By Ogunjimi James Taiwo
“When an old man dies in Africa, it is like a library burning down.” – Hampate Ba
“Our culture has a rich oral tradition, oral history, stories told from one generation to another. But it is an oral literature our kids will never hear.” – Paulo Chihale
It is a disturbing fact that African countries have embraced foreign languages at the expense of indigenous languages. As such, traditions and beliefs that have been passed on from generation to generation are gradually going into extinction. Proverbs and stories that served as moral lessons and generational teachings have been traded for the ‘fables of aesop’, Mills and bones, etc, and foreign films now serve as the instructor of today’s children. Indigenous languages have been labelled ‘vernacular’ or ‘gibberish’, and as such, most African children and youths in primary and secondary schools are even punished for speaking their mother tongues. Students who pass foreign languages well are revered, while students who have high scores in their indigenous languages are looked down upon or called ‘local’. Some governments help hasten the death of some of our indigenous languages by showing preference, and school authorities also aid the extinction. For example, in Sierra Leone, a school principal punished students who spoke Krio in school and even washed their mouths with soap. In some Nigerian schools, students are beaten for speaking their mother tongues or even fined.
Africa has more than 2000 languages, making her the most linguistically diverse continent in the world. The sad truth however is that up to 300 of these languages have less than 10,000 speakers and 37 of them are in danger of completely dying out. The trading of Africa’s indigenous languages have led to today’s children feeling ashamed of speaking their mother tongue. Koome Kirimi observed, “The world is ailing from an illness; globalisation. The give-and-take dynamics of globalisation have seen African states give away more than they’ve received. African states are giving away their language, their culture, their identity.”
Harris Garikayi gave his reasons for the fading off of indigenous languages as: “Indigenous languages are slowly dying simply because we Africans believe that foreign languages are superior to our local languages. English is considered a language of prestige and if you can’t speak grammatically correct English then you are considered to be primitive. I believe we need to decolonise our minds in order to take pride and preserve our languages.”
The colonial school systems in Africa forbade the use of local languages, which it called “vernacular” or “gibberish”, but the process continued with those who took over power from them. African leaders have failed to re-ignite the love of our indigenous languages in the heart of the people, which actually defeats the purpose of independence. Many African elites have encouraged their children to forsake their mother tongues and embrace foreign languages because they feel it proves they are civilised people. We have been deceived into believing that mastering our colonial masters’ languages would usher us into paradise and upgrade us into civilisation. The effect is that, many children and youths can’t greet or sing in their mother tongue. It is the responsibility of parents to ensure the survival of indigenous languages by ensuring that they communicate with their children and relate with them solely in their indigenous language. Enole Ditsheko reasons that, “It is ideal that before a person can claim authority in another language through books and interaction with teachers or in the case of our children, through multimedia platforms, he or she should master his or her own tongue.”
If Africa is to stop its languages from going into extinction, there is the need for urgent remedial steps to be taken, not just by the government, but by all families. The government must allow the use of indigenous languages in the school without stigmatising those who speak it. Pupils/students who excel in their indigenous languages must be showered with encomiums to serve as encouragement to them and to serve as challenge to others. Families must be encouraged to relate with their kids in their indigenous language. Children must be made to understand and appreciate their mother tongue.
Ogunjimi James Taiwo