According to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, Mother Tongue is “the language that your first learned to speak when you are a child.” I would want to say that mother-tongue does not necessarily mean the language of your mother. Rather, it represents the language of your father and mother. But everyone is considered as a citizen on his or her father’s ethnic background before that of the mother most especially when they are of diverse ethnic groups.
Today in our society (Nigeria and many other African countries as a case study) it is a very common habit that children can no longer speak their mother tongue! And this varies from ethnic group to ethnic group. It is a very ugly trend! I remember asking a boy if he can speak his mother tongue; his response? “I can hear but I can’t speak.” Isn’t that a sickening reply? Is that supposed to be applauded? Who is to blame for this ethnic misfortune? This is what you get these of civilization and without the proper indoctrination. And the hideous thing is that no one seems to be ready to change the course of things as it is. We have continued to stay aloof and this is not helping matters. The question now is; where do we go from here?
The problem is that most parents don’t take time to teach their children their languages. All they do is to anglicize their homes which will serve as a betrayal to the child. The problem starts from home. Most of the time, parents concentrate on their jobs and they spend less time with their children these days. They expect nannies, babysitters or teachers to teacher their kids all they need to know. In this regard, parents are the one to blame for their carefree attitude as far as their children are not able to speak their language. In the times of old, parents took the responsibility of educating their children on the proper way to appreciate their language but the reverse is the case nowadays.
Our language is our identity, if you can’t speak your language fluently; you are lost and you don’t know where you are coming from. You are more or less as a lost Prince if you cannot trace your Kingdom. We need to ask ourselves question—that is, had the owners of English language not develop it, would it have been recognized let alone being a popular language in the world?
I can remember some years back; a former governor in Nigeria built a school and in that school French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and German language is taught. I asked myself, “How many Nigerian languages are they learning in these countries or in oversea? How many African countries are being studied as a course in school in other countries of the world?
For our generation to be a lively one and for us to retain and revive our cultural heritage and identity, we need to improve and develop our language—I mean value it. It is true that Nigeria is been referred to as a country that speak Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa; but I can boldly say that these three original languages has no value as compared to English language and it is given little or no recognition.
I am not an Anglo-phobia, but all I am saying in effect is that we should maintain a balanced view of English language. Nigeria is not the only country colonized by Britain; India is one of them—but in India their native Hindi, Tamil and Creole is spoken with a good accent, pride, joy and love. You recognize an Indian by his or her native dressing and the tone of the Indian language. I am not in any way an Anglo-phobia; I have a bunch of English people as friends and Mentors. All I am saying is that we should maintain a balanced attitude towards English language—I mean we should love and be proud of our language too! I am amazed that in Asia and other European countries; their mother tongues are used as a means of teaching and learning even in their Universities; a trend you can never see in Nigeria or across African countries!
Many Nigerians do not value their language let alone being able to speak it. Now how do you think it will look like when a foreigner ask you to teach him your language and you cannot. Anybody that cannot speak his mother tongue is a stranger in his land. For example, I never expected that someone from Germany would ask me to teach her my mother tongue. In a conversation she was like how do you say good morning and how are you in your language? Now imagine I do not know how to speak my mother tongue; that would have been a shameful thing. But because I knew how to speak my language; I was able to tell her how we greet in our language and she marveled!
I was teaching my pupils in the classroom some time ago and one of them told me “teacher I can speak French language.” I was like, really…? Moved with pride, he began speaking the French language. I let him finish and then I asked him and the other pupils: “How many French people can speak any Nigerian native language? Do you think the French people will like to speak Nigerian native language? How many Nigerian languages are taught in the university in other countries? Then I told my own story. Before I went to college, my parents wanted me to study English language in college; but I told them: “Look, I have learnt English language in the primary and secondary school and that is okay by me. If you insist that I must study English; then I will not go to college. I will just leave home…besides, how many White people are studying our Nigerian language in school?” I am fortunate to have understanding parents. They let me follow my heart—so I studied Political Science and Social Studies. My pupils were dumbfounded to hear me say these. They thought I was going to praise the boy who spoke French; but I did not. Sadly, more than half of them cannot speak their own mother tongue because their parents do not teach them!!
The stronger the children’s mother tongue, the easier it is for them to learn new languages. Children who have a solid foundation in their mother tongue, develop better literacy skills also in other languages that they learn. When parents and other important adults have time to discuss and read in the child’s mother tongue and thus help expand the child’s vocabulary, the child will be better prepared when kindergarten or school starts and can easily learn new languages. Children’s knowledge and skills transfer over languages. Skills learned in the mother tongue will transfer to the other languages learned in school, as long as all languages are supported.
Therefore, it is very important that parents speak their mother tongue at home. Feelings, which are important for the child’s development, are also passed on through the mother tongue. Parents can support their children’s second and foreign language learning by using mother tongue diversely, reading and telling stories. It’s important for the children that parents have a positive attitude towards new languages. If children notice that their parents are supportive of learning new languages, children themselves will then be more motivated to learn. The best way for parents to support their children’s linguistic development is to spend time with their children. Storytelling, discussions, reading books and offering support and encouragement in their mother tongue will aid children on their journey to become multilinguals. Cummins, J. (2001). Bilingual Children’s Mother Tongue: Why is it important for education?
Now, mother tongue has saved so many persons where ethnic crises caused the massacre of innocent citizens. A citizen is caught by his own group and he or she exhibits in ability to speak the language; they might mistake such a person for an impostor and you what that means in times of war. Furthermore, a leader who is unable to speak the language of the subject is in a disadvantageous position.
Skills learned in the mother tongue will transfer to the other languages learned in school, as long as all languages are supported. Therefore, it is very important that parents speak their mother tongue at home. Feelings, which are important for the child’s development, are also passed on through the mother tongue.
The solution to this problem starts from the grassroots. Parents should teach their children their language; they should avoid that “Englishness of a thing” and government in all African countries should try to give more recognition and value to our language just like the English language is given recognition and highly valued. Our educational authorities should put the teaching of indigenous languages in our school curriculum and place more emphasis on it.