The Language Dilemma: Progress or Preservation?

'Tosin Adeoti
5 min readApr 7, 2024

The other day, I stumbled upon a ferocious argument I have coined ‘Lagos Igbo vs Igbo Igbo’.

I found it interesting.

For those who don’t know, it’s the annual argument about bashing those of the Igbo tribe who do not and/or cannot speak their native language. This could be for any reason, including the fact that your parents just decided not to teach you, or you were adopted by non-Igbo guardians, or you fled (for whatever reason) to a non-Igbo land where no one speaks it, and you lost it in the process.

It doesn’t matter.

What counts in this discussion is that you just can’t speak the language. Those who speak consider themselves the guardians of tradition and upon whom their ancestors constantly look down upon and smile. One of them made the following comment I found curious,

“I hope every tribe is like Hausa in their love for their language. People who can’t speak their native dialects should be ashamed.”

If you have followed me on this page for a while, you might think I would support the stance of those who cannot speak their language to be embarrassed and occasionally wear sack cloths and pour ashes on themselves.

But really, should they? I love the Yoruba language and I wish more people speak it, but on the whole, I know that it’s just sentiments. As you look at development around the world, you realize that unity in language for individual groups is overrated. You do not need to speak your native language to make progress; you just need to speak a language that most people you interact with understand.

Hence, when people praise the Hausas for loving their language, I cannot but ask: What has the unity in language done for the Hausas as a group? The Igbos do not love their language as much, but their dexterity in understanding a language as widespread as Pidgin English in Nigeria as well as being adroit at acquiring the language of their host everywhere they go in the world has done for them what Igbo and Hausa languages would never have done.

From around the world, the Scots, Irish, and Welsh jettisoned their languages to embrace the English language because without that language, they would have been left behind when the industrial age took off.

The reason Japan is homogeneous today is not because that’s how it was from the beginning. That’s not correct at all. The minor ethnic groups dropped their languages and adopted the Japanese culture with the language as an integral part of the package. Several generations after, Japan has become a one-language country and is the envy of the world in technological and cultural development.

The same with the Chinese. Are you aware that Mandarin is not the only language in China? China has 299 living languages (admittedly, most are barely alive). 955 million out of China’s then-population of 1.34 billion in 2010 spoke Mandarin as their first language, accounting for 71% of the country’s population. Despite having 56 ethnic groups and 299 languages, most of them speak Mandarin as their very first language.

When the Germans migrated to Russia before World War I, Russians routinely learnt the German language because it was the language of ‘progress’. The most useful Russians tended to be those who could speak German and inculcate their incredibly progressive culture. The same happened to the German immigrants around that period around the world including Brazil and the United States.

Preserving languages for the sake of it is detrimental to the success of groups around the world. Nigerians preoccupied with advancing their individual languages tell me the projection of the Hausa language in international circles is a cultural achievement on its own. Okay. Let’s say I agree. But how does that translate to the average Hausa man on the street who is reckoned to be in the poorest region in the entire planet, as admitted even by their most educated elites? What is the pride in listening to Hausa BBC one minute and then the next watch as your kids go around town begging for alms from people who are also barely making ends meet?

The best cultures must be assimilated and used as a ladder for economic empowerment. A deeper thought would reveal that the Hausas would do themselves a world of good if they loosen up their pride in the Hausa language and take up a region-wide interest in learning the English language, and I add, the Chinese Mandarin.

The Igbos are concerned over nothing. Their stance has served them well.

Now, am I saying that people lose their mother tongue entirely? Not really, even though history tells us that it does not impede progress. Dacian, spoken in today’s Romania, became extinct around the 6th century AD. Gothic, spoken in today’s Germany, became extinct around the 9th century AD. Prussian, spoken in today’s Poland, became extinct around the 18th century. The people in these countries are not disadvantaged by that. The HDI index in these countries is ranked very high; much higher than in places you and I know fight tooth and nail to keep their languages.

Still, I’m not saying you should abandon your native language if you speak it. Children have such incredible brain power that they can learn multiple languages at once. Not teaching them is going to be a missed opportunity.

What I am saying is that languages are dynamic and we must be ready to not cling to what may not serve us. For instance, the English Language is now a mash of several other languages. The old English language is dead. If an Englishman born in 1700 were resurrected today, he wouldn’t be able to understand England’s national language.

All these is to say, losing languages is no big deal. The way it generally works is that the more people in a population are taught in the language of ‘progress’, the more their local languages are suppressed.

It’s not intentional; it just is.