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« Impeachment and Mere Allegation of Looting in Nigeria | Main | In search of the real Professor Omo Omoruyi »

April 02, 2005

Save the Igbo Language

by Fr. Charles A. Ebelebe CSSp ---- You probably have heard it before just as I have that the Igbo Language is endangered. However only recently has the truth and the implications of this statement dawned on me. Maybe these words have never registered with you, as it didn’t with me for a long time. I am hoping and praying that it will this time. The Igbo Language is indeed in danger of going extinct unless you and I do something about it today and tomorrow.

This is not some joke or a wolf cry. You need not look beyond yourself to know that this is a real problem. You only need to pick up the phone and try carry on a conversation in Igbo with any of your Igbo friends for five minutes to understand what I am talking about. It will be an achievement if fifty percent of your conversation is still in Igbo after five minutes.

The usual complaint that many of us make whenever this issue comes up is that the Igbo Language is too poor; that it lacks the necessary vocabulary and concepts for conveying exactly what one means to say. That is a real problem I admit. But how is that going to change? By our sticking with English? And do you think English fell down from the sky very rich? Not at all! It got rich with use and is still growing everyday as more and more people use it. Practice makes perfect. Igbo Language will not only remain poor but will get poorer and eventually disappear the less you and I use it.

All of you reading this are well-educated people. If you are not fluent in the Igbo Language, what are the chances that you can read and write Igbo? Very little, I dare say. If many an educated Igbo cannot speak fluent Igbo let alone read and write it, do you still need to be convinced that the Igbo Language is in danger of going extinct? The last time I checked, the definition of an illiterate is, someone who is unable to read or write. A good number of educated Igbos are by that very definition illiterate in the Igbo Language. Can you imagine that? We as a people are among the most literate ethnic nationalities in Africa if not the world over but we are illiterate in our own Language. Who would believe it? We who are reputed to be masters of many of the world’s major and minor languages cannot master our own! Granted our forefathers sent their first children to school principally to master the white man’s tongue, they didn’t ask them to sacrifice their own in the process. We seem to be in the process of doing just that. Neither they, our forefathers, nor our progenies will be happy with us if we let this happen.

The pity is that there are many among us who do not seem worried by the possibility that such a calamity might indeed befall us. Such people, it would appear, do not appreciate the stakes here. They do not seem to understand what language means. They are apparently oblivious to the fact that there can be no Igbos without the Igbo Language. They do not stop to ponder why it was necessary for Americans to fashion their own brand of English even though the Queen’s English could have served them very well. They do not stop to ponder why the French and the Germans are fighting with all they have to save their languages from the ‘predator’ called English. They are apparently unaware that language gives a people their identity; carries their culture. The French and the Germans understand this and that is why they are fighting to save their languages. If such highly developed languages as French and German are fighting for their lives against English, is there any reason to suppose that such a poorly developed language as Igbo can survive without a fight?

If we understand the seriousness of this problem, we will understand that it will require more than naming our children Chiamaka and Onyebuchi or wearing traditional attire to church and to social occasions to save the Igbo Language and culture from extinction. It also will require more than the voice mail recording in Igbo on my phone and that of some of my friends. These are important symbolic gestures all right but a lot more is asked of us. What is the use of calling your girl Chiamaka if she can hardly say her name properly? We will need to teach our children the Igbo Language and culture. If the Hispanics and the Asians can do it, we can too. The problem however is that nobody gives what he or she does not have. So we will start by working hard on our Igbo. We should resolve to always speak Igbo in our homes and when we speak with our Igbo friends on the phone. If it means buying Igbo grammar books and tapes so be it. If we could work half as hard on our Igbo as we do on our English and on cultivating that near-perfect American or British accent, we will speak Igbo fluently. But it will take more than the spoken word to save the Igbo Language. Those of us who are into writing should consider putting down some of our thoughts in Igbo. This may not win us international acclaim and favorable reviews in reputable journals but it may help save our mother tongue from going into oblivion.

It may sound incredible, but if the Igbo Language is to be saved, the impetus will more likely come from those of us who have lived or are living outside Igboland than from those within. Those at home are too busy trying to be more oyibo than the oyibos to appreciate this kind of discussion. That will explain how my little nephew could live in Aba and yet speak very little Igbo. His mother’s response to my complaint was with a question: ‘E ji Igbo eje ebee?’ and she followed it up with, ‘He will pick it up.’ How wonderful! My nephew should learn to speak, read and write English from his first days in school and pick up Igbo wherever and whenever. So English becomes the first language for a boy born and raised in Aba. And before you dismiss her as ignorant, my sister-in-law is a graduate, and runs a nursery school, where children are fined for speaking Igbo in class. And there is nothing to suggest that this practice is unique to her kindergarten or that she is alone in her attitude to the Igbo Language. So do you still need more proof that our mother tongue is in danger of dying away?

I do not deceive myself and neither should you. It is going to be difficult to save the Igbo Language. If you have tried sustaining a conversation in Igbo for any length of time you will understand what I mean. But we have overcome many a difficult challenge in our lives before. We can overcome this one too if we commit to it. That’s all I am trying to do here: To call our attention to a major problem facing every Igbo man or woman worthy of the name and to get us to commit to doing something about it. The survival of the Igbo nation depends on it. As far as I am concerned this is a more important campaign than the campaign for an Igbo president for Nigeria come 2007. What makes a president an Igbo if he or she can hardly speak Igbo let alone read or write it? A na-ebu uzo azotagodu ji tupu a zoba oku. Please carry this message forward as you see fit and as best you can. Long live Ndigbo!

Marquette University
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Posted by Administrator at April 2, 2005 11:17 AM


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