NO MORE NO VERNACULAR
In 2004, Ade Bantu and his brother, Don Abi wrote and released a song titled “No More No Vernacular” The song was trying to address the Nigerian educational system that fines and punishes students whenever they are caught speaking in their native tongue, and I found myself singing along to this track anytime it was played on air then, because it reminded me of an event in my secondary school days back in the early 1990’s.
When I was in JSS 3, I was the class captain, and among my duties was updating the class time-table which was neatly written in columns and rows in coloured chalks by the side of the blackboard; the time-table sometimes would be changed or updated depending on the instruction from the Class teacher, but something that never changed or updated was the ‘law’ written by our class teacher in white chalk and in bold letters below the time-table, “VERNACULAR SPEAKING IS PROHIBITED IN THIS CLASS; IF YOU ARE CAUGHT, YOU WILL BE FINED”. This instruction remained on the wall and most of my classmates had to resort to sign languages or not saying anything at all while in class, so they would not be caught and then had to pay fines to the class teacher. But this changed when a new mathematics teacher was posted to our school and was assigned to teach our class.
He walked in that morning, and after introducing himself as Mr. Olowe, he ran over the weekly time-table after which he told us there would be a slight adjustment to the number of times mathematics would be taught in a week; as part of my duties as the class captain, I proceeded to adjust the time-table on the wall, when I was done he stopped me.
“Who wrote that?” he asked casually
“I did Sir” I thought he was referring to the time table
“And why would you write that?” he asked again and I was confused at that point, because few minutes before that, he gave me instructions about the slight adjustment to the time table, which I just carried out, and since I could not understand why he was drilling me, I just stared at him.
“I mean that ‘no vernacular’ below the timetable” I was relieved, so I told him it was the class teacher that wrote it.
Mr. Olowe disagreed and proceeded to give a long lecture about how our basic indigenous languages were being treated like taboos in schools instead of encouraging them; he asked if anyone would go to England and ask the students not to speak English but French simply because the society wanted them to learn a foreign language. After the long lecture, he picked the duster, cleaned off the ‘law’ and that signaled the end of ‘No Vernacular’ in my class.
You may be wondering why I had to tell the above story, but I guess it is a familiar story for some of us that attended public schools in the village, most of us were forced to communicate only in English while in school but the good things was, many of us would effortlessly switch to our native/mother tongue once we leave the school premises because our parents/guardians encouraged us to do so by interacting with us in our various indigenous languages. But nowadays, things are much different, we now have kids who speak English not only in school, but at home and everywhere else as well, and some schools don’t even bother to teach any of Nigerian indigenous languages. It has now suddenly become a thing of pride among parents and they now boast that their child/children can communicate in English language even if such a child cannot make one sentence in their parents’ languages.
There is nothing wrong in a child speaking English at a tender age, but we need to know that the native language or mother tongue is part of a child’s personal, social and cultural identity. It is the identification we get from speaking our mother tongue that enforces successful social patterns of acting and speaking. It is an indispensable instrument for the development of intellectual, physical and moral aspects of education, our language and mother tongue shapes our habits, conducts, values, virtues, customs and beliefs, and they make us unique and appealing in other societies.
Some are made to believe that once we wear Ankara or any other African prints, we are promoting and propagating our culture; this is not so. Language and culture are inextricably intertwined so much that, the existence of one depends on the existence of the other. If we lose our language, our culture is gone out of the window no matter what we wear, because language is a means through which a people express their culture, and great cultural values are embedded in the oral traditions and stories which older generations pass on to their younger ones through native language(s).
I have met Yoruba parents whose kids cannot speak a word of Yoruba, the kids don’t know about prostrating or kneeling down when they want to greet someone older, there is no form of respect when talking to an adult, all in the name of trying to sound or seem ‘European’ and most of these people have never even crossed the Nigeria border before.
I grew up speaking Yoruba and watching great TV series in Yoruba, Yoruba series like ‘Feyikogbon’ in the 1980’s deepened my sense of reasoning and values, and I still know how to speak some English. But, some parents believe that if their children are allowed to speak native languages, it will affect their ability to speak English which is our lingua franca properly, and they may end up speaking accented English. To me, this reason is absolutely flimsy, what is wrong in having accent while speaking English? As long as you speak it correctly, I don’t see anything fundamentally wrong; we hear Germans, French, and people from all other world speaking English with their accents very noticeable. If it is not wrong for them to do so, why should it be wrong for us?
In my opinion, no language is superior to the other; some might have being accepted globally as easier way of communication but it is no reason to make our language go into extinction. And in spite of the fact that the world is a global village, we ought to harness our customs and beliefs through a proper understanding of our language, as they define us and establish our rightful belonging on the world stage. So, as much as it is important to teach our children international languages, they ought to learn and appreciate their local dialects too.