The importance of teaching our children Vernacular: Nigerian perspective.
According to Webster’s unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, Language is a body of words and the systems for their use, common to a people who are of the same community or nation, the same geographical area or the same cultural tradition.
Concept of Language: Language is actually more than mere words and symbols but a collection of a people’s world view and cosmology. It defines us and helps express innermost being/soul in communicating our emotions, hopes, fears, values and aspirations as a people, be it verbal or non-verbal.
A closer look at the definition as well as the concept shows that language is one of the most valuable treasure mankind possesses and should therefore be guarded jealously. It is a vital ingredient in our physical, psychological, social and spiritual makeup. Its erosion is therefore as good as a worldview, cosmology and a species going extinct.
Nigeria is indeed a huge melting pot of tribes and ethnic nationalities: Ibo, Yoruba, Hausa, Fulani, Igbara, Nupe, Igala, Efik, Ibibio, Idoma, Tiv, Ogoni, Ijaw, Ilaje, etc. The list is endless. Two hundred and fifty ethnic nationalities complete with their distinct languages and dialects. These languages and dialects have two things in common; one, they enable people communicate and two, some of them will be extinct if nothing is done. We will concern ourselves with the latter.
First Scenario: Double Jeopardy
Act One, Scene one: A middle-class cosmopolitan Ibo family living in Lagos, father and mother well versed in western education while at the same time acquiring western tastes and values that negate who they really are, hence their attempt to cast aside their traditional languages and other connectors.
Act One, Scene Two: Their children attend a private secondary school with English as its formal and official language. They are highly strung up and impressionable, waiting to soak in anything in forming their personalities.
Act One, Scene Three: The school curriculum is steeped in English language, a step which is used to ensure that communicating in vernacular is discouraged. This and other prevalent environmental factors enable the children grow up with the mind-set that traditional language as a means of communication is inferior.
End of Act One: With Parents struggling to cast away their traditional toga by discouraging the traditional language at home and a school system aspiring to be more English than the English, the endgame is set as they both become the ‘undertakers’ or ‘pall bearers’ ushering the demise of the traditional language. This double-barreled jeopardy for the children, consciously or unconsciously orchestrated by present day parents as well as the school system, will inevitably leave them (children) reeling and tottering in all endeavours of life.
As they will continue to struggle with alien symbols, nuances, motifs, signs, gestures etc. in their attempt to understand any alien concept (law, engineering, poetry, art, medicine etc.). What I mean here is that an education (formal and informal) devoid of the local languages immediately pitches the children into an unequal playing field of life with the Japanese, Chinese, German children who have been tutored to think in their native languages. Also this type of attitude might not enable us to produce another generation of literary giants like Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, among others or a “great neophyte” like Chimamanda Adichie, whose works are imbedded and culled from her traditional languages, cultures and cosmology.
I believe that we should be involved in the education of the ‘whole child,’ which includes exposure to other languages apart from that of academics. Maybe we are stunting our children’s memory bank by not immersing them in the learning of their parents’ native languages. That may also be the reason why it is getting increasingly hard to communicate with our children as they appear to be un-rooted, dangling between different societal norms and suspended between cultures and realities.
Researchers have proven that each new language learning/ experiences add synapses in the brain neuron of growing children. I have heard lots of inarticulate excuses pertaining to this issue; some say that it is the sign of the times for children not to speak their native languages, it does not matter as long as they speak English because that is the language they would use in their careers and that learning their native languages will interfere with their knowledge of foreign languages. Other excuses include: ‘my spouse and l speak different languages’, or ‘we live in a foreign country’…then if they are from the same tribe, ‘we prefer or are used to speaking a foreign language at home’. I consider these lame and lazy excuses.
In the United States where l lived for some years, second generation children of the Chinese, Russian, Japanese, Spanish immigrants who were born in the States speak their parents’ tongue fluently. An American-born Chinese friend of mine, Zhang, said that Chinese parents normally send their children to learn to write in Chinese language. Most of these first generation immigrant parents speak little or no English (only their native language) to their children. So, the children have the advantage of learning their native language at home and English at school.
I went to an Arab-neighbour’s house and his son, a mechanical engineer, was doing a computer aided design on his laptop while being guided and making reference to an engineering text book in Arabic. Out of curiosity, l had a brief discussion with him in English and discovered that he had a better interpretation on the concept of hydraulics in Arabic because its explanation is centered on his native Arabic world view and cosmology.
Then l went to a Nigerian friend’s house and her three children, ages twelve, sixteen and twenty-one who have lived in Nigeria all their lives speak only English. My friend gave all sorts of flimsy excuses centered on the notion that speaking their native language would affect their pronunciation and impede their knowledge of English. Really? I was ashamed.
Our language makes us who we are and it is the best vehicle or ‘DNA finger print’ that can out-live us, tell our story, warehouse our worldview and existence after we are gone and forgotten. Is that what we want to trifle with? Without it, we are as good as conquered and may as well not have existed.
I believe that learning of written and spoken vernacular should be compulsory in all Nigerian schools both private and public. Also, our children should be given the same opportunity that we had, learning/speaking foreign languages at school while speaking vernacular at home at the same time.
Written by Aano for Nowchild Magazine’s maiden edition in 2011.
Aano is an education specialist with a Master’s degree in special education. She has taught extensively and facilitated numerous educational programs for teenagers in the United States. She is married and lives in Lagos.