Language plays a very vital role in any human community-school, company, organization, group, home etc. the language of any human society tells a lot about that society therefore, it can be further emphasized that language and any human society are inseparable. In any human society, language occupies a very important seat, more than it appears to all. The functions of language in any human community include the following; expression of thoughts, political, administration, education, social, religious, legislation and so on.
We shall however be using Nigeria as case study. The aim of any human community is to have peace and unity, many nations of the world today are facing different degrees of conflicts, and Nigeria unfortunately is one of such countries. This paper is set to examine the role language has to play in attaining national unity in Nigeria. People have in the past expressed their various views about the meaning of language.
A lecturer of mine, Professor Fakuade.G. said and I quote,” language is the faithful mirror of the society” in other words a language is what shows the true nature of any society. This implies that what a language is meant to do in any society is to reflect to the world what that society is all about. The language of any society therefore should give us a perfect knowledge of what that society is all about this includes; the culture, beliefs, mode of dressing, marriage and every other sociolinguistic information about the society. Language is also supposed to be seen as the symbol of a nation just as the flag, Anthem, Currency etc. in other words, language is to be the window through which people can see into the society.
As viewed by Bamgbose, English is the language of integration in Nigeria, amidst the compounding complexities of Nigeria especially in relation to the language question, the only language that indexes the spirit of togetherness is English. This shows clearly that so far in Nigeria, English Language has played a very important part in keeping Nigeria together as a unified nation. Amidst our cultural diversities and differences in beliefs, English language has still played a great role in keeping Nigeria together and since it is the connection between the various ethnic groups that exist in Nigeria, one cannot but give that plus to English in keeping us together so far. Out of the over 500 languages that we have in Nigeria we still have a link and that link is nothing but English, this has served as the means of communication between the different tribes that are in Nigeria.
Of all the heritage left behind in Nigeria by the British at the end of colonial administration, probably, none is more important than the English language. It is now the language of government, business and commerce, education, the mass media, literature, and much internal as well as external communications. Bamgbose (1971)
As a Language of Wider Communication (LWC), English is used for phatic communion, ceremonial purpose, and instrument of keeping records, information dissemination, self-experiment and embodiment of thought among the various linguistic groups of Nigeria. The common linguistic basis that constitutes a requisite for the existence of any nation is provided by English. So with English as the common tongue to all the ethnic groups, the collective sentiment of belonging together despite the individual or ethnic differences is forged.
It is obvious from that the language that has held Nigeria together up to date to a great extent has been English language which was passed on to us by our colonial masters and so far it has played that role well. In our official day to day communication it has greatly enhanced the relationship that existed between he various ethnic groups we have here in Nigeria. An Igbo man who has never been to the western part of the country nor has any understanding of Yoruba will definitely see English and the best means to express his emotion, thought or whatever he has to say in such a situation.
Another area that language has been helpful in keeping us together in Nigeria is in the area of academics, this is because it has to a great extent helped to bridge the gap between the rich and poor, the privileged and the less privileged. Hence we have English as the link between the high-class and the low-class in Nigeria.
In religion the important role played by language can never be overemphasized, in various religious gathering; English has served as the medium of communication hence bringing the people together under the same umbrella. Many religious gathering in Nigeria either makes use of English in carrying out proceedings and his of course has contributed significantly to the peaceful co-existence in our beloved country. Although, we have had various religious disputes and have had one conflict at one time or the other.
As we have earlier pointed out the various roles English in the attainment and sustenance of national unity however, I believe it would have been better if the role(s) played so far by English had been played by an indigenous language, this is no intension or attempt to disrespect English language, it has greatly contributed to Nigeria’s national unity. But I am convinced within that the situation would have been better if that position had been occupied by a language that is truly ours; if the language had been home-made.
Misrepresentation of ideas and expression is one of the major reason for conflict that we have around the world today originated from the use of words/utterances, where ideas intended have been wrongly presented. You can never attain the level of proficiency a native speaker would in his language and this has caused a lot of people what they never bargained for, it has sent many to their untimely grave. A man’s language is seen as the tool that helps him express his thoughts unfortunately for a man by using another man’s language which is said to be his L2; he succeeds in misrepresenting his ideas. In such a situation he uses a word out of context and some people could be so sensitive to the use of word. Many of the conflicts and ethnic dispute we have had in the past could have been averted if our official language had been an indigenous language. The reason is that many people have orally misrepresented their ideas, views and intentions due to their low level of proficiency, they have chosen the wrong word at the wrong time and this has led to unhappy testimonies. We have chosen English as our ‘official language of day to day” operation and activities and this has led to a situation whereby our indigenous languages occupy the back seat. English language is the key to any important door, no one who cannot communicate in English language is expected to occupy an important position in any organization.
The New International Webster’s Comprehensive Dictionary of The English Language (Encyclopedic edition), defines language as, the expression and communication of emotions or ideas between human beings by means of speech and hearing, the sounds spoken or heard being systematized and confirmed by usage among a given people over a given period of time.” From the above view, it suggests that a language is supposed to communicate the internal (original) idea and express what a particular speaker has within. But this is not always so in a case where a particular speaker is not proficient in the language he is using as a medium of communication at a point in time for instance, an Hausa man who wants to communicate with a Yoruba or an Igbo man will have to use English where his level of proficiency is low compared to his L1 there is likely possibility that such a person is very likely to misrepresent some of his intensions during communication and such may not be taken likely by the other party and could lead to conflict between them. In such case would one say that language has been able to play it role well? This has definitely not justified the meaning of language and the essence of communication.
The way a particular thought is conveyed is very important during communication; hence the essence of any communication is to present accurately the internal idea a speaker. Many Nigerians think in their MT and try to communicate their intentions in English and in some cases ideas have been misrepresented, they don’t have the correct word to represent their thoughts. The situation is not the same when interlocutors from the same ethnic background and where they both have proper knowledge of the language.
Where there is a similar language background and better understanding (and decoding of ideas is accurate), there will be reduction in the level of conflict we have in Nigeria. We could make us of our version of the English language, the Pidgin English. I believe this will go a long way in reducing the level of the reoccurring conflict in our beloved country, Nigeria. Since the source of most of these conflicts have been the way and manner our various ideas have been wrongly expressed or interpreted, we should seek a better way of communication and this is the reason I believe everyone has a role to play. We should begin to seek a better way of expressing ourselves and avoid unnecessary conflict by using a language that we are not attain an encouraging level of proficiency, and work on our communication skills.
To this end, let the federal government seek the advice of language expert on how to attain this goal and give total attention to this course. Let all well meaning Nigerian come together and see how we can explore and exploit the wealth in our language as we drive towards national unity. And make every Nigerian realize that language can play more that the role of communication. Let us review our language policy in other too avoid the death of our language, which is our symbol.
It is urgent for us to begin to see language as a vital agent of unity in our beloved country, Nigeria and begin to see how we can use this tool as an agent of unity to make Nigeria a more unified country and push aside all ethnic and tribal differences. Language is a tool that can be in our quest for national unity and should be handled with total commitment and seriousness. Every Nigerian should begin to think and see how language can contribute to the growth of the giant of Africa.
Our culture is embedded in our language. Let us embrace our language with enthusiasm and pride and promote what we have together and then our differences will become a thing of the past. This is a call to national unity but this time around it is coming through an unpopular medium, let us use this valuable tool of ours towards one Nigeria. Language has a very vital role to play in our quest for national unity. Let us embrace it just as we have done to football. Language has a vital role to play in our quest for national unity.