Contrary to the common assumption that language exists as a ready made tool for communication, pre-dating even man as is often represented in theology, language is an evolved adaptation and hence requires improvement and sustenance or it faces extinction. Linguistic studies have long discovered relationships between cultures and languages as exemplified in proverbs and idioms. From a functional perspective, language is nothing more than a medium to exchange meaning. However, this meaning is often under a cultural context, which can be embedded in our use of words.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein in his book Philosophical Investigations discusses how language is used to communicate but faces a problem in translation because the speaker isn’t always sure how best to communicate his message while the listener isn’t always sure how best to translate what he hears. This is because words exist first as thoughts without language before they are translated for communication. The limited nature of vocabulary compared to the infinite nature of thought makes language by default an inadequate communication tool. But until we develop telepathy, it remains the best at our disposal. To stand the best chance of understanding each other, humans have developed words to express a range of ideas and emotions. As we continue to explore our existential condition, discovering more feelings within us, it might be necessary to invent new words to better relay our ideas. A typical example is the word ‘angst’ introduced by Danish philosopher Soren Kiekegaard. To also communicate as fluently as possible, linguists have also identified a tendency for humans to copy each other subconsciously while speaking. This concept is known as the Accommodation Theory, and it covers all aspects of speech from tone to accent. This is why for example, you may find yourself whispering on the phone because the receiver is in a library and answered your call in hushed tones.

So how is all this philosophical musing related to communication in Nigeria, and how is it eroding the existence of our tribal languages? After colonization, English became the new country’s official language. As a matter of necessity, this was needed for cross-tribal communication in the new republic. To disseminate this new language, it was imperative to ensure all education curricula were taught in English and all national media streams presented same. While some may argue that the adoption of English in Nigeria was just another side-effect of imperialism, I would argue that for any expansion beyond the tribal system of socio-cultural arrangement, it was a necessity. The only question was what language would we be taken up. Father of the alternate current generator and hydropower electricity Nikola Tesla, noted that language posed a barrier in communication and understanding, even going as far as suggesting the need for a global language to encourage social cohesion. For the African continent, the loss of tribal languages along with the cultural history they carry, as romantically sad as it may appear, is a necessary loss needed for social evolution.

Following the arrival of English as the national language with education systems supporting it, improving on our local languages became a thing of the past. Arguably, from that moment, our languages began to die. When you take into consideration that these languages were not stored in text but depended on oral traditions to be passed on, it becomes clearer just how easy losing them is.

With the world becoming ever so globalized, the need to speak at least one global language has become more important than ever. For parents to prepare their children for this new world, emphasis on perfecting not just the basics of English, but also the use of accents that are deemed acceptable on the world stage to bridge communication gaps have never been higher. To accomplish this, many Nigerian parents from the generation X discouraged their children from speaking their local languages to prevent them from adopting the accent. Where possible, they even kept the use of local languages to a minimum at home. The exposure to English from such a young age has made it our primary language today. This means we interpret our thoughts in English, before we even speak them.

Moving forward, the average Nigerian young couple uses English as their language of communication. Children born into these homes will have almost no exposure to local languages. And with media information being delivered almost exclusively in English, there is no chance of children picking up local dialects from the Internet or television. It might be interesting to note that in the Netherlands, there is a regulation that ensures all television programmes directed at children are aired in Dutch— a solution that will not work in Nigeria because we are a multi-lingual country. With our minds arranging our thoughts in English before we can even speak, our local languages lie redundant without improvement. Simply put, their extinction is inevitable.


William Ifeanyi Moore is a prolific writer, poet, and spoken word artist, with a keen interest in exploring how different artistic media influence cultures and societies. He holds a Master’s degree in Pharmacy from the University of Portsmouth.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *