The National Question: Language Policy and the Quest for a Common Language in Nigeria

    Being a paper presented at the international conference of the Faculty of Arts and Islamic Studies, on The Role of the Arts on Development held at Musa Abdullahi Auditorium, Bayero University, Kano, from 9th to 12th Octorber 2016

    The National Question: Language Policy and the Quest for a Common Language in Nigeria


    Muhammad Badamasi TSAURE

    Department of Educational Foundations

    Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto

    GSM 08067470407

    Email: 76muhammadtsaure@gmail.Com


    Abu-Ubaida SANI

    Department of Educational Foundations

    Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto

    Phone No. 08133529736

    Email Adress:

    Abstract: Policies related to language in Nigeria, which are otherwise known as language policies were introduced from the outset by the colonial government. These policies favored English Language thereby leveling The Indigenous languages as substrate. After independence, Nigeria still maintains these policies as they were being designed by the colonial masters posing a minute doubt whether or not Nigeria is still under British colonialism's. Some concerned citizens however laid down significant series of criticisms about the ineffectiveness of Nigeria's language policies as to call for the revisit and revision of all the language-related policies so that, perhaps, one or more indigenous language(s) will emerge as the National language (s). This write-up therefore, casts a look at the National language policy and the quest for a common language. It concludes with a clarion call for all and sundry to consider that National language question is not exclusive reserve for linguists but a collective task upon everybody.

    Key words: Language, Policy, Language Policy, National Language, Common Language


    Nigeria is described as multi-dimensional, multi ethnic as well as multi religious nation-state (Ashafa, 2016). These disparities are what make it quite different from other African nations. Recently, researches show that no country on earth has such differences as Nigeria; thus, in culture, religion, language, geography, etc (Nwobia, 2015). Scholars for example, put the number of languages spoken in Nigeria from 250, 400, 450, 500, to 515 (minus 3 dead languages). These languages are not mutually intelligible for in some part of South-South in every kilometer there is another language (Ethnologue, 2009, Alobo, 2009, Grimes, 2010, NOUN, 2013). Therefore, the need to have a common language with which the over 180 000 000 Nigerians  communicate without one language feel dominated, the need to have a national language that brings about unity among the Nigerians, the need to have a language that set us aside from other countries all arose. Hence, the silent approval and tacit adoption of English as the national or official language by the federal government has made the need a national question (Banjo, 1991). The question remains that, is it the Nigeria's hetero-languages that brought about the silent adoption of English as the official language or because of colonialism as in the case of several commonwealth countries known as Anglophones (those who use English as official language)? However, no matter the gravity of the arguments, the point is that, Constitution of the Federal Government of Nigeria (1999) deliberately declares English as the language of the National Assembly:

     The business of the National Assembly, shall be conducted in English and in Hausa, Ibo and Yoruba when adequate arrangements have been made thereof (Emphasis mine). Federal Republic of Nigeria (1979, 1999)


    However, the section 91 of the same document reads as follows:

     The business of a House of Assembly shall be conducted in English, but the House may in addition to English conduct the business of the House in one or more other languages spoken in the state as the House may by resolution approve (emphasis mine). Federal Republic of Nigeria (1979, 1999)


    A critical look at these policy statements tacit or otherwise emphases have been given to English language over the indigenous languages. Perhaps, for the former gives condition with regard to the use of the indigenous languages only on the basis when proper arrangements have been made thereof to their use (Argungu, 2016).

    Conceptualization of Terms

    Language Policy: Language is the primary and most highly elaborated form of human symbolic activity made up of symbols made by sounds produced by the vocal apparatus (Hill in Alo, 1995). Language policies of any country are always part of the language planning to develop and adopt a language or group of languages for use in a country (Oyetade, 2010). Language policy is a systematic attempt to resolve the communication problems of a community by studying the various dialects it uses and developing a viable policy concerning the collection and the use of different languages (Crystal in Danladi, 2013). Spolsky, in Danladi (2013) holds that, the language policy of a speech community might reveal in its practices, its beliefs, or in straightforward language management.

    National Language: A national language refers to language which has the authority of the government conferred on it as the language of a number of ethnic groups in a given geo-socio-political area (Akindele & Adegbite 1999). It is a language (or language variant, e.g. dialect) that has some connection with a people and the territory they occupy (Sclient, ND).


    National Language Policy

    There have been debates over the years with regard to language policy. Scholar and researchers such as; Adekunle (1972), Bamgbose (1992), Akinnaso (1992), Banjo (1995), Oyetade (2003) Aito (2005), Bamgbose (2005) and Morakinyo (2015), among other, have theorized and debated through different lenses under language policy. Yet, they have taken different contentious and contestable positions on this polemics. Moreover, as a country with rich linguistic resources, policies related to language(s) should be part and parcel of all we do. Nevertheless, Nigeria possesses no distinct language policy. This may be connected with what Banjo, (1996) asserted that language and all what constitutes it is never concern of a Nigeria's Government. Also, this marked the reason (why) all we refer to as language policies are merged in the broad educational policies as well as the provisions under constitution (NTI, 2000; Argungu, 2016).

    However, these policies as contained in the constitution and broad educational policies, favor the use of English both at schools and National Assembly, thus taking the indigenous languages as substrates. More so, these policies traced back to the pre-independence Nigeria during which the Missionaries aimed solely to produce people that could read Bible so as to acquire more and more converts, strengthened the emphasis given to English language (Fafunwa, 1974). That is why Nigerian language policy is a foreign child that has been adapted, adopted and retained by the citizens.  

    No doubt, all the language policies favored English so that even after independence, English may continue colonizing the indigenous languages after being colonized by the native speakers (the white men). One question normally people ask is; why should Nigeria continuo with policy favoring foreign language? The language of the people who have taken our resources,  calling us names, abuse our cultures,  religions,  women and most importantly taken our indigenous languages to the backdrop?

    Language policies fall under three camps namely:

    1. Official language policy

    2. Educational language policy  

    3. General language policy (Noss, in Danladi, 2013)

    The official language policy stressed emphasis on the use of English to run the business  of  the National Assembly while the three major  indigenous languages to be used "only and only" when proper  arrangements have been made thereof to their used. The 1922 constitution and the 1945 Richard constitution recommended the use of English as official language in the West and East while Hausa would be used in the North (NTI, 2000).

    Also, the 19th national policy on education stated that, students at junior secondary schools shall study English and two Nigerian languages while the senior secondary school's students shall study English and one Nigerian language.  In section 1 paragraph 8 of the National Policy on Education, it is stated that:

    In addition to appreciating the importance of language in the educational process,  and as a means of preserving the people's culture,  the  Government considers it to be the interest of national unity that each  child should be encouraged to learn one of the major languages other than his own mother tongue. In this connection, the Government considers the three major languages in Nigeria to be Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba.  


    Considering the aforementioned policies, it is pertinent to note that the emphasis largely rest upon English language (Adejimola, 2010).

     The Quest for a Common Language

    Nigeria is among the lucky and unlucky countries that uses English as a second language. African and some Asian countries such as Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, India, Singapore, Zambia, Ghana uses English as the second language (Adedimeji, 2007). Foreign language, by whatever name is a language of domination and imperialism. Therefore, no matter what, it cannot adequately capture the ideas, concepts and richness of the African  countries (Ngugi, 2005; Obiwali, 2006; Alobo, 2013). More so, any country that depends on foreign language is in trouble and no secret or security for that nation or country that transact daily business with another country’s language (Obe, 2006). Owing to these topical and controversial problems, linguists and some concerned Nigerians resort to pose the following:

    1. Should English continue to be the official language of Nigeria?
    2. If not, which indigenous Nigerian language should replace it?
    3. Is it necessary to have only one official language?
    4. If not, how many and which ones? (Banjo, 1996).

    Later on, linguists agreed that Nigeria should no longer continue with a foreign language as a national language. Thus, sooner or later, no matter how long however, Nigeria will have to adopt and adapt one or more of multifarious Nigerian languages as national language(s). Heretofore, several criteria were set forth by several people (most importantly the scholars concerned), regarding the choice of national language. Banjo (1999) for example said that there are certain objective criteria for consideration for any language to be chosen as national language, which are as follows:

    1.      For any language to emerge as a national language of Nigeria, the number of the population already speaking the proposed language should be considered. That presumably determines the amount of effort to be expended on the adoption of the language.

    2.      The current rate of the expansion of the language should be considered. That would provide an indication of the need that is already felt for the particular language nationally.

    3.      The current state of development of the language, this is for any language to take over from English must ideally have developed to the same extent as English, all the registers of the language-necessary for the conduct of national business.

    4.      The current image of the language, that is, it should be a language which everyone is happy to learn study or acquire.

    Perhaps, the criteria above are partly right and partly wrong. According to this research any indigenous language is a right candidate in as much as Nigerians so decide. However for any language in Nigeria to fulfill all the above listed criteria is something close to impossibility, except Hausa language. Hausa meets up all the criteria only that none of the linguistic group would like to give up its own language in favor of Hausa (or any other linguistic group) in the interest of the country (Banjo, 1996). Every linguistic group wants its own language to be chosen as the national language and if that is not done, then no other language must be chosen except a foreign one (Olagoake, 1979).

    Since however, choosing one of the three major indigenous languages such as Hausa, Yoruba or Igbo is not helping matters, several proposals were given starting from 1977 during the second International Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) held in Nigeria (Jowitt, 1995). During the festival, Soyinka suggested that Nigeria adopt Swahili as its national language since according to him, Swahili is an African language and/also already a national language of three African States namely; Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Although some few scholars supported him, the move was rejected by preponderance number of people owing to fact that Swahili is not a Nigerian language and for any language to emerge as a national language it should have a Nigerian origin (Elugbe & Omamor 1991).

    Another view was based on the choice of the artificial language. The proponents of this take asserted that since the struggles by ethnic nationality for the recognition of their languages have already appeared to be a war-like struggle, neutral language should be formed (Ogbonna, 2013). The example of these artificial languages include; WAZOBIA, which is a coinage from the major indigenous languages;  wa 'come' in Yoruba, zo in Hausa and bia in Igbo language respectively. Another Artificial language was Guosa, fashioned out by Guosa Igbineweka who declared that Guosa comprises 22 minor and major Nigerian languages. He presented some copies to the national assembly for proceedings. Many linguists like Bamgbose (2005) and Elugbe, (1990) among others rejected these artificial languages. They pointed out that Guosa was a creation of a single person's imagination imposed upon the entire Nigerians. However, they considered it unwise for a country to have a national language, which has no native speakers within the country in question.

    There also linguists that suggested the endoglosic option, that is, one of the minor languages should be "adopted so that the speakers of all the three major languages would be at equal disadvantage" (Banjo, 1996: 30). For that, Joseph, (1989) and Sofunke (1990) chose Afrike and Igala respectively. According to Joseph 'Afrike' is a language of those living at the Cross-River state and it has about 3, 500 speakers (Ojo, in). Sofunke (1990) on the other hand, suggested that Igala is minor language, yet the language has rich vocabulary as well as grammar. In addition, the language serves as panacea to Islamic North and Christian South misunderstanding. All in all, these two minority languages were discarded by the majority scholars. Notwithstanding, the vast majority of people including some Yoruba and Igbo agreed that Hausa can serve all the required services of a national language. It has vast volumes of speakers as well as preponderance non-native speakers more than any other languages in Nigeria (Jowitt, 1995). The proponents of Hausa also made mention of higher number of Hausa social media such as Hausa based magazines, newspapers as well as radio stations like BBC Hausa and VOA Hausa etc.

    Scholars and many well-meaning Nigerians up to this time when this research is conducted ad libitum giving proposals which language should emerge as Nigeria's national language. This research is of the view that, since the choice of one national language is (not) tenable and as Banjo (1996: 30) posits: "choosing one of them (Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo)  cannot be expected to be an easy matter.” The assumption is that the winner (i. e the one chosen) would come to occupy an excessive advantageous position in the national scheme of things. They would be first-class citizens (ibid). Nigeria should therefore, according to such scholars, adopt more than one national language; for instance, Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo should serve as national languages, since some minorities languages fall under either of the three major languages. More so, many countries adopted more than one language as their national languages.




    The Table 1:  below shows some African states and their national languages:


    No. of Languages  

    National Language(s)



    1, Setswana  (spoken by 90% of the population)



    1, Setswana (spoken by 90% of the population)



    1, Kiswahili (spoken by 65% of the population)


       12 (above)     

    1, Chichewa (spoken by 80% of the population)

    South Africa


    11, official languages with no designated national languages



    1, Kiswahili



    4, major indigenous languages


        8 (plus)

    2, chishona and Isindebele

     Adopted from Viv, & Kembo-Sure, (2000: 46)

    The Table shows that, some sister African countries adopted more than one national language. Thus, Nigeria should follow suit as that may serve as the only panacea for 'occasional' calls for a referendum to decide the choice as in the case of India (Banjo, 1996)

    Table 2:  shows some developed countries of the world that use indigenous languages as their national languages:


       National language (s)


























    Norwegian, Nynorsh, Bokmal






    Dutch, French, German

    Adopted from: Owolabi (2013:5-32)

    Why Nigeria Needs a National Language

    It is difficult, if not impossible, for a country to develop while it uses foreign language as a national language. The educational sector almost defines and determines the developmental status of a country. This is, no country could develop beyond its quality of education. However, English as the language of instruction has been encumbering the smooth flow of educational activities in the country. In schools, the language of instruction has always been a problem for the achievement of objectives. In fact, statistics shows that students keep on failing English as a course. This obviously shows its inappropriateness as language of instruction in schools. Below is a table showing the performance of students in English ranging from 1995 to 2000 during SSCE examinations:



    No. of candidate

    Credit & above

    Ordinary pass Fail Absent

    Ordinary pass Fail Absent

    Ordinary pass Fail Absent





































    Adopted from: Osisanwo (2006:  5)

    The table above shows that, there is generally poor performance in English language. This however proves it inappropriate to be the language of instruction in schools. However, worth of indigenous language as a common language could be seen under the following:

    i.        Social and Political: When the native language is not maintained, important links to family and other community members might be lost. By encouraging native language use, parents can prepare the child to interact with the native language community. More so, language is not always serving just referential functions. There are times when language is used as a code to hide something from the public eyes. Such languages are often special languages meant for only a few persons who have access to the meaning of the code. It is the abnatural function of language. However, for a country to use foreign language as official languages, it is indirectly denying itself such advantage of language use (IDRA, 2000; Oyetade, 2010).

    ii.      Intellectual: Students need uninterrupted intellectual development. When students who are not yet fluent in English switch to using only English, they are functioning at an intellectual level below their age. Interrupting intellectual development in this manner is likely to result in academic failure. However, when parents and children speak the language they know best with one another, they are both working at their actual level of intellectual maturity (IDRA, 2000).

    iii.    Educational: Teaching and learning using native language yield higher academic achievement. This is due to the difficulty in administering teaching and learning activities using a foreign language as medium of instruction.

    iv.    Economic: Nigeria has not yet attained the statues of a fully developed nation. Rather, it is at the verge of doing so. There is, however, the need to foster the paddle of our national development in a more rational and scientific manner through a better understanding of our critical thinking process through the avenue of effective language as medium of instruction, the language of construction and implementation of our national development efforts (Oyetade, 2010).

    v.      Personal: The child's first language is critical to his or her identity. Maintaining this language helps the child value his or her culture and heritage, which contributes to a positive self-concept (IDRA, 2000). Olagoke in Oyetade, (2010) affirmed that there are many Nigerians who feel strongly that the country needs a lingua franca other than English, not only to foster national unity but also to facilitate self-discovery and pride.

    Summary and Conclusion

                The use of indigenous language(s) as national language(s) of any country remains sine qua non to its development. However, language policies of whatever kinds should be democratic, accommodative and diversified enough. More so, the feeling of pride for foreign language would not lead us to a promised land. We earn no respect from the eyes of the international world. However, none of the developed countries of the world uses foreign language(s) as national language(s). This is to say, the level of development of any nation has born on earnest use of indigenous languages(s) as national language(s). this is because, the ability to plan sustainable development, promote effective citizen empowerment, combat marginalization through active participation in social and public life and encouragement of dialogues between people is in large measure dependent on language.

    Following the above, Nigerians will never cease writing and stressing the needs to have a national as far as we are concerned until the final and or terminal resolution is reached. However, no one derives the role English language plays in the international world today. The use of it as a national language while taking the major indigenous languages as substrates is what well-meaning Nigerians detested. This paper therefore, urges the policy makers and language planners to have a revisit of the official language policy in Nigeria. However, and come up with sustainable policy that would upgrade our indigenous languages to emerge as our national language(s) like other African countries such as South-Africa (who uses 11 official languages) Zambia (with 4 national languages) and Zimbabwe (with 2 national languages) as well as other foreign countries such as Canada and Switzerland.

    As a point of departure, before final dismissing of English as a Nigeria’s national language, there must be perio campaigns for the development of the three major languages in various domains of national life such as education, hospitals, market places, National Assembly and State House of Assembly. However, what should not be forgotten is, it would cost a lot and time would be taken in training disproportionate Nigerians the three major languages and translating our documents.


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