenching certain major languages over others in its official policy, whereby only six out of the over 7,000 languages in the world are in use at its sessions.
So, he argues, “As globalization permeates many countries, communities and clans, there’s a growing trend whereby many speakers of indigenous languages are abandoning them for more prestigious and economically useful majority languages. The implication is that in the foreseeable future many languages spoken by linguistic minorities could become extinct unless adequate measures are taken to curtail the trend”.
The author asserts that the importance of cultural diversity embodied in a language cannot be over-emphasized. A UNESCO report he quotes amply emphasizes this fact: “Every language reflects a unique world-view with its own value systems, philosophy and particular cultural features. The extinction of a language results in the irrecoverable loss of unique cultural knowledge embodied in it for centuries, including historical, spiritual and ecological knowledge that may be essential for the survival of not only its speakers, but also countless others. For speaker communities, languages are the creations and the vectors of tradition. They support cultural identity and are an essential part of a community’s heritage”.
On the other hand, the author states that language is the instrumentality through which we “approach, investigate, note and categorise human nature and the natural environment itself… The essence of language goes beyond mere communication”. Some of the unique qualities a language displays include, as he puts it, are “richly showcasing… unique cultures, philosophies of life, literature (oral and written), idioms, proverbs, rituals, ceremonies, dance, architecture, medicine, religion, social skills, conservation methods and agriculture, among several others”.
Six ways in which a language helps humanity’s survival is encapsulated in its role to advance ethnic or group identity, its diverse cultural and literary heritage, transfer of traditional knowledge, source of historical information, advancement of linguistic knowledge and knowledge about human nature.
Narrowing his research on his Biu Emirate, Usman identifies three factors that endanger Biu languages. First is the influence of Kanuri, followed by Hausa and thirdly, English languages, which he says exert have caused the decline of the six languages in Biu Emirate – Bura/Babur, Tera, Narghi, Hinna, Kanakuru and Fulfulde. Usman concludes with a gloomy outlook, “These three powerful languages – Kanuri, Hausa and English – have, in different degrees, affected the stability of the minority languages of Biu Emirate. Today, the situation looks gloomy as no language can survive for long in an economically and socially subordinate position. Language death seems almost inevitable as the speakers of the minority languages switch their allegiance to the socially dominant languages”.
However, all is not hopeless yet if only communities badly affected like Biu Emirate and other minority language groups could take appropriate measures to reverse the ugly trend. UNESCO has pointed out certain steps that can be taken to avoid language extinction. They include “preparatory work in form of socio-linguistic surveys defining the current situation of the language to be studied and determining the safeguarding measures to be adopted, data collection to study the phonology, morphology and syntax of the language and thirdly preparing language materials (orthography guides, reading and writing manuals, teacher guides, word lists, small dictionaries, grammars)”.
For an endangered language to be effectively preserved, certain individuals in a community must be co-opted to play a role. These include the family through which intergenerational transmission of a language is possible from parents to children in the home. The role of parents is crucial in transmitting mother tongue to children who in turn pass it onto their children. Many scholars and experts have canvased this important factor over and over again. The roles of the community and language experts as well as the role of public policymakers in ensuring that a language enjoys maximum prestige to endear it to its native speakers, usually the young people whose duty it is to also pass it to their own children for its perpetuity, are key.
Therefore, the author concludes, “…It is clear that no matter the degree of endangerment of any indigenous language, its speakers, if determined at family and communal levels, can stop the disappearance of its linguistic heritage largely by ensuring that intergenerational transmission of their mother tongue is implemented in every household. This is the bottom line. It is the most basic and effective measure… intergenerational transmission should be considered the bloodline of language preservation. It is what the nomadic Fulani have used to preserve Fulfulde for several generations…”
Usman’s Language Disappearance and Cultural Diversity is a valuable contribution in the fight for survival of minority languages threatened by extinction in the face of more dominant, globalised languages. Parents that snob their own mother tongues will do well to read this book. So, too, with communities facing similar threats; the book will enhance their understanding in preservation of their languages. This book is an important research material that will serve Bui Emirate people greatly as well as others in similar position.