Bridging grassroots language gap in Nigeria

languages in nigeria

March 16, 2012 – Bridging grass roots language gap in Nigeria

An official language can be described as a language officially adopted, through government proclamation or legal instrument for use in official circles. Essentially, a language is a body or system of words, phrases, signs and gestures used by a large community or by a people, a nation, or a group of nations.

It is a systematic means of communicating ideas or feelings by the use of conventional signs, sounds, gestures or marks that have meaning.

Language is logically a means of social communication and interaction. All cooperation among human beings requires at least some degree of communication. Both society and community are developed by social learning; and a nation consists of people who have learnt to communicate with each other and to understand each other well beyond the interchange of goods and services.

Thus the importance of social communication lies in the observable ability of certain groups of people to share with each other a wide range of whatever might be in their minds, and their observable inability to share these things nearly as widely with outsiders. The greater their ability for quick, varied, rich and accurate communication, the richer their cooperation in producing tangible goods and services, and in developing highly organised and stable societies, and in developing and sharing intangible treasures of knowledge, art and values. Peoples are held together from within by this communicative efficiency.

The rationale for an official language for Nigeria has gone beyond the realm of arguments. The choice of ‘English’ as the nation’s official language was done out of necessity.

All the pre-colonial tribal polities, chiefdoms and other segmentary societies, comprising about 250 ethnic groups had been operating independently of one another, and had existed separately with their different governmental structures, cultural heterogeneity, religious differences and most importantly, diverse languages. Some studies say that there are over 1,000 different language dialects in Nigeria.

Originally adopted as Nigeria’s instrument of governmental communication and transactions, the English language became systematically embraced as the only neutral means of official communication among the Nigerian peoples, and hence imposed as the only language of ‘formal education’ in the nation’s school system. The adoption of the English language as the official means of social communication has not in any way contributed to the problem of disunity in Nigeria. In fact, it remains the second fastest growing means of social communication in Nigeria today, second only to Pidgin English; which the Merrian-Webster’s Dictionary describes as a simplified speech used for communication between people with different languages.

Pidgin English is the bastardised or corrupted form of the English language. In spite of its being unfashionable to the elite, it is the fastest growing and the most acceptable language of the common man in Nigeria today.

In the market places, every illiterate market woman in the South-South and South-East of Nigeria speak it fluently. About 80 percent of illiterate market women in the South-West now speak it, and it is the fastest growing in that region. Less that 50 percent of illiterate market women in the North-West, North-Central and North-East of Nigeria speak pidgin. The growth of Pidgin English in those regions is being slowed down by its competition with the Hausa language, which remains firmly entrenched as the dominant lingua franca of Northern Nigeria.

Apart from official transactions in government offices, it is common to see state governors publicly addressing their peoples in public events, using Pidgin English in the South-South and South-East. Because the leaders of the South-south and South-East are deliberately encouraging it, this variety has therefore become the second official language in that part of the country.

The Pidgin English potential of the South-west can be enhanced if their political leaders can deliberately start to encourage its use in public official events. If this is done, the South-West can catch up with the levels of use in the South-South and South-East within a ten-year period. With unwavering political will and official support, the North-West, North-Central and North-East can equally catch-up, in this regard, with the rest of the country within a twenty-year period.

The advantages of adopting Pidgin English as the nation’s second official language are worthwhile. First, it does not require a formal school system, and therefore cheap and easy to learn, unlike the English language, which require ‘tuition fees’ and ‘investment of time for classes’. Secondly, for most parts of the country, it is a grassroots language, and therefore a veritable means of effective interaction with the common man.

Also, with this variety of English, it is easy for Nigeria to have a ‘common language, which can easily help build unity amongst Nigerians at the grass roots level.

Apart from its perceived neutrality and spread as a means of social communication, an added advantage of the use of the pidgin English is its capacity to enable illiterates, who now speak it, to advance to the level of speaking standard English language over time.

Will our leaders consider ‘officially adopting’ this option as a means of bridging the grassroots language gap in Nigeria?

(Alabi wrote in from Ibadan, Oyo State, via