THE ROLES OF ENGLISH LANGUAGE IN NIGERIA
One of the dominant and pervasive problems in Nigeria, and in Africa at large, is the language question.
Language, being a potent vehicle of transmitting cultures, values, norms and beliefs from generation to generation, remains a central factors in determining the status or nature of any nation. This informs the submission of Isayev (1977:1992) that “language is a nation’s most obvious and most important attribute. There is no such thing as a nation without a common linguistic basic”. The dominant inference from Isayev’s observation is that for national integration, cohension and development, there must be a language acceptable to all in running a nation’s affairs.
In Nigeria, where like many other African nations, multilingualism is a rule rather than an exemption, the problem of “forging ahead” is of crucial import.
Among the competing languages that scramble form national recognition or official language (the language of administration and education at some levels), the language of relevance, from the competitors for the purpose of uniting the nation.
Fortunately or unfortunately, English has emerged as that privileged language without which the unity of Nigeria as a nation is mostly improbably, if not out rightly impossible. This article attempts to highlight the English language, of other functions, it performs in Nigeria, unites the country. This unifying role and its allied issues are discussed with a view to showing that the imposition or adoption of any language apart from English as the nation’s official language will lead to the scenario captured by Thomas W.Cob above; and why from now till a relatively long time to come, if not absolutely forever, the continuous existence of Nigeria will be analogous to the nineteenth – century wales, the slogan of which was: “If you want to get ahead, get and English head” (Williams 1986 cited in Bamigbose, 1991:20).
THE UNIFYING ROLES OF ENGLISH IN NIGERIA
English is the language of integration in Nigeria as our previous discussion shows. Amidst the compounding complexities of Nigeria especially in relation t the language question, the only language that indexes the spirit of togetherness is English. More often than not, activities. Conducted in indigenous languages are reprobated as being ethnic or tribal, except in cultural celebrations or entertainment displays. This explains why even the colonial era, when English had not attained its present level of ascendance in national and international affairs, political parties were formed in English.
Though, the parties might have regional bases, the fact that they were named in English entailed their collective import. The Northern People Congress (NPC) The Action Group A (AG), the NCNC (National Council of Nigerian Citizens after the excision of southern Cameroon). National Elements Progressive Union (NEPU) etc. were formed to integrate all Nigerians and give them a sense of belonging. This trend has necessarily survived till today with all the national political parties formed and sloganeered in English.
English is also acceptable to all – even to those who clamour against its irresistible dominance. It is the language that is not fraught with suspicions in any formal or literate context.
During the military regime of General Abacha for instance, there was an allegation or insinuation that the apex ruling council meetings were sometimes conducted in Hausa which the second in command, general Diya did not speak, at a time that the relationship between them became frosty. It is the only language that does not generate suspicions of having a skeleton in one’s cupboard or a “hidden agenda in inter-ethnic relationships or transactions.
English also serve as the language of nationism, concerned with political integration and efficiency (Bamgbose 1991:20). It is the language that brings all the supposed “nations” of Nigeria to function as one mention is often made of each ethnic group being a nation on its own with the Hausa nation, the Ibo nation, the Yoruba nation, the Edo nation, Jukunland, Tivland, Urhoboland, Ogoniland etc. as examples. But, the cohension of all under the subsuming Nigerian nation is possible through English.
In other words, without English, the Ubiquitous violent ethnic groups like oodua Peoples Congress (OPC) Egbesu Boys, the Arewa Peoples Congress (APC) Ijaw Youth Solidarity (IYS), Bakassi Boys, and other militant groups would have found more justification for desiring to secede from the Nigerian Federation.
Ironically, it is also the language of nationalism. This is because the love for the country as a whole has to be manifested through the language intelligible to all and sundry, lest the ‘ethnic agenda’ be implicated. This reason accounts fro why nationalists like Herbert Macaulay, Obafemi Awolowo, Ahmadu bello, Nnamdi Azikiwe had to use English language as a weapon of nationalist struggle. A nationalist is a nationalist based on expressing his patriotic views in English.
If English is not used to express the same ideas for which he is known as a nationalist, he becomes an ethnic jingoist or a tribal apologist. It is the language of authenticity in Nigeria today.
As a language of wider communication (LWC), English is used for phatic communion, ceremonial purpose, instrument of keeping records, information dissemination, self-experiment and embodiment of thought among the various linguistic groups in Nigeria. The common linguistic basis that constitutes a requisite for the existence of any nation is provides by English. So with English as the common tongue to all the ethnic groups, the collective sentiment of belonging together despite the individual or ethnic differences is forged. Related to the discussed is fact that Nigerianism or collective identity is stamped on national institutions through the medium of English.
Like all multilingual nations, Nigeria is faced with the language question. An artificial contraption of heterogeneous ethnic communities and linguistic groups forcefully determined by the colonial interlopers, for selfish political and economic reasons, Nigeria has to survive despite the “Mistake” of her assemblage on a common linguistic ground. Based on the well known sapir-whorf hypothesis (i.e. the principles of linguistic relativity (the distinctions encoded in one language), one would have expected that one of our indigenous languages of education because “the child learns better in his mother tongue and that his mother tongue is as natural to him as his mother’s milk” (Fafunwa 1988:395) and more developed communities use their own languages in education and technical training (Asne, cited in Fanilola 1988: 84). But the reverse is the case in Nigeria, like many other African nations, as the colonial language of English still remains dominant as the language of virtually all aspects of national life: politics, administration, business, sports, diplomacy, communication, media, education, creativity, literacy, constitution, law, just to mention a few. We have hereby examined English functions as the language of unity in Nigeria and forms the basis of the nation’s linguistic existence. For the unity of Nigeria to sustained, it is ultimately suggested that the English language must continue to play its roles.
Adegbija, E. 1994, “The Context of language planning in Africa: An illustration with Nigeria”. In Putz, M. (ed) Language Contact and language Conflict. Amsterdam/Philadelphia John Benjamins.
Babatune, S.T. 2001. “English as a second Language (ESL) Phenoemenon in Nigeria”. In Babatunde, S.T. (ed) Contaporary Survey, Ilorin: Haytee Books, Pp 144-203.
Bamgbose, A. 1991. Language and the Nation: The Language Question in Saharan African. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University press.
Enahoro, A. 2002. “Towards a New Constitutional Order” in vanguard Lagos, July, 5. Pp, 18-19.
Fafunwa, B. 1983. Yoruba in Education” In Afolayan, A. (ed) Yoruba language and literature. Ibadan: UIP/UPL.
Fanilola, K. 1988. Education through foreign language in Nigeria: problems and prospects”. Alore: Ilorin Journal of the Humaniteis. Vols 3&4 Pp. 70-92.
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