World Mother Tongue Day! Why Nigerians Are Not Interested

All over the world, today, 21st of February, is marked as the International Mother Language Day (IMLD). It was first observed in 1999 by UNESCO, a specialized agency of the United Nations that stands for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.
In essence, UNESCO has been celebrating International Mother Language Day for nearly 20 years.The primary aim is to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity.

Since 2019 is the International Year of Indigenous Languages, the theme of this year’s International Mother Language Day is indigenous languages as a factor in development, peace and reconciliation.
According to NDTV, Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, said, “Indigenous peoples number some 370 million and their languages account for the majority of the approximately 7,000 living languages on Earth. Many indigenous peoples continue to suffer from marginalization, discrimination and extreme poverty, and are the victims of human-rights violations.”

The primary reason for setting this day aside is to appreciate and protect all mother tongues, which in turn helps people all over the world to appreciate the beauty of multiculturalism as well as our cultural traditions.

On the need to preserve mother-tongue language, UNESCO said, “Linguistic diversity is increasingly threatened as more and more languages disappear. Globally 40 per cent of the population does not have access to an education in a language they speak or understand.”
While it is being celebrated everywhere in the world in schools, offices, by government officials and in the media, the situation is far different in Nigeria, not because the general elections in the country are around the corner but because the local language is dying in the nation. The awareness is pretty low in the country. A number of radio stations in the country are mentioning this event on air as a discussion or phone-in programme for some minutes.
In other African countries, high-profile personalities are championing the promotion of indigenous language. This shows how seriously mother tongue protection is regarded in such countries.

For instance, early February, renowned Kenyan author Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o asked the Government to make learning of vernacular a policy and an added advantage for employment in the civil service. according to him, “Government policy matters. Make African languages matter in real life. It should go all the way to secondary schools, universities and even the civil service,” report’s Standard Media.

But in Nigeria most people are focused on English language that they forget that promoting their mother tongue will not harm them in anyway. This is a country where several children cannot even speak their local languages. They are taught in English language at school and their parents communicate with them at home in English too. Some schools today insist that parents should communicate with their children at home in local languages but how many parents keep this advice? This is a society where speaking local language is associated with timidity, backwardness, lack of brilliance, and social backbench. Very unfortunate, but most Nigerians are not entirely interested in celebrating any mother tongue.

This is also responsible for the death of local language newspapers in most parts of Nigeria, except probably in the North and South western parts of the country. This is a nation of over 250 indigenous languages. This is despite the fact that the very first newspaper in the country, Iwe Irohin, which was established in 1859 by Rev. Henry Townsend, was a Yoruba language newspaper. Local language newspapers gradually fizzled out in line with the dying acceptance of these languages among Nigerians. In the Northern part of Nigeria for instance, a few Hausa language newspapers are still existing, some of them struggling to survive. Such newspapers as Premium Times Hausa (online), Gaskya Ta Fi Kwabo (online) and Al Miriya are still existing. The Hausa language is still appreciated by a number of Hausa speaking Nigerians to the extent that the Hausa language movie industry is thriving and BBC Hausa service, including some other Hausa language radio stations and programmes have huge audience base in Nigeria. Same could be said about the Yoruba language in the country, with newspapers such as Alaroye and Akede still doing well among Yoruba language readers,  with a thriving Yoruba language movie industry.

This cannot be said about the Igbo language and several other indigenous languages in the country. Of course, Igbo language newspapers died a natural death following the rising neglect of the language among Igbo-speaking Nigerians. This is a tribe where even the worst of illiterates and unbelievably unenlightened would prefer to address you in English language, knowing full well that you understand Igbo. The Igbo language movie industry set the pace for modern day Nollywood movies in the early 1990s with the Living In Bondage. But today, the Igbo language movie industry is nothing to write home about. Most Igbo producers prefer to focus on English language movies.

Let’s not digress. The culture of promoting the local language or mother tongue is dying in Nigeria. Pidgin English is no one’s mother tongue though it is a common language used in Communicating across cultures and tribes. This is a country where most adults grew up in environments where you were penalized in classrooms at school for speaking local language or cautioned at home if they spoke mother tongue. That tradition has naturally been passed across generations. Local language is still very essential in the existence of nations.

The theme of this year’s International Mother Language Day is indigenous languages as a factor in development, peace and reconciliation. This reflects the seriousness of mother language in any society. Yet Nigeria is a nation where local language is not given due appreciation, respect and promotion. Some other developing nations are having a second national language which is local, though not every one’s mother tongue. But that’s a recognition of the essence of local language in any society.

It is worthy to note that multilingual and multicultural societies exist through their languages which transmit and preserve traditional knowledge and cultures in a sustainable way. The world has more than 7,000 languages and the multilinguism is celebrated through this day. International Mother Language Day reminds us how words connect us, empower us and help us communicate our feelings to others. India alone has about 22 officially recognised languages, 1635 rationalised mother tongues, 234 identifiable mother tongues, according to Census 2001.

The celebration of International mother tongue day is a very relevant development which should be made a visible and prominent event in Nigeria.


The Author

Chinenye Nwabueze

Nwabueze is a communication researcher with several years of lecturing experience in Nigerian universities.

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