Is Igbo Language Dying?

If proverbs are the palmoil with which words are eaten (Achebe), then words are the sustenance which gives life, so why are we (Ndigbo) killing ourselves by killing our (words), our language?

Travels to Nigeria and to Igboland suggest that we are raising a generation of Igbos who – in addition to not speaking Igbo- are not fully articulate in any other language as to be said to be truly unilingual.
One year, in Enugu, I met a 5 year old, born to Igbo parents, of whom I was proudly told, “she speaks only English” when she could not respond to my “Kedụ?” An Igbo child growing up in the heartland of ala Igbo could not respond to the very basic, “Kedụ?” Let that sink in for a minute because it illustrates just how deep the problem is. I switched to English.
“How are you?”
“I yam fine.” “
“How old are you?”
“How old yam I is one years old, how old yam I is two years old…” And on she went in a sing-song voice until she got to 5. I tried to have a conversation with her in the only language she understood and could ‘speak’, but her spoken English was only marginally better than her non existent Igbo. She could not name simple animals, got her grammar and tenses wrong. It was a depressing experience.
That same week , I went to church in Enugu and was alarmed (and disappointed) to hear almost every child present- in this working to middle class area of town- speaking (with varying proficiencies) in English. Like the 5 year old I had met earlier, some of them were not fluent in the only language they “spoke.” Some spoke a mixture of pidgin and standard English, some spoke a mélange of pidgin, standard English and Igbo. For instance, I overheard one ask another, “What time dis church is going to ….” He stopped and sifted through his mind for the right word but not finding it, gave up and said, “What time dis church is going to gbasa?” ‘Gbasa’ being Igbo for ‘dismiss.’ I found it both funny and heartbreaking at the same time.
The next year when I was in Port Harcourt for a book festival, I bought a few books written in Igbo from an already limited choice. One of them was a novel whose title I forget now. Instead of celebrating Igbo language and culture (as one would expect from a book written in Igbo by an Igbo writer), the author denigrated both. The protagonist’s spectacular rise in status was summed up at the end by “ọ na-asụzi bekee ka ndi ocha. Nwa ha anaghi kwanụ asụ Igbo. Sọsọ bekee ka ọ na-atapiri“: (She spoke English like the English. Their child spoke no Igbo. She spoke only English).The protagonist’s wicked uncle’s family, on the other hand, (naturally) fell on hard times and their daughter who spoke only Igbo could only stare wide eyed, envious, uncomprehending as her cousin spoke English all day long (Ha!Ha!Ha!). The End.
A friend told me the story of being at a shoe shop in Nnewi (I believe) when a man came in with his young son. This man consistently spoke in English to his son, telling him to “tight your leg in the shoe.” My friend, intrigued (and I suspect irritated), asked the man “Ọ na ọha anụ Igbo?” The man proudly answered in the negative. His son did not understand Igbo. My friend asked if they lived in Nnewi (Yes). If both parents were Igbo (Yes). The man did not find anything wrog with how he had chosen to raise his son. As far as he was concerned, it was a sign of upward mobility.
English is no longer the preserve of the upper class whose children have access to holidays abroad and “good schools” where students were punished for speaking in the “vernacular” but is available too to the children of the working class. I understand the impulse for parents , especially parents on the lower social strata, to want a better life for their children, and in a country like Nigeria to see being proficient in English as a means to getting that better life. What I do not understand is why it must come at the cost of our own language.
Sometimes , when I ask why our children growing up in Igboland (especially) do not speak Igbo, parents say, “What will they do with Igbo in the future?” They fail to understand that ‘what they will do with it” is not as easily quantifiable as one might seem to think. Pride in one’s culture of which language is one, is not as easily quantifiable as economic gains for instance.
Of course, this denigration of our language (and culture) did not start today. O tee go. When the Europeans came as traders, missionaries and colonial administrators and took over Igboland by force, English language was introduced and imposed through the Education Codes and Ordinances. The new elite – the kotuma , the interpreters, and the colonial administrators carried out all their business in English. Igbo became a second class language, irrelevant for anyone wishing to get/stay ahead. We are still living with the consequences today.
According to UNESCO, of the nearly 7000 languages in the world, one dies every two weeks. That is a sobering thought. More sobering when you realize that although Igbo isn’t dead yet, it is classified as an endangered language. One of the 3 major languages of Nigeria, with over 25 million native speakers, is an endangered language. Let that sink in…And then let us get to work to turn the tide. Taa bụ gboo.
Chika Unigwe

2 thoughts on “Is Igbo Language Dying?

  • Indeed, the Igbo language is dying. The fluency of Igbo speakers is increasingly reducing according to generation. The 80s and 90s were the start of this problem and now we have second generation of non-Igbo speaking Igbos. The first generation of English-speaking Igbos born in the 80s and 90s are now parents to second-generation Igbos who have very little chances of being fluent in the language. The damage is gradually rising and nowadays it has become an amazement to see an ajeboish-looking Igbo child speaking Igbo. I happen to be among those born in the 90s to parents who spoke only English to me and back in my primary school and secondary school days in Igboland, majority of the children spoke Igbo and English-speaking children like me were a minority maybe 5 to 10% of all children in primary and secondary school. Nowadays, it is not wrong to state that over 50% of primary and secondary school children in Igboland speak only English and this problem gets worse by each passing generation. Even though I spoke only English growing up, I understood and could write it better than fluent speakers but for some reason I could not get to express myself in the language. It was not until my final year in the university (I was 21) that I decided to change my situation. You see many English-speaking Igbos love to blame their parents for not teaching them the language (partly true) but they never make any direct effort to change their situation or learn the language. I began making conscious efforts to speak and think in Igbo. At first, my accents were a little off and I got stuck here and there but I persisted. I came to America in 2014 shortly after my NYSC for my master’s program and it was here that I actually learned to speak Igbo better than when I was home. About 4 years later, I very fluent now that people hardly believe that I didn’t speak Igbo until 5 years ago. This was because I made the conscious effort to speak it and I triumphed. Interestingly, I am the only Igbo-speaking person among my siblings as the others still speak English and stare at me in awe how I suddenly became fluent in Igbo, not just in Igbo but in my native Anambra dialect. I feel more complete with myself now and have long let go of that English-speaking ‘superiority’ pride I once had as a child.

    I know many others of my generation who later became fluent in Igbo as adults, but unfortunately many still do not speak Igbo and I used to think that, ok maybe this problem will correct itself like I did as English-speaking kids become adults, but the number of kids who become fluent in Igbo as adults will continue to dwindle as the generations pass by.

    Our attitude towards our language started primarily after the civil war – a war that dealt a huge blow to the confidence and pride of Igbos in their cultures. I did notice that pre-civil war, most Igbos born and raised outside Igboland before 1970 could speak Igbo fluently and there was a huge pride in ‘ina obodo’ (to visit one’s village). Several of Igbo actors and actresses that featured in the Igbo-speaking era of Nollywood in the 80s and early 90s were born and bred outside Igboland. Sure, there were a handful of foreign-born ones who were not fluent, like Ikemba Odimegwu Ojukwu – but they were seen as an anomaly, not the norm. Thus, the current problem of Igbos born outside Igboland who don’t speak Igbo hasn’t always been there, but became more prominent after the civil war and being born outside Igboland should not be a reason to not speak Igbo. If our parents living outside Igboland really insist and enforce the language, this would not be a problem. Take a look at the Hausas, despite being born outside their native land, they ALL speak their native language fluently.

    There has been a renaissance in recent years by Igbos regarding the sustenance of the language and several parents are making direct conscious efforts at teaching their children the language, but it is not enough as these parents are in the minority.

    The fix to this problem could be borrowed from how the Hebrews revived a dead Hebrew language to over 6 million speakers today. Implementing the same laws Israel did would be easier if Igbos had a country of theirs. Once this is done, it would be made mandatory for EACH Igbo child born in the country to speak the language before 5 years old and made a pre-requisite requirement for every child to speak the language before being allowed into primary school where they are exposed to English. Nursery schools should become language immersion schools instead (immersing toddlers not only in the language but in songs, culture, tradition etc.) for both languages but with more focus on Igbo language and shifting to a 50-50 focus in primary school. By doing this, we would be able to achieve a near 100% fluency in all Igbo children born in the country (compared to an abysmal 40 to 60% that we currently have) from future generations onwards. Current less-fluent older generations may not be corrected totally but we would lay a long-term foundation that would ensure that by 2100 (when may less-fluent ones may have passed away), all future generations of Igbo in our country are fluent Igbo speakers and transmitters of the language to further generations.

    Our prayer is to make sure that the Igbo language makes it to year 3000 and beyond.

    Bikonu ka ayi subakene asusu Igbo, maka na o ayi nwa ya-edozi asusu ayi, o buro ndi ozo ya-asulu ayi ya.

    Bikonu, ndi nne na ndi nna kuzibakene umu unu asusu bee ayi maka na o nwelu oge ndi Igbo nwelu ezigbo ngana na asusu na omenani fa, nke melu na ndi mba ozo biakwuzi na-asukwu Igbo ofuma, di ka ndi Ibibio, Ndi Efik dgz. N’etiti aro 1950 lue 1970, o na-amasi ndi mba mmili isu Igbo, mekwuo na otutu n’ime fa mutalu Igbo ofuma. Asusu Igbo nwelu onodu nke asusu Oyibo nwelu kita na Naijiria. Mana ka a nusili agha na 1970, onye obuna a zabazie afa nnia, nke melu na ndi mba ozo a furo mmasi imuta asusu bee ayi. O bu ife mwute na asusu ayi a nabago. Ewu chi m, biko e kwekwana ka asusu ayi nwulu na nkiti.

    • The 5 south eastern states can also implement a law requiring the use of Igbo language for all schools and students of Igbo extraction studying in Igboland.
      Nwanne, asusu na edemede Igbo ga adi ndu ruo na ngwucha. Ekele m gi.


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