The exact number of languages spoken in Nigeria is not known. Some sources place it at 500, some at 520 or somewhere else in the 500+ range. Whatever the true number may be, the reality remains that Nigeria is one of the most linguistically diverse nations in the world situated in the most linguistically diverse continent on the globe – Africa.
It may be surprising then to hear that only one language spoken in the nation has an official status: English. The global language, which has significant historical roots in the country as the language spoken by Nigeria's former colonisers, is a double-edged sword, acting as both a language of unification and division across the country. In a nation made up of hundreds of tribes, choosing one indigenous language to have official status or only selecting the languages of majority tribes would always have inflamed the ethnic tensions that continue to divide the nation on socio-political issues. Nevertheless, it leaves many Nigerians, myself included, wondering why we place so much value domestically on English. At the same time, isn't there a case for officialising another equally native language? Why do we not officially recognise Nigerian Pidgin English as our true lingua franca?
According to UNESCO, 29 Nigerian languages are in danger of extinction. There is also a concern domestically that two languages spoken by Nigeria's major tribes, Yorùbá and Ìgbò, won’t see the end of the 21st century. Why? Well, in short: English. Or, more precisely, the threat that English poses to indigenous language education.
Abuja City Gate, a monument located in the capital city of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Abuja.
As the official language of instruction in schools and universities across the country, English is the language that many Nigerian children today are taught to value the most as they grow up. This is often at the expense of indigenous languages which, even when taught at schools, are relegated to overcrowded classes with limited resources or, in the case of many minority tribe languages, not taught at all. The laissez-faire attitude towards teaching Nigerian native languages and their lower social value (in comparison to English) is shown by the fact that many universities around the country do not have courses or departments for our native languages.
However, not all the blame lies in the Nigerian education system. The home is a critical space for language acquisition — it is where parents formally and informally pass on their native languages, contributing to the identity formation of their child. In his TEDx talk, 'The Power of Language', Yorùbá linguist Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún explains how this formerly natural and intuitive process of speaking your mother tongue to your children is more complicated in modern-day Nigeria. He notes that, nowadays, many young Nigerian children are often only spoken to in English, by parents who deem that the language is more accessible than their native languages, and that English should be their first language. For such parents, there is a nervousness that using both languages with the child may confuse them. However, various studies undermine this belief, showing that children from bilingual homes or who are exposed to multiple languages at a young age in fact tend to pick up additional languages more easily. The quality of spoken English does vary across Nigeria's schools, but arguably that is down to the teaching quality and lack of resources at severely underfunded government schools.
"Nigerian international students and immigrants are required to pass English language tests...when studying or working abroad despite the majority being native/first language English speakers..."
Moreover, Túbọ̀sún rightfully points out that the social value we as a nation place on English is not reciprocated on the world stage, where Nigerians are not recognised as first-language English speakers. Nigerian international students and immigrants are required to pass English language tests (such as TOEFL or IELTS) when studying or working abroad despite the majority being native/first language English speakers—indicating the lack of recognition of Nigerian English internationally.
It would be futile to demand that the use of English language should altogether be abolished in Nigeria. Not only would that be impractical, but it would disregard English's global importance and fact that Nigerian English does exist as a dialect of English; this was recognised by the Oxford English Dictionary in January of 2020 when they added various Nigerian words and phrases to the OED. Critically, removing English as an official language would isolate those young Nigerians who have not grown up being taught their native language. But though these young Nigerians may not know their native tribal languages, there is a second language that most do know and use: Nigerian Pidgin English.
Nigerian Pidgin is an English-based creole language which incorporates terms and phrases from a myriad of our native languages. It originated to facilitate trade between Nigerians and the Portuguese in the 17th century, and the lasting effect of Portuguese on Pidgin is evident in words like 'sabi', the Pidgin word for 'to know' which is derived from the Portuguese 'saber.' Although the number of first-
"...removing English as an official language would isolate those young Nigerians who have not grown up being taught their native language."
language speakers of Pidgin is estimated to be only between 3-5 million people, as a second language it has speakers placed at around 75 million. This figure gives Pidgin one of the largest number of speakers of any indigenous Nigerian language.
Pidgin is also a wider West and Central African language, common across the region, with variations in both Anglophone and Francophone countries such as Ghana, Cameroon, Liberia and the Spanish speaking nation of Equatorial Guinea. We can see the national significance of Pidgin in the vast popularity of Nigeria's first Pidgin radio station, Wazobia (whose name is a combination of the English word 'come' in all three major local languages) and the BBC's launch of BBC News Pidgin in 2017. Headquartered in Lagos and with reporters from Ghana and Cameroon, BBC News Pidgin recognises the regional importance and the unifying nature of Pidgin in West Africa and parts of Central Africa.
We should also consider socio-economic factors when making the case for recognising Pidgin English as an official language. Many Nigerians who are unable to access comprehensive, high-quality English education prefer to converse in Pidgin when not conversing in their tribal languages. Although it is sometimes looked down upon by the elite as a crass language, a language for those who are illiterate in standard English or the language of the working class, the truth is that Pidgin reflects the humour, vibrancy and idiosyncrasies of the Nigerian people. Which, surely, is what an official language should do.
Preserving Nigeria’s native languages, particularly in an increasingly globalised world is essential. Without understanding and promoting literacy in our indigenous languages, a part of our history and culture dies. After all, oral tradition is central to our people's story, and our indigenous languages are a key to protecting that part of our culture. Similarly, recognising Nigerian Pidgin English as an official language would legitimise it as what it is: more than just 'broken English,' or some bastardisation of standard English for 'uncivilised' Africans who do not have the capacity to speak it properly. If as a nation we've finally found a language that cuts across ethnic and class divides and truly unites us, e make sense make we recognise am.