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Nigerian reality: Language, culture, and identity - Businessday NG


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    Language has been defined in several ways, but one all-encompassing definition of language by Britannica is: a system of conventional spoken, manual (signed), or written symbols by means of which human beings, as members of a social group and participants in its culture, express themselves.

    Language is a veritable tool in the organisation of human society, and its usefulness transcends being a tool of communication. It is, by extension, a carrier of culture and identity. This truth about language and its other functions poses a serious issue in Nigeria, considering the huge influence of the English language which has eroded the cultural and identity relevance of the over five hundred indigenous languages, resulting in the loss of indigenous cultural and traditional values among many young Nigerians.

    These losses are not without their evident consequences in terms of juvenile delinquencies, and immoral and amoral acts, among others. On this premise, this piece will discuss culture and identity in relation to languages and their users while emphasising the need to safeguard the Nigerian indigenous languages from becoming endangered. This is important because once a language dies, its people become blind men in the wilderness, as language serves as the compass through which a people navigate their values and ideals.

    In his article titled “Cultural Erosion and the Crises of Development in Nigeria”, Udu Yakubu (2002) mentioned three senses in which culture can be used in Nigeria. The first sense portrays culture as experience limited to particular genres of creative activities in society such as dance, drama, music, painting, sculpture, etc.

    The second sense presents culture as a general or universal phenomenon that encapsulates the entire spectrum of human experience. This is where to think of characteristics such as plant and animal life, kinship, religious and political systems and whatnot. The third sense relates culture to specific group, ethnic or national experiences and identities.

    This is where specific markers that differentiate one group from another are raised. At this point, culture is considered the defining features of individual groups. While Nigerians thrive in the second sense of culture, as we exhibit universal phenomena such as religion and politics, there is a significant decline in the first and third senses of culture where ethnic or national peculiarities are foregrounded.

    This is considerably tied to the disposition of many Nigerians to their local languages. Notably, ethnic or national values are greatly entrenched in the language of a people through its idioms, proverbs, sayings and suchlike. Ogbulogo (2002), in his paper “Proverbs as Discourse: Igbo Youth and Cultural Heritage”, explains that the contextual explication and communicative content (of proverbs) are often revealing of the cultural history and contemporary experience of those who use them.

    This makes it worrisome when one thinks of the number of Nigerian millennials who cannot fluently converse in their indigenous languages much less spice their talks with proverbial depth. The interconnectedness of language and culture births the notion of identity which encompasses the qualities, beliefs, personality traits, appearance, and/or expressions of a person or group. To link the three aforementioned variables, a member of a society needs to speak its language in order to appreciate its culture and be a partaker in its identity.

    For instance, the Yoruba concept of “omoluwabi” is an identity marker which will likely be appreciated by someone who speaks the Yoruba language and holds the culture dearly. Omoluwabi is a philosophical and cultural concept that is native to the Yoruba people.

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    The omoluabi concept remarkably signifies courage, hard work, humility and respect. In the breakdown of its elements, the crux of omoluwabi is that someone is adjudged a paragon of excellence in character. Such values that beget this character are entrenched in the Yoruba language such that a child who does not speak the language may not know how important they are to the society where he belongs, not to mention upholding them.

    While this is not to say that everyone who speaks the Yoruba language exhibits these omoluwabi traits or that people from other cultures of the world do not uphold similar values, this article argues that knowledge of, and competence in, the indigenous language of an ethnic group increase the chances of adhering to its cultural practices and upholding its identity.

    That being said, I understand that many a reader of my column might be amazed about my position in this article by reason of my expertise as an English scholar. It is, therefore, another opportunity to posit that the English language serves a purpose that does not conflict with the roles of Nigerian languages. While English is the mediating language – the language of governance, education, journalism and commerce – in the face of our linguistic pluralism, the indigenous languages must entrench and transmit our cultures and identities from one generation to another.

    Hence, all stakeholders, from the government, educational institutions to parents, must play their roles towards the survival of indigenous languages. The government, especially at the grassroots level, should implement the policy that will ensure pupils are taught in the language of the immediate environment before the third year in school.

    Read also: Nigerian arts, culture set for infrastructure boost

    Schools must also take the teaching of indigenous languages seriously and approve of a period where students are encouraged to interact in their local languages. Further, parents should speak their indigenous languages to their children at home and, likewise, teach them the cultural values and practices of their ethnicities.

    Fascinatingly, even the best users of a second language, such as the English language, in Nigeria, are those who navigate the second language through the lens of their indigenous languages. Such people, including prominent writers like Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe and J.P. Clarke, are/were able to use the English language so creatively that it depicts the Nigerian sociocultural peculiarities.

    In conclusion, language, culture and identity are inseparable. Any human race that does not wish to become extinct must bequeath its cultural values and identity markers to succeeding generations through language. Nigerians, for specifics, must doggedly play their role towards the survival of their local languages.

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