Retaining English Language As Nigeria’s Official Language

Project and Seminar Material for English Education

Retaining English Language As Nigeria’s Official Language

Chapter One


1.1 Background to the Study

English is Germanic language of the Indo-European family. It is the second most spoken language in the world. It is estimated that there are 300 million native speakers and 300 million people who use English as a second language and a further 100 million who use it is a foreign language. It is the language of science, aviation, computing and internet, diplomacy, and tourism. It is listed as the official or co-official language of over 45 countries and is spoken extensively in other countries where it has no official status. English plays a part in the cultural, political or economic life of many countries today (http// rint.htm).

This compares to 27 for French, 20 for Spanish and 17 for Arabic. This domination is unique / in history .Speakers of languages like French, Spanish and Arabic may disagree, but English is on its way to becoming the world’s unofficial international language.

Mandarin (Chinese) is spoken by more people, but English is now the most widespread of the world’s languages. Half of all business deals are conducted in English. Two thirds of all scientific papers are written in English. Over 70% of all post/mail is written and addressed in English. Most international tourism, aviation and diplomacy are conducted in English.

The history of the language can be traced back to the arrival of three Germanic tribes to the British Isles during the 5th Century AD. Angles, Saxons and Jutes crossed the North Sea from what is the present day Denmark and northern Germany. The inhabitants of Britain previously spoke a Celtic language. This was quickly displaced. Most of the Celtic speakers were pushed into Wales, Cornwall and Scotland. One group migrated to the Brittany Coast of France where their descendants still speak the Celtic Language of Breton today. The Angles were named from Engle,’ their lane of origin. Their language was called Englisc from which the word, English derives. An Anglo-Saxon inscription dated between 450 and 80 A.D is the oldest sample of the English language. During the next few centuries four dialects of English developed: Northumbrian in Northumbria, north of the Humber Mercian in the Kingdom of Mercia, West Saxon in the Kingdom of Wessex and Kentish in Kent.

During the 7th and 8th Centuries, Northumbrian’s culture and language dominated Britain. The Viking invasions of the 9th Century brought this domination to an end (along with the destruction of Mercia). Only Wessex’ remained as an independent kingdom. By the 10th Century, the West, Saxon dialect became the official language of Britain. Written Old English is mainly known from this period. It was written in an alphabet called Runic, derived from the Scandinavian languages. The Latin alphabet was brought over from Ireland by Christian missionaries. This has remained the writing system of English. At this time, the vocabulary of Old English consisted of an Anglo Saxon base with borrowed words from the Scandinavian languages (Danish and Norse) and Latin. Latin gave English words like street, kitchen, kettle, cup, cheese, wine, angel, bishop, martyr, candle, etc. The Vikings added many Norse words: sky, egg, cake, skin, leg, window (wind eye), husband, fellow, skill, anger, flat, odd, ugly, get, give, take, raise, call, die, they, their, them. Celt words also survived mainly in place and river names (Devon, Dover, Kent, Trent, Severn, Avon, Thames). Many pairs of English and Norse words coexisted giving us two words with the same of slightly differing meanings.

Essentially, the domains of usage of English in Nigeria tend to be formal. It is the official language which in essence means it serves as the language of government, education, commerce, and to a limited extent, social interaction, especially among the educational elite. Within Nigeria alone, it is estimated that nearly 400 languages are spoken (Agheyisi, 1984: Bamgbose, 1971); in Ghana, 47 (Dolphyne 1995) and in Sierra Leone, 16. In the context of such complex multilingualism it is expedient for government to stick to a neutral language, such as English, as official language. English has the additional advantage of long association, being the language of the colonial rulers. It is also a world language with all the advantages accruing to an individual who speaks such a language both nationally and internationally. To quote Kachru:

“Competence in English and the use of this language signify a transmutation: and added potential for material and social gain and advantages. One sees this attitude in what the symbol stands for; for English is considered a symbol of linguistically complex and pluralistic societies” (Kachru 1986).

English enjoys a wider geographical spread than any of the indigenous languages within Nigeria. Whatever the language of discussion, a serious business transaction is sealed up in written English. The same goes for political campaigns which can be carried out in the language of the immediate environment, but manifestos and other documents are produced in English.

In education, English is introduced as a subject from the first year in primary schools and used as a medium and subject of instruction from the third year through secondary and tertiary education. In private schools, especially in cosmopolitan areas, children are taught in English from kindergarten. To gain admission – into any University Faculty, a credit at O’levels in English is a prerequisite. It is only in very rare cases that a pass is considered. English is the country’s lingua franca spoken in every national, academic and official gathering in the country.

But with the case of high level of illiteracy in the country and its attendant problem of making communication in English with most villagers difficult, because much useful information communicated or written in English could not be assessed by these villagers/illiterates and as such, they seem to exist in abstraction in a country of their own.

Consequently, many had argued against the continuous usage of English as the official language of Nigeria (considering the low literate level of the country), and favoured the use the three major native languages (Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa languages). Though the argument over which of the three native languages would be held supreme in the country frustrated the acceptance of the above argument among the Nigeria people, the critical question remains whether English language should still be used as the only official language of the country. It is against this background that this study was designed to examine the case of retaining English language as Nigeria’s lingua franca.

Retaining English Language As Nigeria’s Official Language

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