Language & identity - Open Research Online

Language & identity: Nigerian
video-films and diasporic
Françoise Ugochukwu
Open University UK &
This paper, based on two sets of questionnaires and
interviews dated 2009 and 2011, seeks to evaluate the
linguistic impact of Nigerian video films among diasporic
communities in the UK in the context of recently expressed
fears concerning the future of Nigerian languages abroad,
and the reasons behind the success of these films among
resettled Nigerians, focusing on Igbo and Yoruba speakers. It
investigates the potential importance of language on viewers’
motivations and practices, the role played by the cultural
message of the language in identity-reinforcement within the
Nigerian community, and the impact of these video films on
the revival of language and cultural practices among
resettled communities.
A growing Diaspora
Today, 54% of Nigerian migrants live in the USA, with
prominent communities in Houston, Texas (the largest
Nigerian community in the States), Atlanta
and Washington, D.C., but a significant 10% are found
in the United Kingdom. The Nigerian Diaspora in
Britain, built over centuries, facilitated by a tradition of
scholarly migration and mostly made up of Igbo and
Yoruba highly skilled professionals representing 36% of
the work force, is probably the largest in Europe. The
latest estimate from the British Foreign &
Commonwealth Office gives the figures of 800,000 to
3,000,000 Nigerians living in the UK.
Nigerian immigrants usually settle first in London on
arrival, attracted and retained by the presence of longestablished structures: support and community centres,
specialised markets/shops and friendly churches, and
tend to stay there, sometimes permanently, fearing the
loss of such a vital support network. This explains that
most Nigerians live in and around London and the SouthEast, although they are equally found in other big cities
across England and in the two major Scottish cities, with
pockets of Nigerian immigrants doted across the whole
“Those who migrated as children tend to live in the UK
and visit home occasionally. Some children born and
raised in the UK Diaspora have never been to Nigeria and
a few Nigerians may never move back if they have lost
connection with relatives in Nigeria […] or if they cannot
afford to go home” (Hernandez 2007: 10).
Endangered languages?
Hausa and Yoruba languages, whose communities are
spread across Nigeria’s borders, and which benefited
from both an early written tradition and strong
resilience, seemed to be better placed to resist attrition.
Yet all Nigerian languages, after being threatened for
more than a century by the high premium placed on
English on their own soil, are now slowly eroded among
diasporic communities.
one of my 2011 respondents justified his lack of interest
for his first/Nigerian language by insisting on the need he
felt to focus on learning the culture of his host country.
The fact that a lot of British Nigerians have long
remained abroad has worsened the situation. According
to the UNESCO report on endangered indigenous
languages, “the Igbo language faces risk of possible
extinction in the next 50 years if nothing is done to
revive the language” (2010: 85).
Odinye (2010: 90-91) proposes a list of remedies to
arrest the decline of Igbo language:
• Love Igbo language and culture
• Have interest in saving Igbo language.
• Speak Igbo language at all times.
• Encourage the younger generation to learn Igbo
• Provide scholarships for students and teachers of Igbo
• Use Igbo language in media: radio, television and
• Make Igbo language a compulsory subject for
admission into higher institution in Igboland
• Pass a bill to encourage the use of Igbo language in
government of Igboland.
• Encourage the reading of Igbo written materials at
churches, schools, homes, etc.
• Discourage people especially the younger generation
from speaking English and other languages.
Other prominent Igbo men and women have joined this
crusade. Prof Anya. O. Anya commented: “Igbo language
is our identity. When we lose it, we lose our identity. We
must all be disciples of Igbo language to save the threat
that may befall us.”
An article on “Igbo language and the extinction theory”,
dated April 29, 2010 in The Nigerian Compass, brings in
an interesting statement:
“ […] Igbo language cannot be extinct because of the role
of the entertainment industry. The Nollywood's
influence in language development cannot be
overemphasised due to its pervasiveness. Hardly is there
any home that does not watch home video. […]
Producers and marketers push into circulation produced
videos almost every week. Some of these home videos
are produced in Igbo language. Many families now
create time to sit together to watch home videos. NonIgbo have even learnt the language via the movies.”
Nigerian movies and the language issue
Research carried out between January and March this
year shows that diasporic Nigerians spend a significant
portion of their leisure time together with other
Nigerians or other Africans, viewing Nigerian video films,
massively preferred to foreign films. Yet 47.7% of the
respondents prefer watching Nigerian films in English,
more easily available than those in Nigerian languages
and easier to follow for those struggling to understand
their parents’ language.
In spite of this preference for English language, 58.7% of
them considered that Nigerian languages played a role in
the pleasure they derived from viewing films, and value
speaking their first language together: they clearly
perceived those languages as part of their cultural
heritage and identity (59%), a legacy to be cherished and
protected especially in diasporic situations, which
confirms Adegbija’s remark that “most Nigerians feel
very loyal to their mother tongues, love them and see
them as ethnic and cultural identification tags” (2004:
Respondents equally considered their Nigerian language
as a vital tool to communicate with older relatives in
Nigeria and keep in touch with one’s roots, and this
marked interest for language also reveals the premium
placed on communication among long-term migrants,
especially for the 62% who still occasionally visit Nigeria
– most of them (87.2%) staying more than a week at a
time. One of them says it beautifully: “It makes me feel
more at home once I speak my language.” Language is
equally valued for its confidence-boosting and identityreinforcing value, and features prominently in the list of
what attracts viewers to Nollywood.
While 68.7% of respondents were in the 18-40 years
bracket, it is relevant to note that 35.3% of the sample
were born outside Nigeria and only occasionally
inherited a Nigerian language from their parents. Some
of these still refer to Nigeria, which they might only
know as family holiday destination, as ‘home’ – a word
used by both those aged 40-50 and younger ones in the
two surveys. Among those born in Nigeria and who now
live in the UK, those films are a reminder “of when I used
to live there. They also remind me of part of my heritage.
I also enjoy watching the films with others as a bonding
For all respondents with Nigerian family connections,
video films are the occasion to discover Nigerian cultures
or reconnect with them, and their viewing offer the
occasion of endless family discussions on customs,
practicing their first language freely; they also watch
some films on their own, enjoying the songs and the
entertainment. On the issue of language, questionnaires
reveal a rapid decline in language skills among second
generation immigrants; this is even more visible among
Nigerians who were born abroad and subsequently
relocated to another European country.
For those born outside Nigeria, this broad life interest in
‘home’ culture has the potential to become a motivator
to meet other people from their culture area and perfect
language skills. It has been argued that Nigerian films are
primarily meant for a Nigerian market, an opinion
corroborated by responses indicating that Nigerians
usually watch these films at home with family (67.4%)
and other compatriots (37.2%) who do not need any
explanation to enjoy the viewing. Gathering with
Nigerians of other ethnic cultures is then facilitated by
the use of Nigerian English, seen as “a unifying force in
multicultural Nigeria” (Adegbija 2004: 126).
Whatever the viewers’ nationality, Nigerian films,
produced as “a collective expression” (Austen & Şaul
2010:7), are best watched in group and commented inbetween scenes, bringing about a wider, shared African
identity. The importance of culture in attracting
Nigerians to Nollywood should not be underestimated,
because, by their own admission, it helps them cope
with exile. Viewing Nigerian films with family and friends
can be considered as a way of building an immigrant
community within the host society, and fostering a group
identity while gathering strength from the group to resist
This impact of Nollywood is made more potent by the
pervasive view, among 87% of the Nigerian respondents,
that these films represent more or less accurately the
Nigerian society – past and present. They have the ability
to transport viewers to Nigeria and allow them to
experience living there by proxy and sharing people’s
daily life. Viewing Nigerian movies can therefore be seen
and experienced as a trip down memory lane, a virtual
trip back home, “a ritual experience” (Dipio 2008: 60)
and a group therapy.
The unifying role of Nigerian English
The viewing of Nigerian films can finally be seen as a
virtual classroom experience: a number of 2009
respondents insisted on the educational value of the
films, saying that “they have a moral tale to tell”, and
in the end, all viewers agreed that Nigerian video films
had a lot to teach – culture, language and morality.
The Facebook page of (‘do it in
Igbo’) – explains the aims of their site: “language as a
root of our identity may be regarded as the most
important cultural identity marker in any cultural
heritage. The primary purpose here is to promote and
discuss Igbo-language movies as well as other Igbo
movies.” The group, lamenting the fact that “nowadays,
it is not uncommon to hear an Igbo person living in
Nigeria claiming that he or she is not proficient in the
language or does not even speak it”, further describes
their enterprise as an investigation into reasons behind
the dearth of movies in Igbo.
Their aim is to boost the language, “the most vital
heritage of any society”, since “certainly, the medium of
film is one of the avenues whereby language can be
revitalized and Igbo language can be maintained through
the medium of Igbo-language film.”
The strong emphasis placed by respondents on moral
values and the didactic component of films – again a
distinct Nigerian trait – is further indicative of a desire to
hand down those values and languages to the next
generation and ensure the survival of the culture among
Nigerians in Diaspora.
In normal circumstances, at home, culture would have
been imbibed effortlessly from the environment. In the
UK, films are now used instead, as one of the main
cultural tools - someone called them ‘baby-sitters’
because parents frequently leave their children watching
them while they attend to domestic chores. On the
whole, research shows that, although most respondents
acknowledged the important role of language in identity
building and reinforcement, very few of them sought to
watch films in Igbo or Yoruba, and that songs, usually
rendered in those languages even in English-speaking
films, did not catch the attention of the majority.
It would be interesting to investigate the potential
role of these films as incentives to actively seek to
learn Nigerian languages through other means such as
evening classes/ E-books and online software
developed to help learners of major Nigerian
languages. In the end, while “languages may commit
suicide, […] it may be impossible to eradicate a
language which its speakers truly wish to retain”
(Edwards 2009: 62), and this leaves diasporic Igbo and
Yoruba speakers with a clear choice. For Anyanwu
(2009), “a people without language are a people
without voice. A people without language are a
people without identity for it is language that
identifies us as Igbo, Yoruba or Hausa.”
Interestingly, Edwards questions this centrality of
language in the building of group identity, offering a
strikingly different illustration of cultural identity as he
quotes Koestler (1976) on the Jewish example: “first they
spoke Hebrew; in the Babylonian exile, Chaldean; at the
time of Jesus, Aramaic; in Alexandria, Greek; in Spain,
Arabic, but later Ladino […]. They preserved their
religious identity, but changed languages at their
convenience” (Edwards 2009: 205). Would this work for
diasporic Nigerians as their ethnic languages disappear
through intercultural marriages and the resulting
multiplicity of languages? The following posting from an
Igbo lady born in Britain seems to prove it:
I'm an Igbo Nigerian […] born and raised in London and
more and more I feel as though I am an alien. I'm not
Nigerian enough for Nigerians and other Africans and I'm
not English enough for the English! People make wise
cracks that I'm English, as though being born here makes
the fact that my parents, grand-parents, relatives and
DNA are routed in Nigeria irrelevant. My parents spoke
to me in English so I only understand certain [ Igbo]
words and phrases […]. Many Nigerians […] do see me as
Nigerian though they always underestimate my
knowledge of and interest in my culture, […] the politics
of Nigeria, […] Chimamanda Adichie/Chinua Achebe […],
Nollywood […]. Can anyone else relate? (2010)
In conclusion
Current research shows that in the UK, the language
most viewers relate to, while watching Nigerian films, is
Nigerian English, a variety of English that identifies them
as Nigerians and which, should they feel free to give it
the ethnic flavour they would have used at home, might
even identify them as Igbo or Yoruba. Reverting to
Nigerian English triggers an empowerment, a claiming of
a portion of British space as Nigerian space and bearing
their souls, using words, code-mixing and codeswitching, accents, intonation and body language usually
muted: gathering round the TV set, they join in
recreating home away from home.
Omoniyi (2010: 239) questioned “whether or not
English or African Englishes are sufficiently indigenous,
and to what extent they can mark national identity.” To
bilingual or multilingual Nigerians abroad, who may not
be able to meet fellow Yoruba or Igbo people but now
enjoy watching films in the company of Nigerians from
other ethnic groups, Nigerian English definitely serves
its original purpose, that of bringing Nigerians together
and supporting an embryo of national identity which, in
Adegbija’s words, “should be thought of as a
‘production’, which is never complete, always in
process” (2007: 111).
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