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Losing Our Language, Losing Ourselves 

A young Nigerian reflects on estrangement from his mother tongue.

Words: Promise Eze
Pictures: Allyn Gaestel

As I journeyed through my formative years in Nigeria, I found myself gradually drifting away from my mother tongue, Igbo, as English became my preferred language. This shift wasn’t entirely my fault; at home, my parents predominantly spoke English, leaving me disconnected from my cultural heritage.

There was a prevailing misguided belief that embracing the Igbo language could somehow diminish my intellect. Fluency in English had erroneously been equated with higher intelligence, rather than as a mere tool for communication. Even when my elderly uncles from my father’s side visited us after church on Sundays, marveling at my mother’s pot of rice simmering on the stove, they consciously refrained from speaking Igbo to me and my siblings. I often wondered why they didn’t communicate with us in the language they conversed in amongst themselves. They always responded, “You’ll learn it when you grow up. But for now, focus on your studies.” It felt as though speaking Igbo as a child was directly linked to poor academic performance.

Today, I find myself yearning to fully embrace the cultural identity that resonates within me, yet feels foreign on my tongue. Although I proudly identify as Igbo, I struggle to express myself fluently in the language. I can manage basic greetings like “kedu?” (how are you?) and ask simple questions about someone’s name. However, my knowledge of the Igbo calendar, market days, customs, and beliefs that define my people remains limited.

Language serves as the crucial bond that unites us, and without it, I feel disconnected from my tribe. There are moments when I feel like a person without a distinct identity, adrift without roots or purpose.

I am not alone in this struggle of identifying as Igbo while grappling with the language barrier. Growing up, encountering peers who could fluently speak our language felt akin to witnessing a miracle. In my secondary school, language classes were organized according to different tribes: Hausa, Yoruba, and Igbo. The teachers would instruct in their respective native languages. However, it was disheartening to witness our Igbo teacher resort to delivering lectures in English due to the language barriers many of us faced. 

We would gaze in awe as our teacher translated Igbo into sentences we could understand. However, it pained her deeply that during Igbo literature classes, she had no choice but to translate entire Igbo novels into English. This disparity was not observed in the Hausa or Yoruba language classes. While Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba are recognized as the three major languages in Nigeria, it appears that one of them is gradually losing its significance.

The Igbo language is currently facing a critical crisis, despite recognition as one of Nigeria’s major languages. In 2012, UNESCO issued a warning, stating that the Igbo language is at risk of fading away and may even face extinction by 2025 if the trend continues.

Historical Context

Different regions in Nigeria are dominated by specific ethnic groups. The northern half is influenced by the Hausas and Fulanis, while the southern half is predominantly Yoruba. The Igbo community, situated in the southeastern part of the country, has a rich cultural heritage but holds a secondary position in Nigeria’s power dynamic, despite having a population of approximately 40 million individuals, a significant portion of the country’s total population, which exceeds 200 million. 

A clear example of this marginalization is seen in Nigerian politics. The presidency rotates between candidates from the northern and southern regions, and in the history of the Republic, only one Igbo individual has held the position, and for just six months. This highlights a systemic inequality that affects the Igbo community’s representation and influence.

To understand Nigeria’s social fabric, we must consider its colonial past. During the 1884 Berlin Conference, colonial powers drew borders across Africa, including Nigeria. As a former British colony, Nigeria not only inherited economic influences but also witnessed the decline of local languages due to the imposition of English.

Under colonial rule, English became the dominant language in education, governance, and commerce. It was associated with prestige and opportunity, creating a hierarchy that disadvantaged Indigenous languages. Local languages were seen as inferior by the colonial invaders, leading to reduced fluency and a loss of linguistic diversity as communities began to settle in urban areas.

The impact of English on local languages in Nigeria has been significant, even in the postcolonial era. The language has had far-reaching effects on cultural heritage, knowledge transmission, and community identity. English continues to hold the status of Nigeria’s official language, and proficiency in English is sometimes seen as an indicator of intelligence. It is widely used in both public and private settings and remains the sole official language of the country.

Over time, the Igbos have increasingly embraced Western values and religion. They eagerly pursued education in Europe and replaced their traditional deities with the concept of an all-powerful God introduced by white missionaries. While some individuals genuinely adopted these changes based on personal conviction, there may have also been an element of self-deprecation involved. It is common to see Igbos adopting English names as their first names, often considering them more fashionable or appealing. For instance, personally, I have introduced myself as Promise instead of my tribal name, Chisom, because the English name appears more glamorous.

Additionally, as people began to settle in culturally diverse cities, English, along with Nigerian Pidgin, naturally emerged as the dominant language of communication. English encountered various Indigenous languages and competed with them for prevalence. However, unlike the Hausa and Yoruba communities, which actively made intentional efforts to preserve their languages through arts and speaking them at home, the Igbo community embraced English and allowed it to replace their own language. In fact, within Igbo households, a high level of proficiency in English is often revered, and individuals who exhibit exceptional command of the language are considered to be of high status.

Even now, Igbos are widely recognized as an entrepreneurial group, who often travel extensively and integrate into mixed urbanized cities. The entrepreneurial spirit of the Igbos drives them to explore distant lands in pursuit of better livelihoods. In fact, there is a popular saying in Nigeria that if you visit any village in the country and do not find an Igbo person, it may not be a desirable area. Even outside Nigeria, the Igbo diaspora wields significant influence. However, in the process of migration and assimilation, many Igbos have gradually replaced their native tongue with the accepted language of their host communities, often remaining disconnected from their hometowns for extended periods of time.

Biafran War and Igbo-Phobia

According to Amarachi Attamah, the Executive Director of Nwadioramma Concept and founder of OJA Cultural Development Initiative, the suppression of Igbo identity began as a survival mechanism following the Nigerian civil war, commonly known as the Biafran war.

The civil war was sparked by a series of pogroms and violence targeting the Igbo people in various parts of Nigeria. In 1967, the Republic of Biafra, a region predominantly inhabited by Igbos in southeastern Nigeria, declared its secession from Nigeria, leading to a prolonged conflict. After three years, the Nigerian military ultimately emerged victorious, resulting in the reunification of Biafra with Nigeria.

Attamah highlighted the limited options available to the Igbos in the aftermath of the war, as the extensive bombing had devastated the southeast region. To seek better opportunities, many Igbos were forced to migrate to other parts of Nigeria. Attamah specifically recalled how, after the war, the Nigerian government seized bank accounts belonging to Biafrans and implemented a resolution by a Nigerian panel that granted 20 pounds to any Igbo individual.

“Concealing their identities became necessary for the Igbos to avoid discrimination while striving to secure their daily sustenance. It is crucial to acknowledge that this discrimination was state-sponsored, as every Igbo person, regardless of their pre-war bank account balance, was only entitled to a mere 20 pounds,” Attamah said.

Internal Hostility

Sometimes, when my generation attempts to speak, and we make mistakes, fluent Igbo speakers don’t correct us but instead criticize us before we can finish. I remember a shop owner once said to me, “So you can’t speak Igbo? A big boy like you! What a shame!” when he spoke Igbo to me and I couldn’t reply. His words felt insulting, and I wished I could take away the Igbo he claimed to possess by pulling out his tongue. He could have approached the situation with more kindness.

Language serves as the crucial bond that unites us, and without it, I feel disconnected from my tribe. There are moments when I feel like a person without a distinct identity, adrift without roots or purpose.

My friend Uchenna Emelife had a similar experience when a man became furious because he couldn’t speak Igbo. “He came to visit my dad. When he saw me, he asked me some questions in Igbo. I tried to speak, but the words just wouldn’t come out. Before I could even finish attempting, he became furious, wondering why, at my age, I couldn’t speak my language. I was extremely angry. This is not the right way to encourage people to take an interest in speaking Igbo,” Emelife said.

The experience of Adaobi Nnadozie, a nurse I know, also lingers in my memory. Last year, she tragically lost her father, compelling her to return to the southeast from the northern part of the country for his burial rites. As the eldest daughter, she was expected to perform certain traditional customs, including singing and dancing in Igbo to mourn her father. However, her limited proficiency in the language prevented her from doing so, leading to frustration among the village elders.

“I faced insults for my inability to sing in Igbo. It was a dehumanizing experience, but I refused to let it affect me,” she shared.

This kind of hostility toward young people is giving rise to a generation of Igbos who fail to appreciate their language. I once had a heated debate on Facebook with a lady who stated that, despite being Igbo, she saw no need to learn the language since she resided in Lagos where English and Yoruba were widely spoken. She boldly wrote, “As long as Igbo doesn’t provide for my basic needs, I don’t care about learning it.” Those words struck me deeply, and I couldn’t help but feel a sense of shame on her behalf. I began to wonder why a people known for their large population are slowly relinquishing a language that once united them.

But Emmanuel Areke, a civil servant, believes that those who are hostile are only so to preserve the language. “They may be ignorant of the fact that they needed to only encourage those who can’t speak the language, but I believe that they’re just pained about the fact that people are now unable to speak the language of their ancestors,” he said.

The reluctance to prioritize the Igbo language may stem from the perception of its inferiority compared to English. Regrettably, some parents who hold this misguided belief intentionally withhold Igbo education from their children. However, Njideka Okafor, an Igbo radio presenter and an international Igbo interpreter based in Lagos, strongly disagrees, asserting that speaking Igbo does not hinder a child’s global outlook.

“They [parents] seem to overlook a crucial point: a child is capable of learning multiple languages simultaneously. While they teach their child English, they can also impart Igbo language skills. It is true that the child’s English pronunciation may be influenced by their mother tongue. Nevertheless, it becomes increasingly challenging for a child to acquire their mother tongue as they grow older,” she elaborated.

“I have witnessed instances where Igbo parents deliberately discourage their children from speaking Igbo. They hold the belief that Westernizing everything is beneficial, but in reality, it is not. Some Igbos, due to a lack of proper training in speaking Igbo, now perceive the language as outdated and lacking uniqueness. Those who claim to speak it often resort to speaking nothing but pidgin,” expressed Oby Ezeilo, an Igbo editor and staff member at Wikipedia.

How To Revive the Igbo Language

What actions can be taken to prevent the extinction of the Igbo language? It is crucial to recognize that the Igbo language encompasses more than mere words, many of which have been diluted and transformed into pidgin. Language serves as a gateway to a people’s culture, traditions, and beliefs. When one’s language is taken away, they become detached from the essence of their tribe.

A significant portion of efforts to revive the Igbo language comes from Igbos residing in foreign countries. These communities have organized festivals, offered Igbo language lessons on platforms like YouTube, and even assumed teaching positions in universities. Even prestigious institutions like Oxford University have recently appointed their first-ever Igbo lecturer to teach the language. However, such initiatives appear to be lacking within our own homeland.

These initiatives are part of efforts aimed at preserving endangered languages that are at risk of disappearing worldwide. UNESCO keeps a World Atlas of Languages that documents the health and endangerment of languages worldwide, and recently countries like Germany and Britain have made significant efforts to prevent the extinction of endangered regional languages. However, it is unfortunate to observe that the Igbo language, unlike other Nigerian languages that are still actively spoken, is on the verge of extinction.

The realization that I may never be able to express my thoughts in the language of my ancestors fills me with profound sadness. The prospect of reciting beautifully crafted Igbo poems, dancing to captivating moonlight Igbo songs, or reading bedtime stories in Igbo to my future children seems unattainable. Although I have contemplated hiring a teacher who understands Igbo to tutor them in the language, it troubles me to think about how Igbos have forsaken such a magnificent language in the pursuit of assimilation. Why can’t we simply embrace our roots and appreciate what we have?

I envy my friend Faith Arinze, whose parents, before their passing, ensured the transmission of the Igbo language and heritage to her and her siblings. She is one of the few young Igbos I know who can speak the language fairly well, despite being born in the northern city of Kaduna, far from the southeastern region where the Igbos originated. Faith shared that growing up, it was challenging for her to find peers with whom she could converse in Igbo, but that did not discourage her from preserving her language. That is how to keep a dying language alive.

The most effective way to preserve the language is to speak it. Embrace it and let it be the seasoning that flavors our homes. I would have said “screw UNESCO and their damning predictions” if they weren’t right. But screw me. If I knew how to express myself in Igbo, I would have written this piece in my language.

Promise Eze

Promise Eze is a young Nigerian journalist passionate about using journalism to improve public discourse and catalyze development.

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