THE UNIFYING ROLE OF ENGLISH IN A MULTILINGUAL
NATION: THE CASE OF NIGERIA
Mahfouz A. Adedimeji
of Modern European Languages,
University of Ilorin, Ilorin.
paper addresses the vexed issue of language question in Nigeria by exploring the unifying
significance of the English language. It foregrounds that though the continuous
use of English as the nation’s lingua franca is tantamount to perpetuating
colonialism/imperialism, yet there is no alternative indigenous language that
can assume the role of English. It is maintained that, given the prevalent and
ever-increasing mutual suspicion of, and linguistic rivalry among, the various
Nigerian ethno-linguistic groups, English will continue to be vibrant. The
paper submits that English appears to have been surreptitiously attached to the
destiny of Nigeria, and any
attempt to alter the status quo, as it is, in favour of one of the Nigerian
languages, will lead to a chain of socio-political crises that will assuredly
threaten the corporate existence of Nigeria. It is ultimately suggested
that the convocation of a national conference, which is being clamoured for by
some segments of the Nigerian society, may profer solutions to the language
question, among other problems that ensnare the country.
If you insist, the
union will be dissolved. It would mean that you have kindled a fire which all
the waters of the ocean cannot put out, which seas of blood can only
– Thomas W.
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 factor 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
basis.” The dominant inference from Isayev’s observation is that for national
integration, cohesion and development, there must be a language acceptable to
all in running a nation’s affairs.
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 for national recognition or official status,
whether indigenous or foreign, one must emerge as the 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 improbable, if not outrightly impossible.
article attempts to highlight how 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 an English head” (Williams, 1986 cited in Bamigbose, 1991:20).
The English Language in the Multilingual
is a sociolinguistic phenomenon that arises as a result of language contact. It
is a situation in which two (i.e. bilingualism, specifically) or more languages
operate within the same context. Factors such as political annexation, marital
relation, economic transaction, cultural association, educational acquisition
and religious affiliation bring about multilingulalism. All these factors
underpin the socio-political landscape of Nigeria today even though the
combination of political annexation and economic transaction or exploitation
originally brought the people referred to as Nigerians today in contact with
the English people. The advent of the English colonialists in the 18th
century brought about ‘linguistic imperialism’ a situation by which, according
to Asne (1979) as cited in Fanilola (1988:89):
minds and lives of the speakers of a language are dominated by another language
to the point where they believe that they can and should use only the foreign
language when it comes to transactions dealing with the advanced aspects of
life such as education, philosophy, literature, government, the administration
Through overt and covert means such as trade and commerce, educational
policies and ordinances, missionary activities, schools, literature,
constitutions, job opportunities and political might, English was successfully
entrenched in Nigeria.
With the amalgamation of the Northern and Southern protectorates in 1914 came
the need, in a more crucial dimension, to have a common tongue for the country.
With the promotion of English in every stratum of national life, including
nationalist activities, arose the subjugation of about 450 Nigerian languages,
the major ones of which include Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo, Fulani, Kanuri, Ibiobio,
Tiv, Ijo, Edo, Urhobo, Nupe, Idoma, just to mention a few.
attained her political independence, ‘linguistic imperialism’ had to be
sustained in the interest of the nation. This is because there was no
indigenous language that could perform the function of English because of the
mutual suspicion of, and ethnic consciousness among, virtually all Nigerians.
Multilingualism which should be viewed as an asset, an embodiment of the
cultural diversity and linguistic enrichment of the country, became a liability
and the popular attitude to it is that associated with ‘the curse of Babel’.
the risk of being alleged to be aiding and abetting “linguistic imperialism” in
some quarters, the incontrovertible truth about the state of the nation today,
as it was yesterday, is that no indigenous language is acceptable to all
Nigerians. The view presented by Nida and Wonderly (1971:65) is prevalent and
correct till today. They contend that:
there is simply no politically neutral language. In fact, the division into
three major regions reflects the three language poles: Hausa, Yoruba, Ibo. The
political survival of Nigeria
as a country would even be more seriously threatened than it is if any of these
three languages were promoted by the Government as being the one national
of Nida and Wonderly receive further justification in the submission of the
foremost nationalist and prominent Nigerian, Chief Anthony Enahoro recently.
Enahoro (2002:18-19) remonstrates the status
quo constitutional recognition of even Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba. He contends
that such official recognition is tantamount to brazen-faced discrimination and
ipso facto is unacceptable. The
illocutionary force of Enahoro’s views clearly reveals his attitudinal
disposition to the three major Nigerian languages. It further shows that
whether we like it or not, call it ‘linguistic imperialism’, ‘colonial
mentality’, ‘inferiority complex’ or ‘pessimistic prognosis’, the fact remains
that the English language will continue to triumph, and the language policy will
continue to be a paper affair. To quote Enahoro at length is not superfluous or
the languages of Nigeria
have equal validity, or if you please equal lack of validity, before the law
and under the constitution. No linguistic group has the right – the moral or
constitutional right – to impose his (sic) language on any other linguistic
group in the country.
One might even go further to say that no collection of linguistic group
have the linguistic right to impose their separate languages on the other
linguistic groups in the country. Any attempt to impose any particular tribal
language or languages on the country is fraught with grave danger for the
peaceful development of the federation. Government should not confer on some
Nigerian languages the potentiality of instrument of domination over other
Nigerian groups. Over one billion people speak Chinese and nearly one billion
people speak Hindi, yet it has never been suggested that these two mass
languages should therefore be imposed on the rest of the world or that UNESCO
should promote them as world languages in preference to English or Arabic.
is no doubt that Enahoro’s thesis is a good text for semantic, pragmatic and
stylo-rhetorical analysis. However, it is a vindication of the sensitivity of
language question in Nigeria
and why the efforts of the advocates of our indigenous languages for official
language will continue to be in vain. If not, one would wonder how all the
Nigerian languages will be valid to be the national/official languages at the
same time. Such is an impossibility. This situation is relatively contiguous
with, or akin to, that of India.
Constitutionally, English was supposed to be replaced by Hindi fifteen years
after independence. But because of the vehement opposition by
non-Hindi-speaking groups, the requirement was therefore suspended through the
Language Legislation Act of 1967 (Bamgbose, 1991:22). At the end of the day,
English is the victor and the indigenous languages are the vanquished.
Empirically, the study of Igboanusi and Ohia (2001:125-142) involving
one thousand respondents (who include doctors, lawyers, teachers, politicians,
civil servants and students) in four minority languages zones in the country
shows that 743 or 74.3% of respondents dislike speakers of Hausa, Igbo and
Yoruba and 49.6% of them feel that the speakers of the three major Nigerian
languages do not think well of the minority language groups (Igboanusi and
Ohia, 2001:130). Ultimately, the researchers report that most of the respondents
(65.7%) showed preference for English as Nigeria’s lingua franca. 19.3% of the respondents desired that their local
languages become Nigeria’s future lingua franca, while 5.3%, 3.6% and 6.1% of
them want either Yoruba, Igbo or Hausa, in the respective order, to emerge as
Nigeria’s future lingua franca (Igboanusi and Ohia, 2001:134).
It is evident from the above that multilingualism in Nigeria is not accorded its
positive value. In the words of Schwarz cited in Bamgbose (1991:39),
differences between indigenous languages keep the people apart, perpetuate
ethnic hostilities, weaken national loyalties and increase the danger of
separatist sentiment. In essence, the nation today faces a serious test, a
challenge of continuity and survival (Oladesu, 2002:14).
The Unifying Roles of English in Nigeria
of ink has been spilled already on the roles or functions of English in Nigeria,
the pioneer being Bamgbose (1971):
all the heritage left behind in Nigeria
by the British at the end of colonial administration, probably, none is more
important than the English language. It is now the language of government,
business and commerce, education, the mass media, literature, and much internal
as well as external communications…
It is not our intention to repeat what has been said over and over here
but to show how this most important language of the world (being the first
language of the United Nations and arguably the only language spoken in all
nations of the world) helps in promoting, nurturing and uniting the Nigerian
English is the language of integration in Nigeria as our previous discussion
shows. Amidst the compounding complexities of Nigeria especially in relation to
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 during the first republic and
even the colonial era, when English had not attained its present level of
ascendancy 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 Peoples
Congress (NPC), the Action Group (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.
This integrative role is not limited to politics or political parties
alone but virtually all strata of Nigerian life. In sports, the function of
English as its language gives room for integration as it remains the only area
where the syndrome of ethnicity/tribalism has not permeated. Most Nigerians do
not care whether the national team is made up of members of the same family,
not to talk of an ethnic group, as long as they can deliver the goods: goals,
goals. The use of English facilitates the absence of ethnic sentiments in this
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 serves 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
cohesion 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 for 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 of Nigeria.
The common linguistic basis that constitutes a requisite for the existence of
any nation is provided 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 roles discussed is the fact that Nigerianism or
collective identity is stamped on national institutions through the medium of
English. The army, the navy, the air force and the police that all safeguard
the territorial integrity of, and peaceful existence in, Nigeria are controlled with English
(unadulterated or adulterated – pidgin). The National Youth Service Corps
(YNSC) is aimed at bringing together Nigerian youths with a view to reinforcing
the sentiment of oneness. The constitution of Nigeria is written in English to
create a level ground for all Nigerians to play, though the metalanguage for
the teaching of each of the three language and their legislative terms was
being developed (at a time in the past) in the three major languages.
in English by Nigerian literary artists has also created a distinctive Nigerian
literature marked by its own characteristics imbued with features of
inter-cultural communication and cooperation. English is also the language of
international relations and diplomacy – the language that mirrors Nigeria
to the world. All these have the effects of reducing what Adegbija (1994:150)
refers to as “deep-rooted mutual suspicions that result in prejudice,
stereotypes and subtle linguistic hostility among various linguistic groups.”
And in fact, there are obvious national symbols such as the national flag, the
national anthem, the national day/independence day, the national associations
as well as several national monuments all of which are designed in English and
all of which ‘assert’ that English is the foundation of the magnificent
structure called Nigeria. If English is removed, it is agreeable, the whole
nation automatically crumbles.
English Versus Indigenous Languages: Towards A
There have been arguments and counter-arguments for and against the
issue of English language as the official language/language of education in Nigeria
(cf. Fanilola, 1988 and Babatunde, 2001). Rather than solving the issue, it is
becoming more problematized at the level of finding an attractive candidate to
replace it by scholars as each suggestion in fraught with controversies. When
Hausa, Ibo and Yoruba are being stoutly resisted since 1961 when parliament
debated national language question, till date (as evident in Enahoro, 2002),
the minority languages have no candidature as population is a key factor in
language planning. The suggestion of pidgin or the hybrid ‘Wazobia’ and such
unrealistic alternatives is also riddled with more complex problems.
In a situation like this, it is obvious that English becomes
increasingly important. The volatile Nigerian socio-political domain requires
English now, more than ever before, to avoid disintegration and threat to its
corporate existence. Though, one is uncomfortable with the negative sides of
English as it ‘masterminds’ the relegation of the Nigerian languages to the
extent that we do not have a real language policy, instantiates the systematic
loss of Nigerian cultural identity among the younger generation and ensures the
consolidation of colonial legacy, yet there is no any other language that can
keep Nigeria one apart from English. The ‘war against English’ in some quarters
in thus a lost battle. English has already been nativised and the challenge now
is the standardization of Nigerian English – simply the variety of English that
is marked by local aura at all levels of linguistic analysis: phonology,
morphology, syntax, lexico-semantics and pragmatics. Efforts should be geared
towards developing and promoting Nigerian languages as national heritage, it is
agreed, but English should not be de-emphasized at all for Nigerians to be able
to function well, acceptably and intelligibly, in the fast constricting modern
world and in fact, to survive as a nation. The utilities of English need not be
undermined for the purpose of promoting Nigerian languages.
a united Nigeria
rests on English, yet her survival as a nation is beyond English. Nigeria is just a ‘nation on paper’
as Professor Wole Soyinka is wont to say because of her inherent contradictions
– Ours is:
A nation where its public sector is
grossly inept, inefficient, dogmatic, arrogant, unfecundious, unpatriotic,
erratic, incorrigible, corrupt, abusive, lackadaisical, abrasive and irredeemably
A nation where the law enforcement system
is actively obsolete, illiterate, myopic, robotic, bigotic, anachronistic,
corrupt, suspicious, unprogressive, schizophrenic, prodigacious,
psychologically inferior, unimaginative, intellectually porous, academically
jealous and pessimistic.
A nation where her leadership has mere
glorification of the old order of carnivorous feudalism, god-fatherism,
mafiaism, cabal tribalism, traditional rulership of royal blood hegemony and
patron of serfdom.1
to survive as a real nation, the problems identified have to be properly
addressed. The demand for constitutional reforms has to be met to create
justice and equity in the distribution and administration of resources. The
call for a national conference to determine the basis of togetherness should be
heeded so that the tension that pervades Nigeria and the problems of political
bickerings, economic sabotage, social unrest, educational backwardness,
development deficit, corruption and graft, misgovernance, indiscipline,
unemployment, poverty, injustice and other social tragedies that ensnare
Nigeria and threaten her unity – far beyond English but which will be
expectedly addressed in English – will be tackled.
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
“mistakes” of her assemblage on a common linguistic ground. Based on the well
known Sapir-Whorf hypothesis [i.e. the principles of linguistic determinism
(language determines the way we think) and linguistic relativity (the
distinctions encoded in one language are not found in any other language)], one
would have expected that one of our indigenous languages assumes the official
status or the language 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, 1983:395) 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 how English functions as the language of unity
and forms the basis of the nation’s linguistic existence. It is contended that
with controversies surrounding the adoption of any of the Nigerian languages
and the grave implications such adoption engenders, English language saves the
day as the nation’s lingua franca. It
integrates all Nigeria
as a cohesive entity, it is acceptable to all (to some grudgingly), and it
serves the purpose of nationism and nationalism at the same time as it lessens
the feelings of perceived intra-national linguistic domination by majority
the unity of Nigeria
to be sustained, it is ultimately suggested that the English language must continue
to play its roles. Nevertheless, it is pointed out, the survival of the Nigeria
nation depends on many other factors beyond the scope of this treatise and “the
mistakes of the founding fathers” have to be corrected. Many a Nigerian is
discontented with the polity as it is and all the ethnic groups have grudges
against the pseudo – federalism of Nigeria. It is suggested that the
key to resolving the multifarious ethnic or multilingual-instigated problems is
in the convocation of a national conference where differences will be ironed
out and the basis for the existence, continuity and political relationship of Nigeria
will be evolved (Oladesu, 2002:15). The earlier this call is heeded, and the
language question more dispassionately addressed, the better for the country.
1 This quotation is credited to Professor Wole
Soyinka by “News Major,” (1997 edition) a student publication of the University of Ibadan.
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