Indigenous Languages Are Dying – Prof. Babawale

Professor Tunde Babawale and the recipient of Etisalat Nigeria 2015 Merit Award

Professor Tunde Gabriel Babawale is the Director General of the Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilization (CBAAC), whose primary motive is to promote the African culture. The centre is a federal government institution.The Centre held a symposium in Abuja to addresses cultural issues in Black countries. The first was a roundtable discussion with stakeholders to determine the implementation of the memorandum of understanding, which Nigeria signed with other black countries in having aharmonized position. While the second was for the purpose of calling stakeholders on the proposed establishment  of the International Centre for African Culture and Civilization in Atlanta, Georgia in the United States, which will help Nigeria’s cultural outburst to the outside world, especially in the United States America and the Americas. According to Babawale, culture has become a potent instrument of diplomacy. In this interview with KASALI AKINWALE, Professor Babawale addresses the neglect of African indigenous languages and the urgent need for Africans to embrace, promote and protect their languages. He also speaks on what the centre is doing in this regard. EXCERPTS:

There has been so much talk about the death of local languages. How big a problem is it?

Language is central to culture, it’s the vehicle of culture, which narrows down to development. Language is where you find the philosophy, the worldview of every people embedded. The key to development lies in the development of language, so when the language has a problem, the society at large has a problem and the language dies. Unfortunately, for us in Africa, African indigenous languages are dying. Research has shown that the Igbo language is of divided exposition and I think same applies to the Yoruba language, because the speakers of the language are reducing by the day. Our children are no longer speaking them, because we send them to private schools in order for them to speak the Queen’s English. One of the greatest debilitating consequences of that is that they are disconnected from their culture and society to become a half-breed generation that is neither African nor western.

What is CBAAC doing to promote the African language?

CBAAC is organizing programmes such as public lectures. We did one last year on African Language, African Development and African Unity. We are presently organizing a convention with the Centre for the Advanced Study of African Development in South Africa, we are also working out a workshop on the harmonization of Nigeria’s indigenous languages and other related languages which cut across our borders in Cameroon, Benin Republic. The other problem is thatsome people can only speak but cannot read and write, we are losing touch with our language. A Yoruba person, in Cotonou, cannot even read a Yoruba script not to talk of writing in Yoruba. The situation is so pathetic. We are trying to harmonize everyone to give a standard text on how to read and write, so that speakers within the language area and even non-speakers can understand them better, and all this we will put into play when the workshop commences by October this year.

In resuscitating the dying languages, don’t you think it should start from the top down to the grass-root level?

I agree with you. CBAAC is making frantic efforts in developing the technical tools that arerequired for use in our schools. We are organizing programmes where we will be emphasizing on the importance of our indigenous languages. At every forum, I have raised this issue that parents should make it compulsory for their children to speak their indigenous language while at home and even at schools. We have done a lot of damage to our society by making it impossible to promote our languages. I have discovered that in schools, sanctions are meted out to children who speak their languages, it has got so bad that parents employ teachers to teach their house-help how to speak English, so that the house maid will not speak indigenous language to their children or corrupt their children’s English. It is that ridiculous, and most time, the house-helps are brought from the village, but the parents are so uncomfortable with indigenous languages.

CBAAC has been doing this advocacy for long through public lectures, workshops and conferences, at least a credit pass in an indigenous language should be made compulsory at school certificate level, in addition to the required English and Mathematics. In other words, any candidate with a secondary school certificate must have, at least, a credit in any of the four indigenous languages to guarantee an admission into any higher institution. With that, we are compelling them to learn these languages and ensuring that they are preserved, because you cannot preserve a language you can’t read and write.

Our task at CBAAC is to ensure that we look at the problem with our autography at the moment, for these languages and develop a standard autography so that they will be readable to all indigenous and non-indigenous speakers alike. I use to read and write Yoruba language, but presently I can’t, so we have to go back to that in earnest. 20-30 years ago, any Yoruba primary school pupil can pick D.O Fagunwa’s book and read fluently, but presently nobody can do that because we now have a different style of writing. We want to standardize that, so that we can have a uniform check and pattern, which will be readable, accessible and comprehensive.

How is the government supporting CBAAC in addressing the language challenge?

To some extent they are. For example, in some states of the federation, the Houses of Assembly have incorporated indigenous languages as part of the languages used for deliberations in the house. In Lagos State, there is a particular day of the week, I think on Thursdays, when they deliberate in Yoruba language, making it an official language in the house for that day. Once that is being practised, we are already popularizing the language, and I believe that will further promote and sustain our language.

Some scholars have said that these languages will naturally go into extinction, over time, following the dominance of the English language in education and international relations

We should not be bothered about what happens to other languages because it is not our headache and also not our business, if they like they should live or fade off entirely, our own business is how to preserve ours. The fact is that only few Nigerians speak English. The traders, Artisans, plumbers, cobblers, all speak in Pidgin English, and they form the majority. Even civil servants speak their indigenous languages, in their offices as well as their communities. So, we shouldn’t be bothered, rather we should promote ours in earnest. Look at the French. I can tell you, authoritatively, that there is no way for the French language will go into extinction because in France all their citizens speak French. Though they understand English, they won’t speak it to you, they pretend they do not understand what you are saying, whereas they do. They are doing all this to promote their language. They even give scholarships to Africans to study French language in African countries. They keep on developing their language at our own detriment. The possibility of the Chinese language to be dominant is real, because they are the most populated country in the world and they are presently building schools in Africa and its environs to promote their language.