Mother Tongue declining rapidly in Africa

Publié le par hort


Joachim Okoruwa
Uromi, Nigeria
Wednesday, February 13, 2008


One of the most significant aspects of any culture is language. This is a combination of sounds and gestures in the facilitation of communication and tells who we are and where we come from. It is a very unique tool for identification and marks a tidy reflection of the multi cultural dimension which different civilizations  have passed through.  

Sometimes, one may correctly tell another's descent from his accent even when he is not speaking in his  mother tongue because his phonetic habits inadvertently spill into his use of that language. This highlights the outstanding pedestal which language occupies in our culture. It is our heritage and a mark of our existence. We therefore must do everything we can to make sure that it is eternally preserved for we would be showing gross irreverence to our forebears and offering a great disservice to generations yet unborn if we failed to do so.

Important as it is however, it faces the danger of extinction in many parts of Africa. Some may argue that this will never come to pass but that is only looking at it from a very myopic perspective. Anyone who has cared to give some serious thought to the trend of events concerning the use of the mother tongue in African communities will agree that the situation today has woefully degenerated as compared with the last fifty years. It is not enough to argue that there would always be a few people capable of speaking a dialect at any given point. I shudder to think of an African community that communicated in a foreign language on account of an extinct mother tongue.

In most African homes where both parents hail from different ethnic groups, the common language spoken is a foreign one. Here the children ought to be taught to speak both tongues which should in fact be an advantage but they rarely ever learn any. As the years go by, it gets more difficult as they receive further education in a foreign language. If at the point of starting their own families they get married to their like or to those who though understand their language come from elsewhere, the situation becomes even more complex. Their offspring will follow the same sequence. A supposedly marvellous thing whose strength ought to be embellished in our way of life is slowly being reduced to a threat.

It will not happen in ten years. Maybe not even fifty. But in another hundred years some tongues may become extinct in Africa. It is easy for someone to whisper somewhere that in that time, none of us would be here to witness it but let us remember that those before us sustained it and that was why we met it. We owe it a duty to our forebears to preserve a good thing we met from birth otherwise our selfish ingratitude may even consume us before our time.

This is not what western civilization taught. Much as it tried to impinge, it still taught us to uphold the tenets of our culture. For example, while the killing of babies in multiple births and such other fetish practices as sacrificing human blood for deities were abolished; our artefacts, seasons, languages and herbs were upheld. A school of thought has tried to blame it on western civilization but I disagree. This is the collective result of our ineptitude and lack of social consciousness. The blame is entirely ours and we must accept our guilt.

I am an African living in Canada. When I say hello to Canadians on the street, they reply respectfully with a friendly hello and even a smile sometimes. I have never been shunned by any Canadian I greeted on the street. That is because they have been taught to preserve their culture which among other things preaches mutual respect. But what happens when I say hello to fellow Africans on the street? Many a time, they size me up first. Ostensibly to find out whether I belong to the same social stratum or whether I am a parasite. The women want to be sure that I don't intend it as a yardstick to get familiar. Some would only reply if they were comfortable with my physical appearance. Many times they would not bother. Reflecting on this with some people revealed that I am not alone. But our culture equally preaches respect.

It is also not a secret that some of us are ashamed of our ancestry. Such people, when in the company of Canadians, pretend not to notice you because they feel they will receive some higher rating in the eyes of Canadians when they pretend not to be who they are. How awfully wrong and ignorant these small minds are. Some would travel home and refuse to speak in their mother tongue. They must show off their new status of having been to. If they spoke in their mother tongue, they would neither be able to display a borrowed tongue, accent nor gesture.

It is not only Africans in the Diaspora who are guilty. This is a typical fundamental African problem and the ones in the Diaspora who exhibit it are merely displaying an attitude they developed from home. The way one returning from abroad will behave is exactly how the one arriving a rural setting from an urban one within Africa will also behave. Another consequence of our inability to preserve our mother tongue is this spiritless life we lead where there is no true bonding because we do not appreciate one another. If we cannot respect our language, it will be impossible to forge mutual respect and cohesion among ourselves. A future consequence will be the loss of our heritage and in effect our dignity as a people.

This thus calls for concerted effort. I agree that some tenets of our culture should be confined to the history books but language is not one of them. I also agree that people do have a right to their own choices. But the option of consuming our mother tongue will be selfish, ungrateful, bitter, unfortunate and expensive. We must all come together to save the situation. I implore that going forward; children are taught at least one traditional African language. Let those who can speak make it a point of duty to teach others while those who cannot, make it a point of duty to learn. A head start in this manner will go a long way in changing the tide to our favour.

One thing to cheer about though; Africans hardly ever show disrespect by speaking in their traditional language while in the company of anyone who does not understand that language. This conduct is exemplary and highly commendable. But I wish they'd transmit that respect to one another.

Publié dans contemporary africa

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