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Preserving Nigeria’s language heritage – The Nation Nigeria




With five Nigerian languages among the top 100 languages spoken worldwide, Nigeria is conspicuous on the world language map.  However, a lot needs to be done to preserve the languages. KOFOWOROLA BELO-OSAGIE reports.

Five languages spoken in Nigeria are among the top 100 most spoken languages around the world.  The lists Hausa, Yoruba, Nigerian Pidgin, Igbo and Nigerian Fulfulde among popular languages of the world – boasting of between 14 million and 63 million native and non-native speakers.

The Hausa Language, ranked 27th in the world with 63 million speakers, has an Afro-Asiatic origin.  Many of the language’s 44 million native speakers are from parts of Chad, Niger, Northern Cameroon and Central African Republic and Nigeria.

The Yoruba Language, with 40 million speakers, is ranked 39th on the list of 100.  It is of Niger-Congo origin together with the Igbo Language (ranked 52); and Nigerian Fulfulde (ranked 79th).  Igbo Language has 27 million total/native speakers; while the Nigerian Fulfulde has 14 million speakers in all.

The fifth language, the Nigerian Pidgin English Language, is of Indo-European origin and is ranked 50th most spoken language in the world with 30 million speakers.

While it is commendable that Nigeria has these languages on the world map, the survival of indigenous languages has been cause for concern globally.  The concern was what influenced the introduction of the International Mother Language Day in year 2000.  It is celebrated yearly on February 21, to call attention to the need to preserve the world’s language diversity.

According to the United Nations, about 43 per cent of the world’s 6,000 languages are in danger of extinction; while most are not used in education.

“At least 43 per cent of the estimated 6,000 languages spoken in the world are endangered. Only a few hundred languages have genuinely been given a place in education systems and the public domain, and less than a hundred are used in the digital world,” a statement on the UN website notes.

In her message to commemorate this year’s International Mother Language Day last Friday, the Director-General of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), Ms. Audrey Azoulay, said the survival of indigenous languages was key to achieving quality education.  She lamented that this was a barrier for 40 per cent of world’s population forced to learn in a foreign language.

She said: “Moreover,  mother  tongues  are  valuable allies  in our  efforts  to  achieve  quality  education for all. In fact, as UNESCO studies have shown, studying in a language which  is  not  one’s  own  interferes  with  learning  and  increases  inequalities.  Yet according to the most recent estimates, 40% of the world’s citizens find themselves in this situation. Bilingual or multilingual education based on students’ mother tongue not  only  encourages  learning,  but  also  contributes  to  understanding  and  dialogue  among peoples.”

According to, Nigeria has over 520 local languages. However, many of them are in danger of extinction due to globalisation. To preserve Nigeria’s varied language diversity, experts recommend a multi-prong approach that involves efforts by the home, school and government.

Dr. Carol Anyagwa of the English Department, University of Lagos (UNILAG), said the languages must be used in schools, at home and be promoted by government.

“The first thing is to use these languages in teaching in school and within the home.  Basically, what happens is that most people not residing where their mother tongue is not spoken adopt the English language instead.  When you teach the younger generation in English, they will not carry on the language as they grow.

“Most of these languages are already adulterated.  Many words no longer have their local versions.  You find people mixing the languages with English – code switching – while speaking.  They cannot speak a sentence of local language without adding English,” she said.

The Nigerian national policy on education stipulates that children should be taught in the local language or language of the environment at pre-school and lower primary school levels.  However, this is not effective, especially in urban centres.

Dr. Anyagwa said the policy was difficult to implement in urban centres which adopt English.

“That part of the policy is not happening.  When you say language of the environment, what do you mean?  In Lagos, the language of the environment is Yoruba but really how many localities in Lagos do we have where they speak mostly Yoruba except the interiors? So, the language of the environment in Lagos is English,” she said.

To use local languages as language of instruction in schools, Dr. Anyagwa said there must be a ready supply of teachers versed in the use of those languages.

“Teaching them in school will only be certain if there are qualified teachers.  But how many people apply to study Yoruba, Igbo or Hausa in the university?  Those that study these courses do it grudgingly after they do not get their course of choice.  Some of them even drop out after a few years to re-write the examination to do other courses.

“To get more teachers to study the local language, there are things that the government can do to motivate people.  If you give scholarships, government would make these courses attractive.  If not for the interest, people would subscribe for the incentives.  Presently, there are very few teachers such that when there is finally need for translators, you will look everywhere and you cannot find them.  You find it difficult to get people who can translate Igbo into English,” she said.

Encouraging publication of books in indigenous languages would also help preserve them.  Dr. Anyagwa said the Yoruba Language was doing well in this regard.

A journalist with Yoruba newspaper, Mr. Taofeek Afolabi, believes the language would survive because it is well documented in written form, especially with the existence of many Yoruba newspapers.

“Yoruba will not die. Thank God for newspapers like Gbelegbo, Alaroye, and others putting it in written form to preserve it,” said Afolabi, who writes for Gbelegbo.

He, however, said the best way to preserve a language was for it to be spoken at home.  He said establishing the culture of speaking only Yoruba in his home helped his children to excel in school.

“My children speak only Yoruba at home.  Before they start school, they do not understand English. My neighbours said it would affect them but today they top their classes.  My son went for a UNICEF competition where he was to speak on child abuse. Before the competition, I discussed child abuse with him in Yoruba, giving him various examples. When he went for the competition, they marveled that such a small boy could speak so well.  He came second.  If parents will speak Yoruba to their wards at home, they would learn,” he said.

A Deputy Director in the Department of Basic Education, Federal Ministry of Education, Abuja, Mr. Funso Aderibigbe, is sure Nigeria’s indigenous languages would fare better once a national policy is in place.

He said in an interview that the committee inaugurated by the education minister, Adamu Adamu to draft the policy last year plans to present the national language policy blue print on May 29.

He said: “The Federal Ministry of Education has kick-started the development of a national language policy.  A national technical committee saddled with the development of the policy was inaugurated by the Minister in 2019 and is chaired by the President of the Linguistic Association of Nigeria, Prof. Harrison Adeniyi.

“What the committee wants to achieve is to develop a national policy so there would no longer be policy summersaults and to step up the interest of Nigerians in these languages.  If we make our children to be more proficient in our languages, it will help them in picking other languages and learning in school.  The committee is working assiduously to present a blue print to the Minister of Education by May 29.

“In the absence of a national policy, there have been lots of policy summersaults.  Decades ago, there was a policy that taking a Nigerian Language was compulsory for Senior School Certificate Examination; years later the NERDC came and said it was no longer compulsory.

“The committee has developed research instruments to get the feelings of Nigerians about their languages.  The next phase is the design, sensistization and advocacy visits to all 36 states of Nigeria; followed by administration of the questionnaires.  After that we will present our blue print.”


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