National language problem in Nigeria for 2023 and 2024

National language problem in Nigeria for 2023 and 2024


The need for a national lingual franca that indexes the national identity of Nigeria is one that has been theorized and debated through different lenses under language policy with the conflicting themes being the asymmetric relationship between an exogenous language English and the local languages.

The gap that has not been given the needed attention is the intra-indigenous language dichotomy that exists between minority languages and the major languages Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba in the formulation of a more inclusive language policy for Nigeria.

This paper argues for a multilingual language policy that takes into account the different tiers of languages in Nigeria, particularly, languages with lesser number of speakers than the major languages.

National language problem in Nigeria for 2023 and 2024


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It is creativity and beauty based upon ethnic and linguistic diversity that makes man human. The absence of this diversity would lead to the dehumanization, and utter impoverishment of man Nigeria is an example of a multilingual, pluralistic and heterogeneous African state with a history of British colonization.

The natural implication of these diversities is that language becomes a principal source of individual identity and also a social-political capital for interaction across different cultural and political borders. To further complicate this milieu is the colonial language bequeathed to the nation by the imperialist (Adetugbo 1979).

The debate therefore has been what language(s) should function in the lives of the people given the various political, cultural, cognitive and economical role language plays in the socio-political architecture of nation. Different scholars have taken different contentious and contestable positions on this polemics.

Earlier debates on the language policy in Nigeria had centered on the conflicting importance of indigenous and exogenous languages in Nigeria (Adekunle 1972, Bamgbose 1992, 2005, Aito 2005, Akinnaso 1992, Banjo 1995 and Oyetade 2003). This paper argues from a different trajectory of diaglossic language policy such that gives functional roles to both exogenous and indigenous languages.

To achieve the stated goal, the paper delves into the historical and sociolinguistic factors that forged Nigeria’s linguistic situation. The thesis demonstrates that ethnic diversity has always been a part of the people living around the Niger; that being the case, ethnicity and ethnic diversity is not the problem of the nation but the politicizing of ethnicity along linguistic parameters.

Finally, a proposal for a more inclusive language policy that recognizes the importance of the local languages in special domains of the lives of the people concludes the argument advanced in this paper.

Language Situation at the Colonia Era

When Britain took over as the colonial power in Nigeria, English became the tool with which the new territory would be administered. Hence English became the language of administration (Bamgbose 1991, Lawal 2004). It was the language to be used in official domains of the lives of the colonized.

Also, as the missionaries established more schools and propagated the gospel message and western education, the language became the prestigious language of the educated. Finally in 1882, the colonial government intervened in the system of education by promulgating a law that made English the language of instruction at schools and as a subject that must be taught in at all stages of educational growth (Adetugbo 1979).


This was necessarily so as the major goal of the colonial powers was to make the colonized assimilate into their culture and way of life. However, the indigenous languages were allowed to be taught in schools alongside English (but not as the primary medium of communication).

However, the attitude of people to English particularly in the southern part of the country was more positive than in the North. People readily sent their children to schools to be educated in English. The religious proselytes had their baptismal names in English. Thus English assumed another economic function in that it became a ladder to attaining social mobility under the imperial government.

Hence, English became not only the language of administration and religion; it was immediately dignified as the language of the upper class and the elites.

 In the northern region, the response and attitude to English was quite different from the southerners. For one, the Christian mission was not as successful in the north as it did with the south. For this reason, the western education that was projected along with the gospel message could not diffuse easily through the north.

The use of English was restricted only to the traditional Hausa/Fulani feudal class. The Hausas took to their Arabo-Asiatic language and their Islamic religion while a very small percentage of them embraced Christianity.

Language Situation at the Post-Colonial Era

The linguistic situation in the post-colonial Nigeria is so complex that it has been described as the biblical tower of Babel. The first tier of language found in Nigeria is the exogenous (English) language bequeathed to the nation by the Colonial rulers.

Today, English has grown to become the official national language of Nigeria and continues to play important roles in the nation as the language of education, media, religion (especially the Pentecostal Christian faith), and the language of politics, governance and law. It is the language of the elites and also the first language for some Nigerians.

Also, the basilectal variety of the English language in Nigeria called the Nigerian Pidgin is a neutral language spoken across every ethnic and social boundary in the nation. Other exogenous languages with less influence are Arabic and French

A classification of this sort smacks of ethnic consciousness and polarity with language as the symbol. Nigeria is now defined along a linguistic line of major languages and minority languages. Given that Nigeria as a polity is an amalgamation of diverse ethnic groups; the larger part of these ethnic groups has the pejorative status of “the minority”.

However from a linguistic standpoint, the government has conveniently recognized three major languages – Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba – because they all have over twenty million speakers (Oyetade 2003). Other languages such as Tiv, Istekiri, Urhobo, Esan, Fulfude, Ebira, Nupe, Kanuri, Ibibio, Efik and Gwari to mention a few with over one million speakers are considered the minority languages (Bamgbose 1992).

One must speak of some other languages smaller than the minority languages with speakers ranging between a hundred to five hundred thousand speakers. These smaller minority languages have the linguistic importance in their respective local communities.


The Awori and Eegun languages spoken in Lagos region are endangered by the regional lingual franca-Yoruba. The linguistic situation of the post-colonial Nigeria is thus a complex-multilayered mosaic of exogenous and indigenous languages of varying linguistic importance.

The Nationalist Orientation

It is the opinion of some writers that the nation should adopt one of her indigenous languages as the national lingual Franca. By this, they claim that the nation will have a total emancipation from her colonial legacy. This position appears beneficial when one thinks of the fact that Nigeria has over five hundred languages none of which is used at any national capacity.

Proponents of this orientation posit that the adoption of an indigenous language would obliterate the elitism created by English and engender a level playing ground for equal intellectual, political and economical participation by the masses. This view generally holds that the suppression of English will be the promotion of indigenous languages and culture. While the nationalist ideal may be well intended, there are some socio-political factors that are drawbacks to this proposal.

The question that immediately arises is which indigenous language should be chosen and accorded the preferred status of a national language? Some have argued that one of the three majority languages should be chosen given that they have a considerable number of speakers. That however has a divisive capacity to steer ethnic consciousness and defeat the sense of nationhood that the nationalist agenda seek to project. Akinnaso (1994) observes that Nigerians are religiously loyal to their mother tongues and are contemptuous of other local languages.

That observation is correct if the argument of language loyalty is constructed within a locus of intra-ethnic language choice, what seems to be the case however, is that Nigerian people are likely to privilege an exogenous/foreign but dominant language over their mother tongue that serves the local functions of identity and cultural authenticity marking.

But not to stray away from the point made by Akinnaso (1994), a language, beyond serving communicative purposes, carries indexical attributes marking social, cultural and political identity. This ethnic attachment to language is a major reason why the choice of one indigenous language as the official language will forever be a mirage.

There is the salient fear of domination of the minority languages by the majority ones. To empower an indigenous language, as the national language is to by extension, empower the ethnicity of that chosen language above others. This will definitely do more harm than good in a system where ethnic tension is visible as manifested in the creation of ethnic militia groups and the politics of federal character.

The Possibility of Selecting One Indigenous Nigerian Language As A National Language

Wazobia The word wazobia is an amalgam of the various words for come in Yoruba, Hausa and lbo. In the wazobia option, Nigerian children would pick up minimal communicative skills in each of the three major languages.

This option is a symbolic compromise solution, which appeases the major tribes, but ignores the minor ones. It is basically a sentimentalist solution, and fails to consider how an indigenous language can be extended to cope with the demands of the modern world. This option was intensively promoted in the early 1980s.


A variant of the wazobia solution in official quadrilingualism, mooted by Ogundipeleslie, who suggests that the Nigerian child learn his mother tongue, one other major Nigerian language, English and then French. This option suffers from the same drawbacks as the wazobia option. Many Nigerian children grow up acquiring at least three languages with varying degrees of proficiency, and usually they have some contact with French at secondary school level.

This makes them practically, though informally, quadrilingual. However, formalisation of this individual multilinguality is hardly the solution to the nation’s language problems. It exposes the Nigerian child to four geopolitically significant languages, but does not necessarily provide mastery of any.

Swahili, a hybrid regional lingua franca, has also been proposed by Nigerians with Panafricanist aspirations, notably Soyinka. They see this choice as taking the unifying potential of language beyond Nigerian borders, while dispensing with the language relics of the former European colonies. Swahili has the merit of being non-tribal, and, like Hausa, is considered easy to learn. There is a basic feelira.

However, that Wgeria does not need to import any foreign language for her own national purposes. Esperanto and Guosa Like Esperanto, Guosa is an artifical language, an attempt by Peter Igbinokwe to construct an indigenous language for a united Nigeria, by borrowing elements and structures from both major and minor Nigerian languages.

Esperanto, proposed by Farukuoye 1983, seems unsuitable Lecause of its typological distance from the language families in Nigeria. Both Guosa and Esperanto possess a socio-historico-cultural void that cannot easily be filled, and makes it difficult for these codes to operate fully as languages, rather than as simple means of communication.


The language situation in Nigeria Nigeria can most appropriately be regarded as a multinational exoglossic state, and should be categorised under Group C of Fishman’s (1968) classification, i.e., a state made up of diverse nations in the process of forging a nationality by emphasising political-operational integration.

Nigeria’s indigenous languages fall into two groups: Niger-Congo in the south, and Tchado-Semitic and Sudanic in the north. Apart from English, Hausa, lbo and Yoruba are considered the three major indigenous languages of Nigeria.

These languages enjoy national language status – the 1979 Federal Constitution recognised their use in the national legislative assemblies while all other languages are regarded as minor languages. Hausa, lbo and Yoruba would not qualify as major languages if Ferguson’s (1966) criteria for national language profile formulae are strictly applied.

It is more likely that they have been elevated to this status in recognition of the “Great Traditions” they represent, in recognition of the numbers of people who speak them, and as a hesitant move in the direction of greater cultural authenticity.


Ajayi, J. F. Ade (1967)’Samuel Ajayi Crowther of Oyo’ in Philip D. Curtin, ed., Africa Remembered. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press.

Ajayi, J. F. & Smith (1964)Yoruba Warfare in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press

Adegbija, E. (2004).“The Domestication of English in Nigeria”. The Domestication of English in Nigeria: A festschrift in honour of ABIODUN ADETUGBO. Eds. S.

Adekunle, M.A. (1972). Multilingualism and  Language Function in Nigeria. African Studies Review, Vol. (15).pp. 185-207.

Agheyisi, R. (1971). West African Pidgin: Simplification and Simplicity. Unpublished PhD Dissertation, Stanford University.

Aito, E. (2005). National and Official Languages in Nigeria: Reflections on Minority Languages in Nigeria.

Akinnaso, F.N. (1994). Towards the Development of a Multilingual Language Policy in Nigeria. Oxford Journal of Applied Linguistics, Vol. (12).pp.

Mr. Harrison

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