Revisiting the Question of the National Language in Nigeria by Olatuja Oloyede

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National Language
Characteristics Of National Language
Nigeria As a Multilingual Society
Existing Postulations Concerning The Adoption Of National Language In Nigeria
Exglossic Option
Endoglossic Option
Artificial Option
Pidgin English Option
African Option

Implication Of Having a National Language

A serious linguistic/language issue in Nigeria is the issue of the choice of a national language among the various indigenous languages in a multilingual society. Nigeria’s dense multilingualism, multiculturalism, and multi-ethnicity pose a huge challenge in the desire and effort to choose a national language. Due to the existing role of the English language, some people suggest the English language as the appropriate option for a national language while also prompting the inadequacies noticed in Nigerian indigenous languages. Our intention, therefore, in this paper is to investigate these existing opinions for the purpose of reaching a tenable conclusion, making general statements and reconciling the various facets of our positions by proposing some recommendations.
Being a research work that is specific on the sociolinguistic status quo of the Nigerian society, our work is primarily library based. Books as well as online materials provided us with wealth of information that has been so fundamental in this paper. Our aim therefore is by providing a review of various existing postulations and opinions as a means of entrenching the fact that Nigeria multiculturalism and multilingualism remain pivotal to the overt impossibility of reaching a conclusion as far as the national language is considered.
A serious linguistic/language issue in Nigeria is the issue of the choice of a national language among the various indigenous languages in a multilingual society. Nigeria’s dense multilingualism, multiculturalism, and multi-ethnicity pose a huge challenge in the desire and effort to choose a national language. Due to the existing role of the English language, some people suggest the English language as the appropriate option for a national language while also prompting the inadequacies noticed in Nigerian indigenous languages. Kebby (1986) argues that “no Nigerian indigenous language can serve the scientific and technological needs because none is complete.” The neutrality of the English language will deny any claim of ownership of national language by any ethnic group in the country.
However, some Nigerians have advanced the need for an indigenous Nigerian language as national language because of certain reasons: national consciousness, unity and pride. A break away with English will justify Nigeria’s claim for political Independence; put an end to the ‘elitist’ society that English has created and the choice of an indigenous language will facilitate national integration as all members of the country speak the same national language. Olagoke (1982) argues: “There are many Nigerians who feel strongly that the country needs a lingua franca other than English, not only to foster national unity but also to facilitate self-discovery and pride convincing the world and ourselves that we are truly independent of Britain.
By way of recap, the proposition to choose an indigenous language as national language is laudable, but the problem is the choice of national language among many Nigerian languages. Attah (1987) identifies one of the paradoxes of the national language question. He writes that while many Nigerians express a desire for a national language other than English, few are convinced of the need to choose a language other than their own. The proponents of the national language, therefore, may be divided into the major camps based on their preference/choices. First are those who want the national language to come from the major Nigerian languages. Second are those who advocate for the adoption of English.
The problem of national language is not only peculiar to Nigeria just as Lehmann (1976: 28) maintains that it is the problem of all multilingual nations. Some other multilingual and multicultural nations, at one time or the other had to tackle the problem in all multilingual nations. India, for example, is said to have over 800 indigenous languages, but the government has been able to tackle this problem by singling out Hindu as the only national language. This was possible probably because Indians are more tolerant politically than other countries. Moreover, the Indian approach failed in Philippine as the imposition of Tagalog as the lingua franca in 1940 by the Philippine government causes social and political crises. Also in Soweto, the 1976 introduction of Afrikaans as a compulsory language in black schools sparked off the riot that culminated in the historical “fire of Soweto.”
Our intention, therefore, in this paper is to investigate these existing opinions for the purpose of reaching a tenable conclusion, making general statements and reconciling the various facets of our positions by proposing some recommendations.
Multilingualism is a linguistic situation of a speech community where more than two languages are being used in the act of communication. Ojo and Farinde (2005: 35) mentioned that “multilingualism is a phenomenon that results from a situation where people belonging to a geographical entity, community or society speak different languages.” In reality, multilingualism is the linguistic state of many countries in the world. Nigeria, for example, is a heterogeneous society with over 400 ethno-linguistic units.
Multilingualism is a global linguistic state. Clyne (2003: 301) sees multilingualism as either the language used or the competence of an individual, or the language situation of an entire nation or society. Baker (2006: 19) expostulates, however, that several overlapping and interacting variables have made the definition less specific, “elusive and ultimately impossible.”
In the first premise, it is expedient to disambiguate the notion of what a national language implies. Bamisaye (1988: 10) believes “a national language is the language adopted as a common medium of communication by a given society for the expression of its worldview and day to day endeavours.” Fishman (1997: 38) similarly posits that a national language is a common indigenous language in the modern nation which is a powerful factor for unity, cutting across tribal and ethnic lines and promoting a feeling of single community.”
The aforementioned positions establish the fact that a national language is a language of unity among various linguistic communities. Onuigbo (1987: 38) justifies this by asserting that “a national language is not just a language spoken by everybody in the country but one which cuts across ethnic lines and makes possible the expressions and developments of cultural identity.” Farinde and Ojo (2005: 46) emphasizes this by stating unequivocally that “characteristically, speakers of a given national language must share the same certain linguistics norms, values and emotional attachment towards the language.”
In succinct terms, national language is obviously the language that depicts the cultural identity, purpose of existence, ideology, and mutual understanding of a particular nation.

Characteristics of a National Language
The language must be indigenous
Since national language is not just a language adopted as a means of communication by a given people, but a language of cultural and national identity, such language as a matter of importance must to a great extent be historically linkable to them. Certainly, it is nothing but cultural alienation if the language of national identity of a country is an imported or foreign language.
The language must be constitutionally recognized
Overtly, a language cannot serve as the language of a nation without having a constitutional backing of that country. It must be clearly stipulated and explicitly spelt out in the constitution before the status of a national language is conferred on a particular language.

It is a language reached by consensus
National language is a language unifying multilingual speech communities. However, due to the multiplicity of languages among these diversified linguistic communities, a language is generally concluded on to serve as a means of national expression and identity.
Nation-wide geographical spread
Elugbe (1990) shares the opinion that a national language should have a nation-wide geographical spread. A national language must be an indigenous wide spread language spoken by a large percentage of the population; having the potential to represent or symbolize the national heritage. Baldrige (1996) posits that “national language is that one which enjoys use throughout an entire nation in the political, social, and cultural realms. It also functions as a national symbol”

It must have international recognition
The national language of a particular country must be recognized in the international community in order to be the language of that particular nation.

Nigeria as a Multilingual Society
Some scholars believe that Nigeria is a mere geographical expression with overt cultural, social and linguistic diversity. Nigeria, as a nation, was born in 1914 due to the colonial policy that amalgamated the then Southern Protectorate with the Northern Protectorate _an action that changed the course of our history forever. However, sequel to this period, various autonomous geographical entities were in existence with a language, ideological perception of their natural environment, culture and believe that was specific to them. Therefore, colonial policy has engendered a country that is obviously a conglomeration of languages, cultural philosophies and ideological differences.
Estimates place the number of languages in Nigeria has been over 400. This assertion may not be accurately justifiable but Nigeria is definitely a nation that has over 250 ethno-linguistic communities characterized by multiple dialectical variations that may sometimes be without mutual intelligibility. With this problematic language situation, Nigeria then faces complex ethnic groupings with very perplexing linguistic problems (see Ojo and Farinde 2005).
Ojo and Farinde (2005) are of the opinion that the linguistic multiplicity of a particular nation has a negative impulse on the nation’s unity, loyalty and the allegiance among her citizens (pp. 36). Moreover, Trudgil (1983) opines that “language is a social and cultural phenomenon”. Similarly, Edward Sapir (1949) argues that “we see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.” Without further ado, it is lucid to establish that language is a powerful instrument of unity as it fosters a sense of belongingness among its users.

Over the years, the discussion of Nigeria national language has dominated sociolinguistic parlance and several positions and ideas have been advanced. Among these are prominent figures such as Professor Adegbite, Professor Wole Soyinka,Guosa Ighinewaka, Jowitt among others. However, their perceptions have constantly been devoid of conventionality, for none of their advancements has a catholic or univocal standing. In fact, the discussion of the national language question is often characterized by serious debates largely due to the ethnicity, linguistic multifariousness, multilingualism and cultural diversity. There is practically no reconciling ground of the multifaceted opinions and positions that have been espoused by these noble minds in time past.
Some of these schools of thoughts are identified by Ojo O.J. 2005: 47-52 as:
Exoglossic Option
Endoglossic Option
Artificial Option
Pidgin English Option
African Option

Exoglossic Option
The proponents of this position, such as Onigbo 1987, Bamisaye 1988, Jowitt 1995, etc., have vehemently argued that the English language is already an entrenched language of official purposes making it a peculiar language as far as the national language question is concerned. The English language, to them, is believed to have stayed long in the country and has been nationalized over time that even a distinct variety of the language, which is called the Nigerian English is now recognized. Though over the decades, the English language has been recognized as the language of inception, exploitation, cultural alienation and linguistic imposition, but just as Jowitt (1995:55) observes, the indigenization of the English language now exists mainly among the lower levels of the society.
Ojo J. O. (2005) hinted quoting Onuigbo (1987:40) that there are chances that the English language would be developed in its status and functions to serve as a national lingua franca in Nigeria. Buttressing his claim, Onuigbo presses further to state some clear reasons in favour of the English language becoming a national language.
The demands of present day Nigeria, which include an official language and a functional language, are basic in some ways to its survival.
The English language is swiftly gaining universal sympathy and competence.
The English language is gradually getting into every home which is a response to a change over which nobody has any control.
Official roles and educational advancement require the ability to use the English language.
Ojo J. O. (2005:51) expatiating this exposed that it should be made clear that adopting English as Nigeria’s national language is a good step in the right direction. Apart from being already on ground with necessary infrastructures and logistics, it is about the only language that has fostered unity among the over 400 ethnic grouping in the country.
Overtly, it has been proven through the diachronic study of language that it is most likely that an indigenous national language would evolve, however distracters of this school of thought have pointed out that the English language is fundamental and basically a foreign language foisted on us by the colonial masters. They also argue that the English language is primarily the language of the educated class. some estimates placed the popularity of English language at about 10% in Nigeria. By implication, this implies about million speakers.
The tendencies of the English Language becoming the national language is definitely contestible due to the fact that it does not depict the nationalistic identity of Nigerians.
Endoglossic Option
Contrary to the exoglossic conception, the advocates of this philosophy among which are Joseph Ushie (1980) and Sofunke (1990) claim that choosing from the numerous native language will foster a sense of nationalism and patriotism. Ushie for instance proposes that ‘Afrike’ should be adopted as the language of the nation while Sofunke also rationalizes that ‘Igala’, which is one of the minor languages in the country, to be adopted as the language of national identity. Jowitt (1995: 47) also believes in the superiority of the Hausa language because the language boasts to have the largest number of papers and magazines among the indigenous language in Nigeria and that it is one of the broadcasting language in operation by the British Broadcasting company (BBC) and the Voice Of Africa (VOA).
More so, the federal government has identified bi-lingualism alongside the English language in the conduct of the National House of Assembly business. This in no small measure as elevated the status of the three major language in Nigeria (Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa), although not to give any of these language prominence, or a national outlook.
Ajeigbe 1987 emphatically mentioned that all efforts at foisting an indigenous language have remained unproductive because whichever candidate (language) wins the loser will team up with others (not favoured) to present the winner from functioning.
3. The Artificial Option
Based on the fact that language must be neutral, some linguists have gone as far as creating an artificial language for the people. This approach to adopting a national language is obviously a ridiculous one. Guosa Iginneweka is a major proponent of this option. He created a language he called “Guosa” and affirmed that the language is created from the existing 22 languages in Nigeria and also went ahead by creating a 52-page dictionary for the language. However, this approach has never been favoured by linguists. Elugbe condemns “Guosa” as being weak and artificial. Bamgbose reveals that in effect, Igbineweka would be the sole arbiter of the grammaticality of any of its sentences which would be absurd. Just as Ojo and Farinde pointed out, such artificial problem and logistics shortcomings face difficulty in persuading large numbers of people due to the special effort required to learn such language and the risk in learning a language that has no native speakers.
African Option
Jowitt (1955: 45) reports that Wole Soyinka suggested this option at the Second International Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) held in Nigeria in 1977. He suggested that Swahili should be adopted as the national language of Nigeria. One of the merits advanced by him is based on the language phonological and grammatical structures. As a matter of fact, it is already the lingua franca in East Africa. It is the national language of Tanzania and Kenya coupled with the fact that it is well developed. It is also considered to be a language indigenous to Africa. However, this option has few supporters. Elugbe and Omamor (1991) argues that the language has no existing constituency in Nigeria to qualify for a national language.

The Pidgin English Option
This has also had its vocal advocates. It is seen as a viable candidate to be considered as the national language for Nigeria. Elugbe and Omamor (1991) wants us to believe that the phonological and grammatical structures of Pidgin are African and its major lingua franca in the Southern part and to some extent in the North. Also Pidgin is used in reading for literary purposes and is free from the political colouration of the local languages. However, the demerit of the Pidgin option include its not being sufficiently developed, its limited vocabulary and the popular perception of it as a debased form of English. Though the demerits seem to outweigh its merits, it should be pointed out that this option has attracted more support than any of the previously discussed options.
Implications of Having a National Language
Apart from the fact that the idea of a national language or languages is not encouraged in contemporary sociolinguistic studies on minority language, it is a political issue which requires caution and restrain due to the linguistic and cultural heterogeneity situation of the country (Schmied 1991, Webb 1994, Igboanusi and peter 2004). Nigerians’ political awareness, ethnic consciousness and loyalty, cultural alertness, and interest in the national economy will not tolerate a linguistic hegemony. Bamgbose (1993: 4) records the strong and sharp objection raised by the members of the minority language groups to the adoption of any or all of the major languages as a national language(s) when it was proposed for debate at the parliament in 1961.
Bamgbose (1991: 23) stated:
“The political survival of Nigeria as a country would be even more seriously threatened than it is if any of these three languages were promoted by the Government as being the national language”
The multifaceted implications of such an attempt are far-reaching and grave for the speakers of the minority languages. Apart from the minority language group being politically marginalized and economically deprived, the adoption of a Nigerian major language as a national language will do more harm than good. Some of these implications are stated in a very concise language below.
It constitutes a threat to the continued existence on other minor languages because they are likely going to be relegated to the status of rurality. As it were, an average Nigerian would prefer a metropolitan language to a rural one.
Similarly, the speakers of such minor language would diminish to a somewhat negligible figure. What language vitality actually connotes in the scholarly linguist discussion is the fact that some languages are confronted the ugly reality of going into extinction because of the drastic reduction in the numbers of their speakers. Already in some parts of Delta state, Pidgin English has a Creole (spoken as a mother tongue in a community) and Hausa has become the mother tongue for some Northerners who were not originally Hausa by tribe. (see Egbokare 2001 and Igboanus and Peter 2005)
The death or disregard of a language have indelible effect on the unique culture and believe system of a particular people. Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf among others have shown over time that language in its purest sense is inseparable with the people’s culture. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis asserts that we are constrained in all that we understand, feel and aspire to by the mould, shape and the contours of a particular grammar, and we are forced thereby to recognize and interpret reality only and always in record with those patterns that the particular grammar recognizes and imposes on every thought and every formulation. This explains to us that the death of a language at every point in time is in reality a tragedy. Overtly, this is the possible outcome of having a national language imposed on such a multilingual country like Nigeria to depict our national identity.
As it has been mentioned earlier, the cultural identity of the people who lost their linguistic heritage consequently disappears. Such people are subsequently absorbed into the culture of the newly found language.
If the indigenous language must be saved from the threat and danger of extinction, Nigerians and Nigerian government must be ready to make a lot of serious efforts to the pragmatic steps towards the restoration and revitalization of the values of these languages. The truth is that some of these native languages still need to be codified and standardized in order to meet up with the requirements of modern development and technology research, the Nigerian indigenous language have the right to live because, in their own right, they are the containers of the cultural essence, traditional values, and communal wisdom of their native speakers. They also remain the best and only languages that can fully appreciate and accurately express such cultural essence and traditional values. Every language is both an embodiment and an epitome of the characteristic behavior, attitude, and thinking of its speakers, therefore, no Nigerian indigenous language deserves to die.

However, developing a national language will not be an easy task in such a multilingual nation as Nigeria. But if the government is willing to invest heavily on this subject and take the issue of the language policy serious, that is, one of the major languages other than the students’ indigenous language should be taught in schools. Perhaps, within a couple of years, a national language that will cut across the diverse ethnic groups in the country may be developed.
Having investigated the existing postulations and various positions assumed by scholars over the years, we highlighted the danger and damages that is eminent in the impostion of one language over the other. However, we recommend that at the educational level, students may be made to learn a language other than their own. This will in turn foster unity, oneness and mutual understanding among the different ethno-linguistic units in the country.

references later

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