The United Nations set aside a day to celebrate linguistic and cultural diversity. This was motivated by the killing of four students in Bangladesh in 1952 for their campaign to use their mother tongue, Bangali, as the official language. Since 1999, following UNESCO’s proclamation of February 21st as the International Mother Language Day, the idea has been to sensitize public opinion towards mother tongue use on this day. The celebration also promotes mutual respect based on love of one’s mother tongue. It was in this spirit that we celebrated the 2013 edition of linguistic diversity all over the world with the theme: ‘The Book’.
Language is simply a means of communication. But beyond that, it is a resource that needs to be developed and harnessed. It is part of our intangible cultural heritage, which we need to preserve in order that they can be properly handed down to generations to come. This is because language encapsulates all aspects of our culture and transmits same. If we lose it, we also lose our essence as a people. Language is very important to man and to God who created man. In Genesis 11:1-8, the Scripture records that the whole world spoke one language in the beginning, until man misbehaved when he attempted to make a name for himself by building a tower to avoid being scattered. Even the descendants of Noah saw the power in language. So, they decided to build for themselves both a city and a tower. But God decided to confuse them through mutual unintelligibility, and He indeed scattered them all over the world as they feared. That is how man stopped building the Tower of Babel.
What is the connection between language and bricks? There is indeed amazing power in language, especially as a vehicle of our intangible cultural heritage, if we harness it properly. The year 2008 was declared the international year of languages by the United Nations General Assembly, and 2006 was declared the Year of African Languages. The 2003 UNESCO Convention on safeguarding of the intangible cultural heritage recognized the importance of language as an expression of cultural diversity and its connection to sustainable development. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities (1992), Resolution 47/135, states in:
Article 1:1. States shall protect the existence and the national or ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic identity of minorities within their respective territories, and shall encourage conditions for the promotion of that identity …
Article 2:1. Persons belonging to (minorities) have the right to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, and to use their own language, in private and in public, freely and without interference or any form of discrimination. …
Article 4:3. States should take appropriate measures so that wherever possible, persons belonging to minorities have adequate opportunities to learn their mother tongue or have instruction in their mother tongue.
The National Policy on Education (Section 4:19a), in line with these guidelines stipulates that the mother tongue or the language of the immediate community should be the language of instruction in the first three years of Primary School. But this is subject to the development of orthographies and textbooks in these languages. Furthermore, even though one major Nigerian language is classified as one of the core subjects in the Secondary School, beyond that, such a language is not relevant. This perhaps explains why there no interest in these languages as subjects. Parents and students do not see the need to study them.
It is very important that we pay more attention to all our indigenous languages, whether they are spoken by ‘major’ or ‘minor’ ethnic groups. Nigeria’s choice of three languages as ‘major’ reflects the multilingual nature of our great country. Even though, majority of other languages are classified as ‘minor’, it is important that we attempt to touch as many languages as we can, given their importance to their speakers. Many languages are in danger of disappearing. Linguists are trying to learn as much about them as possible, so that a knowledge of such endangered languages, their cultures and literatures can be preserved even if these languages die. Nigeria’s over 500 languages require a lot of attention. They need to be described so that alphabets can be designed for them, after which they can be used to write books.
What should we do? The situation calls for a partnership between all stakeholders connected to our languages: the speakers, the linguists, the government, the media, the industry, etc.
- We need to document, describe and empower these precious languages for technology development and heritage conservation.
- We need to train professional local multipliers as well as raise awareness of the importance of language.
- We need to ensure relevance of these languages. For instance we could make a credit pass in any Nigerian language a requirement for admission to the tertiary level along with English and other subjects.
- We need to remove the dichotomy between ‘major’ and ‘minor’ languages, especially with regard to these languages as school subjects.
- We need to encourage local funding for research on and in Nigerian languages. The government alone cannot do this. We need support from, and cooperation between individuals, NGOs, speakers of the language, cultural groups, etc.
- We need to plan a strategy to consciously develop materials in these languages.
There is indeed a connection between language and bricks. Just as we use language to build society, so do we use bricks to build a city and a society. The common trend has been to concentrate on developing physical structures like houses, offices, stadia, roads. But we have not paid enough attention to building linguistic ‘blocks’ as it were.
The theme for the International Mother Language Day 2013, ‘The Book’ calls for a shift in our focus in terms of harnessing our resources. The sounds, letters, words, sentences of every language need to be stored in books for both use and access by the speakers and others that may be interested in any language in contemporary time and across generations. As we celebrated this year’s International Mother Language Day, we used the slogan ‘Language and Bricks’ to remind us that we need to develop alphabets from the sounds of our languages so that we can express ourselves, using our mother tongues, in books across different genres of literature and culture.