Language Question And The Constitutional Challenges Of Development In A Multilingual Country

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Language Question And The Constitutional Challenges Of Development In A Multilingual Country


With more than four hundred and fifty languages spoken in the country ( Adedimeji, 2004) Nigeria has her fair share of the African heritage of not only being a cultural haven but a linguistic paradise. This sociolinguistic situation has posed serious challenges to development and integration that the problems of Nigeria as a microcosm of Africa are sometimes attributed to the analogy of the Tower of Babel_ a linguistic confusion. This paper puts multilingualism in its proper perspective as a blessing, which must be accorded a full constitutional recognition, rather than a curse; an asset, rather than a liability. While making Nigeria a focal point of reference, especially the language component of her constitutional history, it is posited that linguistic pluralism is no less valuable to a nation or continent than the wide variety of flowers in a garden or divergent cuisine in a community.


Like human beings that use it, one basic feature of human language is diversity/dynamism: it is always in a state of flux, moving, changing, and coming into contact with its kind. The issue of ‘language contact’ is thus a pervasive phenomenon in human societies. This has become more profound with the shrinking of the world to a global village and the resultant globalization, where individuals and countries showcase their talents and peculiarities in the competitive global market. Language is this a chief means of establishing contact, promoting relationship and projecting personal and social identity. As James Baldwin (1991: 113) puts it, “language is a political instrument, a means and proof of power…the most vivid and crucial key to identity.” Every society, every culture has its own means of identity or language and this is the concern of sociolinguistics.

Sociolinguistics is the linguistic domain that investigates the relationship between language and society with the goal of having a better understanding of the structure of language and how languages function in communication (Wardhaugh, 1998: 12). In specific terms, “it is the study of language in relation to society” (Hudson, 1996:4), society being the actual manifestation of language. One of the most critical sociolinguistic phenomena is multilingualism, a situation in which many languages function within the same society. In Africa, a macrocosm of Nigeria, a dominant trait is multilingualism. The vast linguistic landscape has posed serious challenges to integration and it is often expressed that ethno-linguistic plurality is the bane of socio-political and economic development. The purpose of this paper is to re-appraise the Nigerian linguistic ecology and highlight the danger of removing the three major languages from the constitution.

Language contact and multilingua

Language contact arises from the interaction between speakers of different languages, the result of which makes people to be bilinguals or multilinguals. Language contact does not just exist; it is occasioned by reasons. Five major reasons engendering language contact are political annexation or domination, cultural/religious affiliation, commercial transaction, marital relation and educational acquisition (Adedimeji, 2004).

The history of the world is replete with the dominance of some people over others resulting in the languages of the dominant being imposed on the dominated. Colonialism in Africa was mainly responsible for contacts with German, Italian, French and English languages among Africans. That the official language of Nigeria is English is predicated on the historical dominance of the British and their conquest of the Nigerian peoples.

Language contact can also be due to trade and commercial transactions. Exposure to foreign religions and cultures also necessitate language contact as every culture or religion has a language that proclaims or chiefly promotes it. Both Islam and Christianity were associated with Arabic and English when they came in contact with Africa. The Portuguese that first came to West African shores in the fifteen century came as merchants. And by marriage, languages are also known to have come into contact. Among the Tukano of the Northwest Amazon, on the border between Columbia and Brazil, the chief means of language contact is marriage as marriages are not permitted within members of the same linguistic group as such is viewed as a form of incest (Sorensen, 1971). Educational pursuit also makes people leave their places of origin to other cultures or just expose themselves to another language that operates within their own society. These two situations are applicable to Nigeria (i.e. intra-national and international language contact through education).

Multilingualism is either a product of natural or artificial framework. In other words, some societies like sub-Sahara Africa are naturally multilingual while others, like some of the Western countries are mostly monolingual. The influx of people from other societies results in multilingualism in most modern societies. It is a truly multilingual world we live in. Ethnologue, an encyclopedic reference book, catalogues and describes 6,912 languages, which are “all the known living languages in the world”, not to talk of the unknown (Gordon, 2005). In many parts of Africa, multilingualism is prevalent with an estimated number of between 2000 and 3000 languages ( Nigeria alone is estimated to have more than 450 languages (Adedimeji, 2004).

Language and identity: a global perspective

There is a symmetrical relationship between language and identity. Every individual and nation needs to maintain an identity. “One of the most important aspects of that identity is membership of a group, and language provides a powerful way of maintaining and demonstrating group membership” (Trask, 1995: 85) .Without a language, one becomes like a leaf being tossed away by the wind, against its fluttering and gyration, it is doomed to fall because it has been severed from its root. This is the scenario applicable to any nation that does not have a common linguistic basis, a language that it can truly call its own.

It is for this reason of maintaining identity that national languages are developed and identified in many independent countries. India at independence constitutionally recognized 11 languages as she planned to remove English from the list. She is now as fast-developing nation. Israel modified her previous trilingual policy by dropping English as an official language and leaving Arabic and Hebrew (the latter of which was re-invented for identity purpose: none of the 1,500,000 Jews who migrated to Israel in 1947 spoke it) (Adedimeji, 2006:253). Norway also set out to invent her own language, Norwegian, after independence from Denmark. In the Philippines, Filipino and English are official languages .In USA, three US states are officially bilingual: Louisiana (English and French), New Mexico (English and Spanish), and Hawai’i (English and Hawaiian). Three US territories are also bilingual: American Samoa (Samoan and English), Guam (English and Chamorro), and Puerto Rico (Spanish and English). One US territory is trilingual: Northern Marianas Islands (English, Chamorro, and Carolinian). English is not just imposed on whole of the country and the present policy is directed towards encouraging learning and teaching more languages (Adedimeji, 2008: 103). As noted by Johnson (2000:3), Americans “live in an age of bilingual baseball cards…A major bank in Boston area advertises the availability of its services in 36 languages”.

In the United Kingdom, there is a recent law passed by the Scottish parliament that recognizes Scos Gaelic as a national language alongside English. The same situation is applicable in Northern Ireland and Wales where new laws were made to accommodate native languages. In many other parts of the world like Catalonia, New Zealand and most former countries of the Soviet Union, there is always a move of establishing native languages as symbols of identity and foundations of development (Spolsky, 2006:17-18).

In Africa, the end of apartheid ushered a new era in South Africa. Seven more languages, among which are Zulu and Xhosa, are added to the Afrikaans and English as a springboard for development, which is paying off with the giant strides the country is taking and the leading roles she is now playing (Heugh, 2003). Today, the country has eleven official languages with English being just one of them (

In Kenya, Swahili is a national language that is almost of equal status with English and the country enjoys political stability. In Tanzania, English and Swahili co-function as the official languages. The country is united and it has one of the best, most peaceful and enviable electoral processes in Africa. In most parts of North Africa, from Egypt to Morocco, native languages serve as official or co-official languages. The foregoing attests to the truism of the thesis that language is a nation’s most important attribute and it defines the concept of nationhood. Yet, many African countries are still in a linguistic wilderness with the resultant problem of development deficit.

Linguistic identity and the Nigerian constitutional experience

As Osundare (2006) notes, “Nigeria was promulgated into existence with little or no regard for its ethnic and religious peculiarities.” The divergent ethno-linguistic groups that make up Nigeria have often not allowed vertical integration to take place through the parochial pursuit of selfish ethnic interest, rather than national goals. Language serves as a casualty in this simmering situation such that after forty eight years of independence, national identity and the role of language are still confused, mishandled and unnecessarily over-politicized.

To date, there have been at least ten attempts to make or review constitutions in Nigeria evenly divided between the colonial and post-colonial era. There was a constitution in 1914 that amalgamated the southern and northern protectorates effectively creating the modern Nigerian nation. There was the Clifford’s Constitution of 1922 followed by Richard’s Constitution of 1946. Governor Arthur Richard’s constitution is significant because it raised the language question. It acknowledges the Nigerian linguistic pluralism and attempted to foster unity by recommending two levels of language usage: “The language of government would be Hausa in the North and English in the West and East” (Akinnaso, 2006).

The provision in Richard’s Constitution was controversial as it gave an edge to Hausa language in a way that was unfair to the linguistic rights of other regions. Yet, the provision was adopted and retained by the McPherson’s Constitution of 1951. Littleton’s Constitution of 1954 re-addressed the language question by adding English as a co-official language of the North and making English, for the first time, the language of federal administration. In other words, while English would be serving the central government and the Western and Eastern regions, the Northern region would be served by Hausa and English. Thus, in the colonial era, there were constitutions in 1914, 1922, 1946, 1951 and 1954.

The Independence Constitution of 1960 was based on Littleton’s Constitution and it affirmed the utilitarian role of English as the official language of administration in section 54 (“the business of Parliament shall be conducted in English”, it states) with no recognition of any Nigerian language. There was no change to this policy in the Republican Constitution of 1963. But based on the recommendation of the National Policy of Education (1977), the 1979 Constitution created an official multilingual policy and for the first time, the major three Nigerian languages were given constitutional recognition.

The inclusion of the three Nigerian languages generated a lot of debate in the Constituent Assembly debates of 1988, yet the languages maintain their status in the 1989 Constitution. Though there was a review of the National Policy on Education in 1998 to accommodate French, another foreign language, nothing changed in the 1999 constitution in terms of the official status of the three Nigerian languages, which justifiably positions Nigeria as a multilingual nation that is linguistically identifiable. In essence, during the post-colonial era, there have been constitutions or constitutional reviews in 1960, 1963, 1979, 1989 and 1999.

Different approaches have been used to address the volatile language question in Nigeria and at least six different schools of thought have emerged. These include Hausa-Ibo-Yoruba or majority language school, the minority language school, the artificial language school, the Swahili school, the Nigerian Pidgin school and the Arabic language school. All these are attempts to solve the language question and a critique of them has been done by Adedimeji (2006).

Language and the challenges of development in nigeria

Language is the hub around which all human activities social, political, economic, educational etc. revolve. Without language, there is evidently no society, no polity, no nation, no democracy and ultimately no development. As no man can survive fully without language, as such, no nation can fully progress and develop without a common linguistic basis (Adedimeji, 2006). Against this background, it is curious, if not bizarre that there are determined efforts by some Nigerian leaders to remove the strands of Nigerian linguistic heritage from the constitution. Instead of making room for more language planning that will see to the official recognition of more Nigerian languages, the enviable South-African model, parochial and ethnic-driven political sentiments are making legislators take the route to a sort of linguistic suicide.

The constitutional review /debate exercise of 2006, at least one of its proposals, seeks to delete the “Hausa, Ibo and Yoruba” from the relevant section (section 55 of 1999 constitution) replacing the phrase with the vague “other Nigerian languages”, with the erroneous entailment that English is a Nigerian language. Another proposal wants the specific “one or more other languages spoken in the state” to be replaced by “other languages spoken in the state”. In other words, what is sought compared to the cited sections of the 1999 constitution.

Should these provisions be made, Nigeria will be plunged back into the vast jungle of dependency and development crises. These vague proposals tend to undermine the linguistic heritage of Nigeria just because of the “jealousy” and the ethno-linguistic chauvinism of some minority language speakers. It will be so unfortunate that while other nations of the world are taking giant steps towards increased linguistic awareness and identity while recognizing and ascribing roles of native languages in advancing their nations, Nigeria is recalcitrant.

The Japanese example is perhaps the best in describing the role of language, the most powerful aspect of culture, in achieving national development. Japan has emerged from the ruins of colonialism and devastating wars to be a developed nation and a powerful country in the comity of nations mainly based on her linguistic heritage. The foundation of the Japanese techno-scientific development is arguably their language content. Achebe (1988:160) recalls “one of the observations that made a particularly strong impact” on him at the 1981 Tokyo Colloquium that he attended. It was a family anecdote of one Professor Kinichiro Toba of the Waseda University. The author cites the professor as saying it took three generations for us to consume western civilization totally via the means of our own language.

It is therefore uninspiring that while Nigerian leaders are supposed to flow in the direction of development as the above example shows, the predilection seems to be a tendency to take the country on a voyage against the tides. Rather than a policy that will constitutionally recognize more languages as part of the much-touted “dividends of democracy”, the proposals at present are trying to revert the gains already achieved. This is more worrisome in a country where some seventy percent of its people do not even speak English (Elugbe, 1990: 10) and where at the turn of a new century, its adult literacy and the corresponding English language competence are found to have “declined considerably” by a United Nations Report (Vanguard, 2001:13).One agrees fully with Akinnaso’s (2006) submission that the whole scenario of robbing the Nigerian constitution of actual language component is humorlessly interesting.Question.

The way forward

Multilingualism is a blessing, not a curse; it is an asset, not a liability. Studies have revealed that bilinguals and multilinguals perform better academically (Collier,1992; Ramirez,1992). Linguistic pluralism is considered desirable (Turker, 1999) and many nations of the world are taking that direction. The current language attitudes that seem to undermine native languages in Nigeria are undesirable. In respect to the American context, which is very applicable to the African/ Nigerian situation, Crawford (1999) questions: Why should any nation limit its horizons to a single language when the global economy rewards those who can accommodate diversity? Why choose isolation from other cultures in a time of change that brings dangers as well as opportunities? Question Why pass laws to repress “bilingualism,” a resource that competitors are trying to conserve and exploit? Question

The implication of stripping the three major languages of their constitutional recognition is that studying them in schools will be discouraged. Question There will eventually be no teachers to teach them and the nation will gradually lose literacy in the three languages, which are already suffering from negative attitudes among learners. Question Encouraging more Nigerians to speak more Nigerian languages has positive implications for economic, socio-political, cultural and techno-scientific development. Question The language sections of the constitution should be left as they are, if at all more Nigerian languages, explicitly stated, are not added now to the list.Question

The way forward for Nigeria is that English should be made to be serving its present roles as recent events have further indicated that no other language can serve its purpose now. Question Yet, as it is applicable to USA where multilingualism is a policy-driven, government-backed project for “realizing our vision of languages for all” (Heining-Boynton, 2006), Nigeria needs to promote her languages and recognize them as such. Question What is good for progressive nations is good for Nigeria . English is very important, it is admitted “But English is no longer enough. America (Nigeria) needs English, Plus other languages” (Crawford, 1999) that will be constitutionally recognized and adequately planned for. Nigeria deserves a well-structured language engineering and well-formulated language planning. It is when languages are developed that the links between the past and present is established allowing creative thinking that stimulates development for the future.Question


As Rodney (1972:3) obseves, “development in human society is a many-sided process” involving, personal, cultural, socio-economic and political axes. One major problem that confronts Africa at large and Nigeria in particular is failure to learn from history. No nation has really developed on the basis of a foreign language/ culture and that is why cultural nationalism is a part of political independence efforts. Language question is a sensitive issue and it deserves a sensible approach. The proposed relegation of Nigerian languages in the constitutional review process is against the interest of the nation. In fact, a major hinderance to Nigerian socio-political and economic developments is using wrong solutions for social problems.

That some segments of the Nigerian minority groups are not satisfied with the relative irrelevance of their languages in the scheme of things does not require throwing all languages overboard. Population is as relevant is ascribing language status as it is in winning elections. Without native languages, proper education is at stake. To some extent, as Solarin (1965) says, a “Nigerian child will never imbibe to the fullest every strand of education” as long as the medium of instruction is a foreign language. The right approach to education and politics is a multilingual model that fosters a harmonious relationship with national development and international policy goals.Question

This paper has attempted to situate multilingualism within the context of a heritage that should be preserved and nurtured. It highlights the role of language as a symbol of identity and examines the language question in the constitutional history of Nigeria. Question In a situation where most Nigerian languages are yet to be developed, the need of the day is developing them while encouraging the teaching and learning of the major languages of Hausa, Ibo and Yoruba. Question It is submitted that a proposed vague reference to ‘other Nigerian languages’ in the constitution will result in language shift that will eventually reduce literacy in more Nigerian languages, justifying the claim that Nigeria is “a permanent nation-state or some bogus contraption knocked up for the satisfaction of ephemeral imperial interest”(Osundare, 2006). Question As language “provides a screen or filter to reality”(Wardhaugh, 1998:219), the reality of development with no longer be a mirage to the nation if it views it from the lens of her own languages, not just English, at best a second language in Nigeria.Question


The initial version of this paper was presented at the 32nd Annual Third World Conference themed “Development: Exploring Local and Global Change” held at Swissotel Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, USA between March 16 and 18, 2006. Thus, I thank Professor Roger K. Oden, Dr. Bill Craig , Ms Sheree Sanderson and Dr. Rasheedah Muhammad all of Governors State University, University Park, Illinois, for their useful comments and suggestions on the paper and their hospitality and kindness during my Fulbright programme at GSU. I am also grateful to my University, the University of Ilorin, for making the programme possible.Question


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