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Language contact: The Nigerian context and effects

By Abdul-Lateef Solihu


Having described the status of the Nigerian quasi-official languages in my previous article entitled, “Profiling the Nigerian Indigenous Languages”, it becomes necessary to throw some light on the phenomenon of language contact and how it affects Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba languages.

In the Nigerian context, language contact can be either endogenous or exogenous. While former is the case where there is a contact between two or more local languages within a speech community, the latter applies where the contact is between a local language and a foreign language.

Yoruba is geographically contacted by the North Central tribes whose languages range from Nupe, Baruba, Bokobaru, to Igala, Gbari, and Gbagyi. Similarly, across the South-East and South-South borders with the South-West, there exists a cultural and linguistic contact between Yoruba and Igbo along with other neighboring tribes which are Edo, Ijaw, Ishekiri, Ibibio and others. Hausa, on the other hand, coexists with other tribes with different languages, the most prominent of which include Fulani, Kanuri, Tivi, Bwari, Shuwa, Saya and others.

With the geographical proximity between these cultures and languages in addition to the constitutional right vested in citizens to settle and work in any location within the Nigerian territory all of which pave the way for inter-ethnic trade activities and inter-marriages among the different tribes therein, the result appears to be the appearance of common linguistic features across the local languages and thereby causing an increasing number of minority tribes to end up with a mastery of the prevailed indigenous languages in the main regions.


Nigerian quasi-official languages’ contact with English

The advent of English language in Nigeria dates back to the late sixteenth century when the first set of Europeans set their feet on the West African soil. As Olagunju (2016) recounted, traders from Britain, Portugal, Spain and the United States of America arrived for the first time on the Nigerian coasts of Badagry and Calabar. At first, they engaged Nigerians in a lawful trade when they bought from them gold, ivory pepper, and some other kinds of raw materials which were exported to their respective countries.

However, this act of trading in raw materials subsequently changed to the so called ‘trans-Atlantic slave trade’ which lasted for a period of four centuries (between 1450 and 1850) during which a considerable number of Nigerians were transported as slaves to Europe. As recorded by Osisanwo (2016), West Africa was partitioned between England and France after the Treaty of Utrecht signed in 1713.  England took charge of Niger Area (i.e. Nigeria) exporting slaves from Benin, Calabar, Bonny, Warri, and Badagry.

At this juncture, the need to effect smooth communication between the English slave traders and their Nigerian middlemen became dire, leading to the inception of a broken form of English known as pidgin.  In his article titled, “The impact of Lagos on the English language of Nigeria”, Olagunju (2016) stated that the Nigerian Pidgin English was once embraced by uneducated youth, but considered as a bastardized species by the educated elites. However, this perception has changed nowadays when it becomes widely used among the educated elites who attach a considerable importance to it.

Moreover, the contact between Nigerian languages and English led to the phenomenon of linguistic interference. The influence of indigenous languages is obvious - in the use of English among Nigerians - in phonology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. This variety known as Nigerian English has attracted several researches that look into its distinctive features (Olagunju, 2016). 

Among the impacts of linguistic interference is the phenomena of code switching and code mixing that are prevalent in spoken conversations of an average Nigerian when they use their mother tongues irrespective of the speech community to which they belong. In substantiation to this, Ajepe and Ademowo (2016) professed that the contact between Nigerian indigenous languages and English has adversely affected the quality of the former to such an extent that the majority of Nigerian elites can hardly speak Hausa, Igbo or Yoruba without having a recourse to the use of English words/phrases amidst their speeches.

Conclusively, the influence of language contact on the Nigerian indigenous languages is noteworthy, especially the three quasi-official languages. The endogenous language contact has positively impacted these major indigenous languages as it prompts the indigenes from various speech communities to realize their significance in fostering smooth communication within the Nigerian heterogeneous setting. Whereas, despite its influence in installing the English language as the national lingua franca, exogenous language contact is partly disadvantageous putting into account its impacts in relegating the national quasi-official languages. Hence, there is need for a decisive language policy to further strengthen the position and function of these languages. The general masses should also be educated on the need to preserve their respective local languages, particularly the quasi-official ones since the onus is on them to preserve their national identity and their core values.



Ajepe I. and Ademowo A.H. (2016). English Language Dominance and the Fate of Indigenous Languages in Nigeria. International Journal of History and Cultural Studies (IJHCS) vol. 2, issue 4, p. 10-17.

Olagunju O. (2016). The arrival of English into Nigeria and the importance of Lagos to its arrival. Retrieved on 25th March, 2020.

Osisanwo A. (2016). A Socio-historical appraisal of the implantation of English in Nigeria. Historical Research Letter, vol. 36, p. 28-32.