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Reviving Our Languages

20 February 2017   |   5:20 pm

“When a language dies, it takes four major elements with it out of the world: linguistic diversity, intellectual diversity, cultural diversity, and cultural identity.” Linguist, James Crawford compares the loss of a language to the loss of a species; once it is gone, there may be no way to recover what the world has lost.

Nigeria can be described as a multilingual society. With the nation having over 500 languages and nine being extinct, the topic of language preservation is becoming increasingly relevant in our society. Guardian Life caught up with Yvonne Chioma Mbanefo, a bestselling author, IT consultant and digital strategist at the TED Ideas Lagos 2017 event, where she spoke about the preservation of the Igbo language particularly for children and the importance of language activism.

Her journey into the world of endangered languages started years ago, Mbanefo explained. “I wanted my children to learn Igbo language and I couldn’t find interesting materials to use… The materials I found were not for people who wanted to learn Igbo as a second language… so I said hang on, why can’t I create it myself.”

Language preservation occurs as a result of certain languages being endangered.  As the English language takes priority over all other languages at schools and at home, it is extremely common to find Nigerians who do not speak their native language. When you put into consideration the Nigerian children who live in foreign countries, you might find that our languages are slowly fading away.

Language

Mbanefo talks about the reasons behind language extinction.  She explains, “Because of globalisation, people are moving out and settling in other places, some languages were deemed not economically valuable enough… so people stopped seeing the use in learning the language and they stopped speaking it.”

As we live in a capitalist society, the importance of a language lies in its connection to the economy.  For example, in order to thrive and survive economically in Nigeria, you cannot rely on just Yoruba, Igbo or Hausa. On the other hand, you can be sufficient with English as it opens up many more opportunities economically on global scale. But by the same reasoning, more languages equal more opportunities hence the importance of taking up your native tongue as a second language.

An interesting part of Mbanefo’s mission is her quest to “bring Igbo into the 21st century.” She says, “it is very hard to speak Igbo, Yoruba or Hausa without adding in a word of English.” While the Igbo is still considered a major language in Nigeria, most people who speak it, tend to mix it with English as it has not been updated over time. Mbanefo explains her approach to the phenomenon when she says, “I used my children as guinea pigs… I started a Facebook group and we were debating, asking old relatives questions… we were compiling names of things, brainstorming… that is how we started building back the language.”

Finally, Mbanefo managed to put together an Igbo illustration dictionary for children, three storybooks, colouring books, while adding both the English and Igbo description of words. She explains, “If they see a shirt in Igbo and the colour of the word is blue, when they see blue words in English they can match it up with the Igbo equivalent”.

Mbanefo’s mission emphasises the need for children to engage with their native languages, as it is an essential part of language preservation. Her range of language products will be extended to Yoruba, Hausa as well as the Bantu Kikuyu, which is the language of the largest ethnic group in Kenya.

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