Nigeria’s languages are a treasure trove of diverse resources. Each of them is worthy of revitalisation since we don’t know how close we are to their complete endangerment. Each of them is worthy and capable of being used in education, entertainment, technology, and politics. And each of them is worthy of being developed on their own to their highest potential without a constant worry about their ‘threat’ to neighbours.
In March 2015, we founded YorubaName.com as a dictionary of names in Yorùbá. Shortly after, we released a free software to help people tone-mark their texts in Igbo and Yorùbá. Every year, around the International Mother Tongue Day, we have an event called #TweetYoruba, where we tweet and use only Yorùbá on social media. And then, last October, we launched TTSYoruba.com, the world’s first public text-to-speech application for Yorùbá language, a tool that allows users to type in different Yorùbá texts and have them pronounced by the computer. We also collaborated with OrishaImage.com to make a free 90-minute audio course in Yorùbá for speakers of English, Portuguese, and Spanish. All these projects, along with many others in the pipeline are part of a big idea to help revitalise the language, set an example of what can be done to help African languages survive in the internet age, and encourage similar projects in other Nigerian and African languages.
Since the project launched, one of the recurring questions we have got from (mostly Nigerian) users who do not speak Yorùbá: “Why only Yorùbá? Why not X language?”, where X is either Igbo, Hausa, Edo, Igbanke, or any of Nigeria’s many languages. On the surface, it appears a fair question why the focus is on just one language out of Nigeria’s three big languages, thereby alienating about 150 million speakers of other Nigerian languages? It was a question hard to answer without being defensive: “Well, this is just a start,” we say, “we are working with volunteers to expand to other languages as well.” It seems to satisfy the questioner in many cases, while also fulfilling what is sometimes their other, even if inadvertent, intention: putting that linguist in a position to acquiesce to a misleading premise that it’s his job to cater to all languages. The response to them, though also 100 percent true, misses a big point in the larger purpose of our endeavour and the role of the society itself in solving the many problems of its language diversity.
Sometimes, a carefully worded response like the above is still followed up by an ostensibly sympathetic but ultimately dispiriting observation: “So, you will create for Igbo and Hausa and Edo and Ika and Urhobo, etc, too? How many languages do you want to create for? And, in the big picture, aren’t we being further divided as a country by a focus on these language divisions rather than what unites us? We all speak English. Or Pidgin, at least. Shouldn’t those be the focus of your work since they are languages spoken by more people, over all, around the country?” Helpful as they all sound, they lead to the same implication that any work geared towards a small or ‘sectional’ language is ultimately a sectional effort in futility at best and tribalism at worst; the latter being the highest form of criticism in the Nigerian public or social space.
So what to do in a desperate need for crucial intervention for revival and revitalisation? According to UNESCO, Ethnologue, and other authorities on the subject, out of over 500 languages in Nigeria today, about twenty are either extinct of endangered. We don’t know the exact figures because the Nigerian government does not ask for the (number of) languages that people speak on census questionnaires. Therefore, over the years, we have relied on estimates, which are grossly unreliable. Every year, new languages are lost by the death of the last speaker, by the loss of interest in continuing to speak it by those who should, by globalisation, or by being ‘swallowed’ by a dominant language nearby, or by other factors. As we do not keep track, we do not know for sure. And one day, we’ll wake up and there will be just a handful of languages left. This is not a desirable outcome, so our work takes up the challenge to provide opportunities for languages that can thrive again though the help of willing volunteers, activist, enthusiasts, corporations, and initiatives.
But the backlash against any individual effort under the charge of insularity or tribalism is real. In Nigeria, with its fragile political make-up and ethnic suspicions simmering under every social or political programme, even an individual effort geared towards revitalising one language raises red flags for those who think that it is another way of denigrating theirs. This fear is not without precedent, of course. The imposition of English as a language of communication, education, and governance in Nigeria came under an ostensible reason of ‘uniting’ the country under a common goal. But what it has done over the years instead is to relegate all other languages in the country to a lower social status, sometimes with the help of Nigerians themselves, while not totally empowering its users in any enduring way. By the time I went to primary school in the early eighties, Nigerian private schools thought it was an appropriate policy to penalise students, sometimes by caning or a fine, for speaking their language within the school premises. Yet my generation of students who passed through the system haven’t thus become Englishmen or exempted from having to write a Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) before gaining admission into Western institutions. All it did was reduce their competence in their own languages.
A suggestion I’ve spoken about as capable of achieving this individual revitalisation effort, while improving the multilingual status of Nigeria includes having every Nigerian president only speak their mother tongue whenever they are out of the country. As do Putin, Merkel, and Netanyahu, to mention a few, presidents of countries where a different language from English is spoken…
So maybe the fear is that if one new language is elevated through revitalisation, it will eventually overshadow the others like English did. It had been suggested, after all, that Hausa – because of its reach and population size – be adopted as Nigeria’s sole national language and means of instruction. People already suspicious of the intentions of the owners of the language in the political layout of Nigeria can be counted on to react negatively to such a proposal. But what if it’s not just Hausa? What if all Nigerian languages be allowed to thrive through use in education, technology, governance, media, and other places, through development and revitalisation? What if policies are put in place to help people become more educated in a language they speak more innately? South Africa has eleven languages enjoying this kind of status. Switzerland has three. Nigeria can have twenty or more. Why not? It will need money and sound policy implementation. But what if revitalisation is done through individual efforts and not by the resources of state? Is the fear of domination less justified then?
A suggestion I’ve spoken about as capable of achieving this individual revitalisation effort, while improving the multilingual status of Nigeria includes having every Nigerian president only speak their mother tongue whenever they are out of the country. As do Putin, Merkel, and Netanyahu, to mention a few, presidents of countries where a different language from English is spoken have made it their habit to conduct all interviews with foreign reporters in their respective languages, even when the interviewer is speaking in English, and even when these presidents (e.g. Putin, Merkel) do speak English themselves. The resultant effect is to show to viewers at home, those who speak the language, and to people in the host country that the language matters, and that our multilingualism isn’t a detrimental feature. For many in Nigeria, the proposal appeared problematic, since we have so many languages. In 2015 when I first made the suggestion, the president spoke Ijaw as a first language. How, skeptics wondered incredulously, would everyone in Nigeria understand President Goodluck Jonathan if he spoke Ijaw at the United Nations? And how would speakers of other languages in Nigeria feel about this kind of exclusion on the global stage?
This was a wrong-headed worry, I always responded. To start with, English, which the president inevitably speaks abroad is not an indigenous Nigerian language, so by definition, it still excludes a number of people. But according to some estimates, about 53 percent of Nigerians (79 million people) speak it, though with varying degrees of competence. Nigerian Pidgin fares slightly better with about 80 million people as either first or second language users. So when the president speaks in Ijaw, his words will be translated in a language we all claim to understand. In addition, the translator, who is likely a resident of the foreign country where the interview is conducted, gets a lucrative job for that period of time. Yet even when Pidgin is substituted for “Ijaw” in that suggestion, the response was never any less dismissive: “Our president? Speaking Pidgin on the international stage? What a way to demean the presidency! A terrible idea!”
Speaking a language abroad that doesn’t have a deep, enduring, constituency as Ijaw would have (in the case of Mr. Jonathan) denied the country a chance to showcase its multilingual character. The irony, I observed, is that when our president ends up speaking English abroad, most Western media still end up transcribing what he says through closed-captioning so that people in those English-speaking countries, to whom his African accent still poses some type of obstacle, can understand him. It wouldn’t have been any worse if he had just spoken his mother tongue. In mid 2017, with a new president in office, this time from Northern Nigeria, I made the same suggestion on Twitter in response to a controversy over the president granting an interview to the BBC in Hausa. And even though I had been consistent in the thrust of the argument, I was attacked through a political lens. The linguist must be a supporter of the president and his “Northern domination agenda”, that is why he would make such a suggestion. Is he asking Buhari to impose Hausa on all of us?”
There are many variations of this response in the Nigerian social and political space. Last week, news broke that a new law had been passed in Lagos to empower the Lagos State University to deny admission to students who lack competence (proven by a credit level grade) in Yorùbá language into the school. As part of the plan to help revitalise the use of the language in Lagos State, the law also made it compulsory for primary and secondary schools in the state to offer Yorùbá as a course of study, and makes it no longer illegal or inappropriate to use Yorùbá as a medium of instruction or communication in all of government offices around the state.
If you care about a language you speak, begin to work on it! As we mark the International Mother Tongue Day, declared by UNESCO to celebrate language diversity across the world, I invite you to consider what your language means to you, and what you can do to revitalise it, from where you stand.
That we had to wait till 2018 to have such a commonsense law in an environment where our system of education has suffered and students are leaving school without competence in either English or their mother tongue, and without proper education either, was already mind boggling. Yet the responses weren’t all welcoming. To many people, it is an attempt by the state to exclude other non-Yorùbá language speakers as a deliberate tribalistic attempt. The suddenness of the policy and the stern way the law was written to exclude those not competent in Yorùbá as at the next admission session made it easy to make those claims. I would rather the policy start modestly, build capacity, and approach its goals over many years. But what most people chose instead to say was that the state was trying to make residents of the state who do not speak Yorùbá, nor are interested in learning it, uncomfortable. Rather than hoping that other states in the country adopt similar policies so that all the indigenous languages in Nigeria will eventually develop capacity to better cope with education, politics, technology, and life in general, we choose instead to race to the bottom with each language and its speakers competing only in tribalistic rhetoric.
It’s for the same reason that, though long overdue, the launch of BBC Pidgin, Igbo, and Yorùbá earlier this year isn’t as much a relief as it should have been. We did not need to have waited for the British government who, certainly, have their own agenda. There have been linguists and private broadcasters in Nigeria since our universities started producing graduates in the fifties. Why didn’t we take it upon ourselves to broadcast news, nationally, in our languages on the web? Google, Amazon, Alexa, etc have created text-to-speech products in English and other western languages, but not in any Nigerian, or African, language. Why continue to blame them when we can create our own with the tools and resources we currently have? Why only complain when we can act? Our work at YorubaName.com, TTSYoruba.com, and others are attempts to eliminate the need for these questions.
Nigeria’s languages are a treasure trove of diverse resources. Each of them is worthy of revitalisation since we don’t know how close we are to their complete endangerment. Each of them is worthy and capable of being used in education, entertainment, technology, and politics. And each of them is worthy of being developed on their own to their highest potential without a constant worry about their ‘threat’ to neighbours. Helping them do this is not a negative insularity but a complementary one; a long-overdue means of helping them become a competent utility in every field of endeavour, carrying development to the millions (and sometimes thousands) of people who speak them, sometimes as the only means of communication. The local, when sustained with the right tools, eventually become global. Nobody argues that the New York Times or the Washington Post targets only New York or Washington DC residents. The focus on Yorùbá at YorubaName.com and the other work we do isn’t the same as saying that other languages don’t matter. On the contrary, we work so that others can do the same.
In the next couple of weeks, work will begin on a first crowdsourced multimedia Yorùbá dictionary online at YorubaWord.com and OroYoruba.com, as a global resourcce for all interested in the language. But we want our work to inspire others to take on the mantle to revitalise their languages too, using some of the tools we provide through our free open source platforms. We continue to work to support many other languages through collaborations, advocacy, and direct action, of course, but this is a defensive caveat that I think should never be necessary. If you care about a language you speak, begin to work on it! As we mark the International Mother Tongue Day, declared by UNESCO to celebrate language diversity across the world, I invite you to consider what your language means to you, and what you can do to revitalise it, from where you stand.
Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún is the founder of YorubaName.com and 2016 winner of the Premio Ostana Prize for Literature. He writes from Lagos.