Michael Omolewa

Alongside the questions of the purpose of literacy and its influence on economic development, a main focus of the debate is the role played by language. Language is the expression of a people’s cultural identity, it reflects the world of experience and life, and it serves to pass on traditions. Can the full range of indigenous languages be maintained (over 400 in Nigeria)? Or is it more sensible to teach people literacy in the official national languages and in the languages most widely used throughout the world so that they are more likely to solve pressing global problems and have better opportunities in the context of increasing world globalisation? – Professor Michael Omolewa, Ambassador and Permanent Delegate of Nigeria to UNESCO, provides food for thought. Before he moved to Paris to take up his present post, he was for many years Professor of Adult Education at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. This is host to an interesting literacy project, which was awarded a UNESCO Literacy Prize some years ago.

The Language of Literacy

No one should seek to impose a language on the people. The colonial administrations all over the world unsuccessfully attempted to replace the language of the conquered with that of the conquerors. In the end, diversity, and respect for the cultures and traditions of the people triumphed. The people’s identity through language was established. The identity of the people, demonstrated through the language in which they dream, enhances the quality of learning. The culture of the people is best displayed by language. Language is the reflection of the way people view objects, beliefs and practices. In this contribution we are encouraged to enjoy differences and allow the cultures of the poor and the voiceless to prevail in the promotion of literacy.

Three broad issues seem to have dominated the debate on literacy promotion and practice during the last century. The first is whether literacy should be a means to achieve an end or should be the end on its own. UNESCO seems to have resolved that argument by encouraging the debate on the launching of functional literacy to supplant the traditional literacy of the sixties. The idea was that countries should not restrict literacy promotion to the acquisition of literacy skill, but should proceed to the adoption and use of the skill for economic and social advancement. The second issue has been the question of the limitations of literacy in economic development. The view that literacy cannot necessarily generate employment opportunities or provide bread on the table for families became common in the eighties, and contributors from India and the German Adult Education Association became controversial at the time. The point that was canvassed at the time was that the expectations from literacy have remained exaggerated and too high for reality. It seems that the debate on this subject has persisted. The third issue that does not seem adequately articulated has been the question of the language of literacy. Given the importance of literacy for individual, social and political mobility, how critical is the language factor? In other words, should the language issue be given much attention? The assumption is that literacy is of considerable importance to make every aspect of its delivery and promotion of great significance. Our aim in this contribution is to focus attention on the language issue.

We must make it clear that there are currently two major categories of scholars who have consistently addressed the subject of the language of literacy, or of education for that matter. There are those that are labelled the emotional group, and there arü those described as the rational group. Both are concerned about the choice of language for literacy. The emotional group is often guided by the cultural factor, the need to preserve the identity of the people and respect the gift of nature. This group argues that dreams come in the language of the people, and that learning must be founded on the indigenous language of the people. The group further argues that establishment of cultural identity will inevitably assist in the promotion of nationalism, and even patriotism. We must add that much of the argument of this group still need research and empirical backing. The second group contends that what should guide language choice in literacy is the realistic, practical consideration. This group considers language as an instrument that can and should be used for meeting the goal of literacy. For large countries such as Nigeria where there are over four hundred languages, those who belong to this latter school of thought argue that it will be wasteful and unrealistic to seek to promote several languages. It is argued that the major languages of the community may be adopted to accommodate the major interest of the people. It is further argued that the ultimate goal of education should be the achievement of unity and that language choice should be made deliberately to promote this goal.

For the African, the preservation of the indigenous languages is perceived as critical to growth and development. Most Africans believe that the gift of languages is Divine and that the Giver must be respected by their careful preservation and use. Attention is drawn to most European countries that have only one national language. In many African countries, by contrast, there are as many as a hundred languages, and as we have already noted, Nigeria has over four hundred languages. Most of the language groups in Nigeria are working tenaciously towards the increased use of the languages both as the spoken and written medium of expression. In Nigeria there are over two hundred minority languages where an intense struggle is on to ensure their survival, sustainability and recognition.

The Federal Government, in cooperation with the European Community, supported a project to prepare literacy primers in eight of the indigenous languages of two of the States in Nigeria. The response to this development from the people was enthusiastic, as many adult learners who would otherwise have stayed away from literacy classes began to enrol and remain in the classes. They join in the process of rewriting their history and in documenting songs idioms and proverbs in the area. The smaller groups have continued to appeal for the adoption of the languages, many of which do not even yet possess an orthography. In a recent publication of the National Institute for Nigerian Languages in 1999 entitled Language Endangerment and Language Empowerment in Nigeria; the contributors have rejected what has been described as discrimination against the smaller language groups. As Adegbija, one of their spokespersons put it in 1994: “Generally while all languages are apparently equal, it does seem that in terms of national and official functionality, at least, some are more equal than others”.

The experience of the University Village Association (UNIVA) is instructive. At the beginning of its literacy project, there was considerable reluctance by the people to learn the local language. The European languages were preferred because jobs could be secured among the expatriate population and more readily in Government offices. UNIVA however encouraged the people to begin to use the local language. Materials were prepared for first learners and post-literacy learners. The project recorded considerable success as more people turned up for classes. The community felt comfortable with owning the project, which respected the culture and language, and there was increased community participation. Soon, the community, which began to sing local songs and took pride in wearing traditional attire, began to contribute to the project by building community centres and literacy classes.

The argument against the trend in the adoption of multiplicity of languages has been mainly economic. It is argued that it is wasteful to begin to use several languages in communities that have used a common language over a period of time. In Nigeria, the National Language Policy has been to adopt the three major languages of Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo. These are the three official languages in which the network news is broadcast. It is also known that the duplication of the role of an adopted language is equally wasteful. Thus, proponents of restricting language use have asked whether cheques can be written in some of the smaller languages such as Efik, Ibibio, Jukun, Fulfude. It has been asked what the use of literacy is that can not function fully.

Research has proved that the learning of the indigenous languages facilitates the mastery of the Second Languages. It has also been argued that the promotion of the Mother Tongue or the local language also enriches the quality of learning.

Thus Keran Bleambo, of Aba in Abia State of Nigeria, has reported that students have often felt more at home with the use of the local language which they know very well than with the language they know little about and which they often feel reluctant to use for fear of being laughed at. He has also drawn attention to the conclusion of Ayo Banjo of the University of Ibadan that “at the end of teaching English to two groups for 12 months, it was discovered that the performance of the experimental group (literate in Yoruba) was better than that of the control group (illiterate). The experiment showed that literacy in the vernacular had a positive transfer effect on literacy in a second language”.

We should add that all the literacies – social, political, scientific, computer, cultural, functional, visual, gender prose will benefit from the use of the indigenous languages. The adoption will no doubt enhance cultural awareness and rejuvenation.

The new enthronement of democracy in Nigeria will encourage the development of the indigenous languages. It will also help to promote other languages, especially the European languages which are also the languages of communication, diplomacy and the computer.

The way out for Africa could be to encourage the use of the Mother Tongue but also actively to promote the larger languages. The first African Nobel laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, was at one time a foremost advocate of the use of Swahili for all Africans. Soyinka must have been inspired by the simple life of the commitment and complete dedication to service of the Mwalimu Julius Nyerere and most probably also because of the widespread use of the language in many African countries, especially in Eastern and Central Africa. The crusade for the adoption of Swahili did not succeed. Rather, many language groups in countries such as Kenya where we have the native speakers of the language continue to take special delight in their own indigenous languages as if to prove that there can be no substitute for the mother’s breast milk! Hausa, Yoruba, and Fulfude now also compete for attention in Africa as the speaking population runs into millions across several African countries. One way one can face the issue£of the choice of which language to adopt would be to allow the democratic process to lead as the languages continue, like the currency, to find their own levels.

In conclusion, we must emphasise the point that indigenous languages will survive this new millennium, in spite of the offensive launched against them by modern technology. For we know, for example, that the computer has failed to respect languages unknown to it or its makers. Indigenous languages will continue to be the means of expressing intimate desires and wishes. They will continue to be relevant as the language of the folklores, proverbs, and riddles which are committed to the promotion of the culture, values, tradition and practices that guarantee the protection of the society. This use will also be the rationale for the continued use of the indigenous language and thus a reason for a wise choice of the language in literacy.

It is true that literacy that is addressed to the solution of problems of unemployment, disease and intolerance is needed in the contemporary world. It is also true, however, that the issue of confidence building transcends the material dimension. This is where an appropriate choice of language becomes relevant. Literacy should be expected to contribute to the process of nation building, and the struggle against corruption, oppression, manipulation, abuse of authority, and immorality. The non-literate communities already have evolved strategies for achieving these objectives. The adoption of the language in which the strategies have been worked out becomes of supreme importance to literacy promotion and practice.

We must further note that the beauty of a language is brought out more eloquently and decisively when the language is reduced into writing. Such language is thus supportable by literacy and given wider access as a tool for the storage and preservation of knowledge. The language also acquires further potential as a weapon of communication, information sharing, ideas promotion and values building. People from all walks of life can also begin to make a contribution through the keeping of diaries and records of laws, events and other publications. These will inevitably lead to further generation of ideas and / or review of thoughts and conclusions. Writing thus constitutes a crucial investment in the process of development. Language thus becomes part of living and its wealth brings joy, thrill and satisfaction that sustain the process of development.