Reading: Nigeria and the Politics of Language

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Ciao, amici! This week I’m musing on a few texts about the politics of language in Nigeria - as you already know, I’m a linguist, this is the sort of thing I never tire of speaking and reading about. But also I happen to be both blessed and cursed with Nigerian heritage. So I have several thoughts. To begin, the texts I would like to share are:

Polly-Glot a Cracker in Many Tongues by Drew Hinshaw for Wall Street Journal.
THE LANGUAGE OF NIGERIAN MONEY by Caelainn Hogan for The New Yorker.
Learning Arabic by Suleiman Agbonkhianmen Buhari on Jalada.

In the first amusing and intriguing read, Drew Hinshaw explores how multilingualism problematises business in Nigeria’s big cities. Specifically, the business of selling African Grey parrots; Yoruba-speaking Lagosians do not want parrots that speak the language of their Hausa salesmen. The inverse is also true in Northern cities such as Abuja where a notable portion of market traders and pet shop owners are Yoruba. Hinshaw explains how “Nigeria is one of the world’s easier places to buy a parrot—the garrulous birds are a status symbol for some... ”

In this case, I can understand the import of the birds being well spoken in the correct tongue(s) of their owners. After all, how does one display that one is cultured when one’s parrot speaks the wrong language? It’s like wearing mere replicas of Nigeria’s favourite designer, Ralph Lauren. It will never be heard of.

However, given that many of the customers who seek out these exotic pets are interstate and international businessmen, I’m sure that from a business perspective they do understand the benefits of appreciating languages other than their own.* It seems odd to me that there is an aversion, at least in their recreational lives, to other languages. Of course, I cannot ascertain that the reasons for preferring a bird who is conversant in their own tongue are strictly stemmed from a provincial sense of cultural superiority. Though one salesman did say to a parrot: ‘this is a rubbish language. Try my own.’

Writing observationally, the phenomenon of disinterest in embracing other indigenous languages is not uncommon in Nigeria. Across the country, many people prefer exoglossic languages like English; some prefer it even before their own tongue(s). For those who are more educated and travelled or who have domestic staff from the République Togolaise and the République du Bénin, there’s French. Yet it seems as though there is little value in learning the indigenous languages of fellow countrymen. One of the salesmen from Hinshaw’s article quipped that “there are too many languages in this country,” a sentiment that many of us Nigerians both at Home and in the Diaspora often retire ourselves to. To some extent, I disagree.

I make no pretensions that the average Nigerian should be fluent in all 520 of our living languages. Still, I do not consider it so onerous that we should speak at least a second indigenous language. I can admit that I have something of an ecumenical agenda; I want to see even greater social cohesion in Nigeria, I want us to tap deeper into the intricate cultural heritage and scholarship that our languages carry. I can also admit to having a privileged education that gives me ample time and other resources to sit and ponder the case. But I have heard a mastery of two separate indigenous languages, in addition to Pidgin English, ‘even’ among the underprivileged and overworked market (wo)men of places like Lekki and Surulere, Lagos; Oja Oba and Bodija, Ibadan; and Ayegbaju, Osogbo. Evidently learning other indigenous, local languages is not an impossible feat. In the case of market traders it can be a matter of survival. My wonder is how much further it can benefit us a people and benefit our project, ‘Nigeria.’

A painting I bought from Lekki Market in 2014. The Hausa/ Fulani pride is strong!
I think the misunderstandings covered in THE LANGUAGE OF NIGERIAN MONEY by Caelainn Hogan, serve as an excellent example to demonstrate just how much there is for our project to benefit. Hogan writes about how there is an (in my mind) unnecessary controversy over Ajami (Arabic Script) being printed on Nigerian money. In this article, you get a keener sense of how politically charged ‘Other’ indigenous languages can (sometimes) wrongfully be. At the same time you realise just how powerfully those same languages can act as educational tools, curing people of their ignorance, if people let them.

To complement these complex readings with something more sensitive and beautiful, read Learning Arabic by Suleiman Agbonkhianmen Buhari on Jalada. In this anecdotal short story, we are transported to Lagos in the 1990s. A home that – for me as a Diasporan - never was, but that feels familiar due to Buhari’s impressive capacity for description. You are sure to groan, lovingly roll your eyes, and smile. For any weak-stomached germaphobes like myself, you will wince. But ultimately, it can help you understand some of the socio-politics, education, and intimate personal memory that we invest into language in Nigeria. Enjoy!

* This article, ‘Getting to Si, Ja, Oui, Hai, and Da’ by Erin Meyer of INSEAD, is not about Nigeria specifically but it still makes for helpful reading for any students or professionals within International Business. Available at: Harvard Business Review

Share your thoughts in the comments below or by tweeting me over at @theFiveEs.

You Might Also Like


  1. Share your thoughts in the comments below or by tweeting me over at @TheFiveEs.

    Esmé Xo


Become part of the community

Click this green text to keep updated on new posts and conversations happening at the Five Es. You will be one of the first recipients of our newsletter and invitations to our future events.

Stay Connected On

We Read Every Email

Click the green envelope to send us your lifestyle questions and business enquiries. We look forward to reading from you. |