The Status of English Language in Nigeria

Nigeria, is a multilingual state with about 521 indigenous languages. Nine of these indigenous languages are dead while we have two languages (French and English) that are not indigenous. However, there are 510 living languages apart from the dead and the ones whose orthography have not been crafted (Ethnologue; world languages 2009). The manifold existence of languages in Nigeria is a blessing and a curse in that these languages are used to express human needs and on the other way round, the nomination of one, two or threw languages as a major language in the country supresses other languages which is an impartial judgement in the field of language study. That is why the English language, a colonial language, is being nativised and chosen as the nation’s official language and a lingua-franca. The English language serves as the language of the media in Nigeria, language in schools, a tool for education, language of the politics, Language for commerce, language in law courts and even language used to interact with the African gods. The aforementioned function depicts that without the knowledge of the English language, it is impossible to attain an appreciable social height in the country and its use ascribes prestige to it’s speakers.

Before the incursion of the Europeans into various African states, a kaleidoscopic linguistic diversity was already in existence. Many languages are genetically and historically related. The extreme Linguistic complexity before the advent of the Europeans has largely remained unchanged till now. Many African states were bilingual or multilingual in many local tongues. So, it was possible that bilingualism and multilingualism in local languages were not a new phenomenon to African states. The coming of the Europeans to the continent helped to compound the Linguistic situation by at least one step further with the addition of the English language. The genesis of the use of English dated back to the early 19th century when freed slaves had received formal education abroad. Those among them who had a Christian orientation proved useful translator or interpreters in Christian evangelism during the early missionary period. Although, the primary purpose of the missionaries was not to make Christian converts speak English but to make the populace literate enough to read the bible in their own languages. Some indigene were able to learn and use the language after which they became catechists and teachers in the mission schools. English language then became prominent in the educational system and was used for official purposes. It then became an elitist symbol, used by a few privileged Nigerians who were civil servants and who served as models for no less enthusiastic indigenes who sought after formal education.

Consequently, the use of English in Nigeria survived the departure of the colonial administrators as the language of administration. As time went on, English language was established and could be seen as the language that could effectively displace the indigenous languages and this led to the varieties of English due to contact with different indigenous languages and dialects.

Later in 1977, it was stipulated that mother tongue or language of the immediate environment must be used as a medium of instruction for the first three years in primary school, while the English language is introduced later. This was to allow English to be used as the basic medium of instruction with the indigenous languages taught as subjects in spoken form. This enables children from different Linguistic backgrounds to communicate and interact with one another, making it possible for Nigerian children to leave English in the shortest possible time.

Today, several years after Nigeria’s independence, English language still survives and assumed a more important status in Nigeria. It is a mother tongue and L2(second language) to most Nigerian speakers, and is seen as performing some integrative functions of it’s wide array of use.

Queen Lucky

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