By Anote Ajeluorou and Greg Austin Nwakunor
Language plays a crucial role in the socialization of an individual in any given society. But today’s reality is that many of the world’s languages are dying out due to lack of use, as they have been swallowed by other more forceful, global languages. This sad trend is even made worse in colonized societies where the different local languages or mother tongues have been effectively replaced by the dominant foreign language.
Also, with the concept of globalization, which is just another term for colonization, with the entire world gravitating towards western, dominant cultures, the mother tongues in most third world countries are fast disappearing. Most culturally conscious individuals are raising alarm over the trend.
How can the trend be stemmed in countries like Nigeria, with its multiplicity of local languages or mother tongues? What is the role of government in ensuring the survival of the various languages spoken in its diverse length and breadth? How can writers ensure that they do not practice their literary craft in the dominant, foreign language at the expense of their various mother tongues? What models are there for a country like Nigeria to copy to ensure balance?
These were some of the questions that a panel on ‘What Language Means to Literature, Identity and the Importance of Literary Translation’ dealt with at Port Harcourt Book Festival 2014 that held last month. It was a panel that had an assortment of cultural workers speaking on a subject of inflaming passion from across all divides. It wasn’t any less passionate on this occasion, as it had Ken Saro-Wiwa Jnr pitched against Cassava Republic Press boss, Dr. Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, just as poet laureate and PEN Nigeria President, Tade Ipadeola and Kenyan Africa 39 author, Stanley Gazemba added informed voices to the debate, with Caine prize Vice Chairman and Hay Festival official, Ellah Allfrey moderating. It was a PEN International Free the Word programme with the support of UNESCO.
Ipadeola took the position of many experts on the subject like the late Prof. Babs Fafunwa, who successfully proved that mother tongue is critical to the development of the child, as first language of instruction. The child, Fafunwa had argued, would learn the second language at his pace as he grows up, as was the case with most African children when they encountered foreign language in school usually over the age of six and above and spoke it far better than what currently obtains with students’ poor grasp of English. This is even when English is the only language spoken at home.
Therefore, for Ipadeola, “I prefer mother tongue to the term, ‘minority language’. We live in a complex world and we cannot learn that world without language. Without that language we will go nowhere as a society. It’s something we will continue to negotiate; it’s not something we resolve with a fiat. I grew up in a border territory and learnt many of the border languages effortlessly. So, if you can’t relate with your environment, you get stuck”.
Bakare-Yusuf stated that the relationship between language and identity “is so crucial that cutting it off means you’ve gone adrift; you have language to fall back on. In colonized lands, people are neither at home with both languages – the mother tongue and foreign. In Nigeria’s experience, spoken and written English was a lot richer when children learnt mother tongues first before English. Now, they (children) are terribly lost, and impoverished in both languages. Identity becomes a fractured on. One needs cultural confidence to move on in the world; we’re losing confidence in our identity by abandoning our mother tongue that gives us the identity we need to move on in the world”.
But Saro-Wiwa disagreed with Bakare-Yusuf, arguing that he didn’t need to speak any Ogoni language to be confident. He said he and his late father, Ken Saro-Wiwa, whom he described as “defender of minority rights”, never spoke a word of Kana to each other. In fact, Saro-Wiwa revealed that the Ogonis emerged from the Nigerian Civil war in 1970 a battered people, and said, “We weren’t proud of our heritage”, as they were called ‘Ogoni piopio”, as they engaged in all manner of menial labour at the time.
He argued, “The notion of language comes from the political space. Preserving language itself isn’t about preserving culture as both change with time but language is dynamic. In their school in England, my kids are made to learn Latin, a dead language, but it’s regarded as bedrock; language is a repository of ideas and knowledge systems. English has borrowed from everywhere else; only about 5 per cent is original. So, I don’t have to preserve Kana for my kids to move on in the world. Besides, how do you preserve over 400 languages in Nigeria? Who needs them?
“Of course, something gets lost in translation, but what do we lose? What we lose is the ownership of the culture; we preserve memories through the stories we tell, and we’re able to tell foreign interloper who invades our land, and say, ‘this is our language, this are our stories? Where are yours?”
For Kenyan writer, Gazemba, from the Kimaragoli language group, whose senior countryman and literary icon, Ngugi wa Thiong’o has long abandoned writing in English, preferring his native Kikuyu instead and then having his works translated into English, the issue of language and identity is a tricky one. He narrated how the first songs he learnt at school was about ‘London bridge falling, falling’, and he used to imagine a bridge that was falling in some faraway land he didn’t know. His Kenyan experience is similar to other colonized Africans.
He noted, “We were made to believe our mother tongue was backward and something we should be ashamed of. It’s why I tend to like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart because it is the closest use of English to my own Kimaragoli language in its nuances and usage. That is the big struggle with the African writer telling a story. When we dream, we do so in our mother tongues.
“People in authority try to impose on you the other language at the expense of mother tongue. The idea of forcing kids to speak a foreign language is absurd: Are we improving or inhibiting their creativity?”
But Bakare-Yusuf faulted Saro-Wiwa’s seemingly contradictory argument, of not needing to preserve mother tongue, but being able to tell a people’s story in it at the same time, she said, “Every language is inherently dynamic. The moment you speak more than one language your intellectual horizon is expanding. In more than one language, you’re constantly in conversation with each of them. Right now, people are not sufficiently grounded in English and in their mother tongues, especially children, and this is affecting their overall performance in literacy, in the classroom. For these children, English is anaemic because they don’t have the broader meaning, and understanding of the language as against those grounded in their mother tongues”.
Also a lawyer, Ipadeola looked at the broader, legislative picture of cultural survival, and stated that it wasn’t a matter of choice, as “What is important is that every language is important. What culture, history teach is that all of us are important. Mono-culture is wrong; we harm ourselves, we put ourselves in untenable position when we choose. The state has a duty, if necessary, to legislate that certain languages be preserved, and we will all be better for it, as the way of living, medicine and other self-preservation ideas peculiar to a people, our people, will be preserved for posterity”.
Bakare-Yusuf agreed to the legislative mandate for local languages, and noted, “There should be legislation to avoid complacency for two to five languages because if we claim to be sovereign nation and for us to be taken seriously, we should root for diversity. We need to support publishing industry and fund it. Those writing books on local languages need support. How do we write science in local languages without support?”
But Saro-Wiwa countered and said, “Language is a function of migration and isolation. How can you legislate over 500 hundred languages in Nigeria and still make sense?”
For Gazemba, however, the market holds the answer for the writer in local languages, as he said, “The reality for the writer is that the market will become the medium to convey our story. Much as I’d like to write in Kimaragoli, it’s not going to help my career as a writer. Everyone seems to agree we should promote Kimaragoli, which borrows from all the regional local languages. So, I think the answer to this dilemma is to create in original, local language and translate into wider, global languages. It’s a challenge, but we have to find a away round it. But if we listen to the market, we will all sound the same and that will be boring. Unfortunately, we cannot insist on having it the way we want it”.
To which Bakare-Yusuf responded, “How can indigenous languages survive? How does he shape his works, make them legible for western audience is what he is saying. At Cassava Republic Press, we’re interested in indigenous languages. We’re going to accept some Hausa manuscripts because of the population, but I can’t think of publishing in Igbo. They can’t seem to agree on the orthography of the language. What would it take to translate Saro-Wiwa into Kana if only 500 hundred people will read it?! That is key for us”.
PEN Nigeria Secretary, Ropo Ewenla lent the earth conservationist angle to the debate when he said, “What mother earth left for us must be preserved. Variations must exist for us to live as a people. Government must legislate to preserve local languages. We must advocate that the classics in African literature are translated into local languages. It’s about reinventing our identity, of who we are. A whole industry will be created in translating into our indigenous languages”.
Also for poet, culture and gender expert and university don, Prof, Omolara Ogundipe, it’s a question of which language people want to be their lingua franca or national language, adding that mother tongue is crucial in a child learning process. She noted, “In South Africa, there are 11 languages, all official languages. People write books in them, teach them, and legislate in them. Is Nigeria ready for such? Other European countries learn their national language and three other European languages. We shouldn’t individualise it. If you wrote in Kana, it can be translated into world languages for a wider audience”.