By Francis Ewherido
Recently, Urhobo Social Club, Lagos, had its New Year party. There was a mini quiz for members’ children on Urhobo language, as part of the activities. That was when an older friend, Chief Gabby Okorare, asked me why our local languages are dying. I told him parents have failed to pass on the culture (language is part of culture) they inherited and the cumulative effect is the gradual erosion of local languages.
All over Nigeria, except the Hausas and maybe a few other ethnic groups, parents and concerned indigenes are worried that their dialects/languages would go extinct with time. I used to think the problem was peculiar to the smaller ethnic groups, until I also heard the Igbos and Yorubas lamenting.
But these other ethnic groups seem to have fared better than some of the ethnic groups in Delta State. They are just having their first generation of children who cannot speak their languages, but the Urhobos, the Isokos and the Itsekiris already have second generation of indigenes who cannot speak the local languages. In fact, the third generation is already being born.
People from other ethnic groups only had English and their dialects as options while growing up in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Their dialect was easier to learn and speak than English, so it was a straightforward case. But those Urhobos, Itsekiris and Isokos who grew up in Warri had a third option which was easier for them to learn and it was also the main medium of communication.
Growing up, some of my contemporaries were neither good in their local languages nor English Language. Pidgin English was the fresh palm oil with which yam was eaten. Many have since improved on their proper English grammar due to further education and exposure, but have remained pretty static on their native dialects.
We have always been proud of Warri as the headquarters of Pidgin English, but Pidgin English has become our real nemesis. We now have generations in their 40s, 50s and early 60s, who cannot speak their languages, so what culture do they transmit to their children? Now we have politicians, who want to or represent constituents they cannot communicate with in their local languages, and priests/pastors, who need interpreters before they can celebrate Mass or perform church service for their own people. Dem say Warri no dey carry last, but na serious last we carry for this matter.
I used to look up to the villages for the survival of the local languages, but my heart sank when I spent time at home during the 2015 general elections. Pidgin English has replaced local dialects as the main language of communication. What annoyed me most was that they were not even good at it; it was not the smooth Hennessey XO kind of Pidgin English spoken in Warri, but Pidgin English with Ogogoro (local gin) brashness.
Why abandon what you are good at for that where you struggle? What has come over my people, I kept asking myself. But I know. The problem is located in the same reason why many people born in the late 50s, 60s and 70s in Warri cannot speak their languages: wrong cultural orientation. You are a bush boy if you speak your language. Correct Waffi boys speak Pidgin English with the smoothness of Hennessey XO, not even Hennessey VSOP.
We need a reorientation where young people can begin to appreciate speaking their local dialects fluently. A friend narrated how a lady referred to her as “ogb’Urhobo” (a derogatory name for an unrefined person) in his undergraduate days because she heard him speaking Urhobo fluently. Somehow some children growing up then, and even now, had this orientation that their indigenous languages were meant for their parents, old people and “bush” relatives only. Some avoided their dialects like a plague.
We (my brothers and I) escaped that orientation because of my mother who insisted that not just Urhobo, but our Ewhu dialect, should be spoken in the house. She was very strong-willed about it and even forbade my father, an English Language graduate, from speaking English in the house, except when he was teaching us English. “Restrict your English to your school with your students,” she told my father. Today, I am eternally grateful to her. Unfortunately, I have been unable to replicate it. My children console me that they at least understand Urhobo, even if they cannot speak well. But of what use is that? How are they going to transmit Urhobo to their children if they cannot speak it?
Some men blame their children’s inability to speak their language on the fact that they are married to women from different ethnicities. I laugh because it is not true. In many families, whose children cannot speak the local language, both parents are of the same ethnic group. Even if your wife is from another ethnic group and cannot speak your language to your children, what about you?
How do we reverse this trend? Organizing language competitions is good, but it only scratches the surface. Giving your children native names is also good, but does not even scratch the surface. Some of these children cannot pronounce their names well and I have seen a few who do not even know the meaning of these names.
Among other panaceas, I feel we should, as a nation, implement a policy where all ethnic groups use their languages, alongside English, as a medium of instruction in primary and secondary schools within their localities, and not just as a subject students memorise just to pass exams, as is currently the case. That is what India, which was also colonized by the British, is doing. Today, Indian languages are spoken alongside English. And as you move from part of India to another, the local language changes, but you get along with English.
At the home front, we should use our indigenous languages as the only means of communication. It should be a conscious and sustained effort. I have not seen the Hausas complaining about their language dying. I learnt that the average Hausa man, even if he lives in Antarctica, encourages domestic staff and others around to teach the children the Hausa Language and it is the only language spoken at home. That is why a 10-year-old Hausa boy, born and bred in London, will come home for the first time and blend effortlessly with his kith and kin.
It is not easy, especially if the children are over 10 years old, to teach them to speak your language. I tried implementing it at home once, but I did not sustain it. I told my children to talk to me in Urhobo only. Instantly, they all became deaf and dumb. But I am going to modify my strategy. If my parents brought up eight children, all speaking Urhobo fluently, and I cannot do the same with fewer children, I will count it as a failure. And I cannot give an excuse that they are growing up outside Urhoboland. I also spent part of my childhood outside Urhoboland.