Nigeria, the most populous country in the African continent, is situated in the West African region. It comprises 180 million people who are culturally and linguistically diverse. As a heterogeneous setting, language plurality is especially conspicuous as a distinct feature of the Nigerian population which consists of roughly 520 tribes each of which has its own distinctive indigenous language.
The Nigerian local languages fall under the two language groups: Niger-Congo under which the languages spoken in Southern Nigeria fall, and Tchado-Semitic and Sudanic which constitute the languages spoken in the North (Charles, 1990).
North is the home to the Hausa people and several other tribes which include Tiv, Bwari, Eggon, Nupe, Kanuri, Mada to mention a few. Likewise, the South-West is populated by Yoruba along with other sub-tribes such as Bini, Awori, and Egun amongst others, while South-East is the home to the tribes ranging from Igbo, Edo, Efik, to Ibibio, Ijaw, and others. Considering the population magnitude, these tribes and their respective languages are altogether stratified into two categories named majority groups/languages and minority groups/languages.
The Hausa language is mainly used in the North with the Kano dialect chosen as the standard. Apart from the nearly 63 million population speaking this language in Northern Nigeria, Hausa is spoken in several other African countries which include Chad, Niger, Ghana, the Ivory Coast, and Sudan. It enjoyed the position of regional lingua franca during the colonization and afterward as it has always been widely spoken by not only the Hausa people but also the indigenes of other tribes.
Given the almost 42 million people using the language, Yoruba is predominantly spoken by the absolute majority of South-West Nigeria with the Oyo dialect widely used as the standard. This language transcends Nigeria to the neighboring countries like Benin Republic, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Togo, along with Non-African countries ranging from Brazil, Cuba, to the United Kingdom and the United States of America, and others (Sennen, 2019).
It is noteworthy at this juncture to emphasize that Hausa and Yoruba languages can be regarded as regional lingua franca given the fact that they were spoken by millions of other minority tribes in their regions both before and after the independence.
As for the Igbo language which is spoken in the South-East, the Owerri dialect is coined for official use. It is spoken by a population of 35 million including people from other tribes. Tracing their origin back to Nigeria, other Igbo-speaking communities settle in Sierra Leone, Ghana, the USA, Jamaica, Brazil, Bahamas, Trinidad. However, the Igbo language may not be regarded as a regional lingua franca in so far as it does not seem to be spoken as a second language by a large population of other minority groups in South-East Nigeria.
Stratification of Nigerian Languages and Implication
With this earlier mentioned stratification, the three languages, namely Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba became the majority languages with a hegemonic status over other indigenous languages in the country. They are also recognized by the Nigerian constitution as the second official language (after English) in their respective regions. The manifestation of this official recognition is the use of these languages in the states’ houses of assembly, as well as in different official events covering a wide variety of life spectrums at the state/regional level. Moreover, in education, the majority of languages are made the mediums of instruction in the first three years of primary education, in addition to its compulsory subject status from the 4th grade until the middle school grade 9.
In actual fact, some people presume that the stratification of Nigerian local languages into these two categories could however continue to raise intense inter-ethnic tensions as it tends to prioritize the majority tribes over the minorities who have always felt somewhat disfavored (Ogunmodimu (2015). Similarly, there arose a perception that the fame gained by the majority tribes and their languages has led to their hegemony over the minority tribes and their languages by the virtue of which the latter’s growth and development is inhibited. However, the introduction of the principle of federal character into Nigerian law has been a great attempt to eradicate the marginalization of minorities. As cited by Okeke (2019), section 14 (4) of the 1999 Nigerian constitution states:
“The composition of the Government of a State, a local government council, or any of the agencies of such Government or council, and the conduct of the affairs of the Government or council or such agencies shall be carried out in such manner as to recognize the diversity of the people within its area of authority and the need to promote a sense of belonging and loyalty among all the people of the Federation’ (P. 175).
Lastly, it is worth noting that despite the prevalent linguistic diversity throughout Nigerian society, the different tribes in Nigeria have always come into contact through inter-marital relationships and trade. This is further buttressed by Ajayi (1967) who posits that no tribe in Nigeria has ever been in absolute isolation from others. The interchangeability of words/terms across these local languages is exemplified by the inherent intercultural connections.
Charles, C.M. (1990). Choosing an indigenous official language for Nigeria. University of Ilorin, Nigeria
Sennen (2019). Calls to use Nigerian languages are going unheard. The conversation. http://theconversation.com/calls-to-use-nigerian-languages-at-school-are-going-unheard-126785
Ogunmodimu, M. (2015). Language Policy in Nigeria: Problems, Prospects and Perspectives, International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, Vol. 5, No. 9, P. 154 – 160.
Okeke (2019). Implementation and enforcement of the federal character principle in Nigeria. file:///C:/Users/Prof%20Abdul-Lateef/Downloads/183698-Article%20Text-467633-1-10-20190219.pdf