Sociolinguistic Dilemma of Nigerian Users of English; Factors Influencing Language Choice

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Lilian Ohanedozi



This study is an examination of the factors influencing the choice of language use in different contexts by Nigerian users of English. The method used was the descriptive analysis which entails listing and explaining the factors influencing language choice. It is observed that environmental factors, psychological factors, social factors and cultural factors influence the choice Nigerians make in communicative situations.Factors influencing the choice of a national language in Nigeria were equally examined and a solution that Nigeria should adopt plurality instead of a single national language was equally given.

Key Words:Environmental Factors, social factors, cultural factors, psychological factors, national language.


Sociolinguistics is concerned with the functional aspects of language in a society. This means that sociolinguistics deals with how language is used in the society.
According to Okoh (2006, p.15) “Sociolinguistics then, can be seen as the study of language in relation to society. The discipline generally is concerned with communicative or verbalbehaviour in a given society”.
Also,Akindele and Adegbite (1999, pp. 2-3) defines sociolinguistics as:
a discipline which assigns functions to various languages which exist in a community, and such functions may suggest that a language be used as a mother tongue, another as second language, and yet another as a foreign language. It may also suggest that some other languages should be used as official, national, lingua franca and even regional languages…
Nigeria, a multilingual nation is constantly faced with the problem of choice of a language to use in certain environments, and of coursethere is the problemof choice of a national language.
Nigeria is blessed with over 400 languages (Okoh, 2006)
Emenanjo (1985,p.1) classifies the languages spoken in Nigeria, thus:
Foreign or Exoglossiclanguages (e.g, English, French, Arabic).
‘Very Large’ Languages: Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, Nigerian Pidgin.
‘Large’ Languages:Efik, Fulfulde, Nupe, Edo, Tiv, Izon, Kanuri.
‘Medium Sized’ Languages:Idoma Central, Idoma North, Nembe. Igalla, Urhobo, Bokwai, Kalabari, Angas, Abuan, Bekwara, Ebira, Ekajuk, Ibibio, Kha, Engenni, Juken of Takum, Wapan, mambilla, Iju and Ikwo.
Roughly 350 ‘small Languages’, including all those not already listed.
The multilingual nature of Nigeria has been both a blessing and a curse in that as much as we enjoydiverse cultural practices and learning; the ill cultivated farmland of multilingualism has created room for a lot of weed to sprout. It is a curse because it has divided the nation along ethnic lines. This division has enthroned the English language as the unifying force in Nigeria and in the absence of a national language; English serves in abnetio as the national language alongside its variety the Nigerian English and the Nigerian Pidgin English. Let us therefore examine the factors that influence the choice of which variety to use amongst Nigerian users of English and the factors influencing the choice of a national language.


The multilingual nature of Nigeria has made the issue of language a fractious one. The choice of a language or even a variety there of to use in a multilingual society like Nigeria has put a lot of Nigerians at a spot as they are constantly trapped in a dilemma to choose amongst the myriads of choices available.
This dilemma is expected because the issue of language is a strong and delicate subject. The reason is not farfetched, language is an instrument for the construction of identity and a person’s language in a way defines such a person.
According to Okoh (2006, p.4)“Language remains an integral and crucial component of man’s life, indeed his very quintessence, it constitutes some kind of true mirror of how we think, see, perceive and conceive things”
This means that our language use to a large extent regulates our existence.
Bolton opines that:
Language is so built into the way people live that it has become an axiom of being human. It is the attribute that most clearly distinguishes our species from all others; it is what makes possible much of what we do; and perhaps even whatwe think. Without language, we could not specify our wishes, our needs, practical instructions that make possible co-operative endeavour.
(Cited in Eschollz and Rosa, F. (eds) 1981, p.3)
Being such an integral part of human existence, one can understand why Nigerians are plunged in debates both consciously or unconsciously on the use of English language in Nigeria.
The outcry is that the more English is enthroned in Nigeria; our indigenous languages are constantly at risk of extinction in the near future. The choice of which language to use is fraught with a lot of factors which has continued to enthrone English. English language is today, the world’s “lingua franca”. The question is should Nigerians turn their backs on this languageof development and technology and crawl back into obscurity? Of course the answer is No. Another question is should we embrace the English language and then sit backand watch ourindigenous languages which is a true symbol ofour identities, go into extinction? The answer of course is NO? Whatthen should Nigerians do?The search for identity, the search to have what we can truly call our own and what can reflect our identities has led to the clarion call for the recognition of the “Nigerian Pidgin English” and the “Nigerian English”. These two varieties of English carry with them a touch from our indigenous languages eventhough none originates from Nigeria.
A lot of scholars are calling for the maintenance of the purity of the “Standard British English in Nigeria. The fact that Nigerians still view English as the language of the colonial master has made this call for the maintenance of the purity of the‘Received Pronounciation’(R.P) to lose its appeal. The StandardBritish English in Nigeria is not popular and is spoken within limited circles. The Nigerian pidgin and the Nigerian English are more popular and are used by a much larger majority in larger contexts.
Okoh (2006, p.55) said
A man clutching his baggage of standard English would make a fool of himself in Mile 3 Market in Port Harcourt, to say to the seller: Madame, I’d like to purchase the staple commodity and comestible called garri” instead of employing the simple and ultimately more effective or communicative variety, “madam I wan buy garri.
Also studies like Banjo (1971, 1993), Adetugbo (1977, 2004), Jibril (1979, 1982), Eka (1985, 2000), Jowitt (1991), among others have adequately proved that using RP as a spoken model for Nigerians is merely an exercise that lacks basic justification since the variety of English spoken in Nigeria cannot be said to be truly British.
Having carefully excused the Standard British English, most Nigerians, and educated Nigerians rely on the NigerianEnglish and its co variety Pidgin.The sociolinguistic factors that influence the use of Nigerian English are culture, interference of mother tongue (M.T.),educational level of speakers/users, social status, linguistic background etc.

Mother tongue interference is observable through transfers. Here, the bilingual transfers the structures of the L1 in the process of learning the L2. We have two types of transfers: structural transfers and cognitive transfer. Structural transfer is a linguistic process where Morphosyntactic and lexical elements of language are exchanged in L2 acquisition. While cognitive transfer involves conceptual (mental) interaction which allows skills and knowledge obtained in one language available in the other language (Latkowska, 2010). A lot of Nigerians force the structures of their L1 into the English language. Most Nigerians speak English like they speak their indigenous languages. When there is no error it is called ‘nativization’.
Josiah (2011) proposed that the use of English in Nigeria must be as realistic as possible. This is what Achebe (1975) refers to as the Domestication of the English language.
Achebe (1975, p.62)calls it “a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit its new African surroundings”. A lot of Nigerian writers have joined Achebe in the Crusade to use Nigerian English to portray their unique African experiences and culture.
For instance in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958, p.52)Ezeani, the Chief Priest, says to Okonkwo:
“Your wife was at fault, but even if you came into your obi and found her lover on top of her, you would still have committed a great evil to beat her”
This expression is purely translation of the Igbo discourse into the English language to reflect how an Igbo man would have expressed his wife’s adultery. Of course the Standard English would be the use of Euphemisms such as: “found her in bed with her lover, sleeping with, making love to her, or even a straight forward “having sex” etc.
It would be interesting to know that Nigerian English is not filled with errors, it does no violence to the Standard English, Nigerian English is simply a domestication to portray the African environment.
Also in Arrow of God (1964, p. 54) the Chief Priest Ezeulu says:
“Go back and tell Ezidemili to eat shit. Do you hear me?Tell Ezidemili that Ezeulu says he should go and fill his mouth with shit”
Here, Ezeulu speaks like any Igbo man would have spoken and Achebe beautifully captures this in Nigerian English.
Also, in Emecheta’sJoys of Motherhood (1979, p.48)Nnaife asks his wife Nnuego:
“What did you say? Did I not pay your bride price? Am I not your owner?”
Of course the Standard English would not refer to a woman (wife) as a property belonging to a man. But the expression captures the Igbo/African traditional belief that a woman whose dowry has been paid automatically belongs to the man.
Also in Ndibe’sArrows of Rain (2000)Bukuru’s Grand mother says:
“…Throw me away but don’t throw away my words. Son of my son, words are finished in my mouth”.
Here, we see the Nigerian Igbo language at play in English, the expression “words are finished in my mouth” is not Standard English. Nigerian English to a great extent represents the indigenous cultures of Nigerians; it represents “the society’s typical, rustic, original, down-to-earth language” (Okoh 2015, p.11)
In the same vein, the Nigerian Pidgin English is equally soaring high in the Nigerian linguistic parlance despite the backlash against it from the “Elite” Nigerians.
Simire (2005, p.171) opined that Pidgin:
Is the closest thing to “lingua franca” in Nigeria as regards non formal domains. It is also becoming the most popular medium of inter group communication in various heterogeneouscommunities and in many educational institutions, especially Federal government colleges and universities located in various states throughout the country.
The Nigerian Pidgin and its varieties are used across every sphere of the society including in churches and in places such as schools and classes which were before restricted to English language
Jibril (1995, p.237) said: “as a consequence of the use of NP (Nigerian Pidgin) in domains hitherto restricted to English, NP now trespasses freely into English syntax to borrow structures which are clearly non-NP”
The Nigerian Pidgin has grown and is still growing. A lot of words are constantly added to it and the structures are equally becoming more complex especially inareas where in the near future it might become a Creole.
In corroborating this stance, Okoh (2006, p.108) said:
Whether language purists admit it or not, pidgin has in recent years grown into formidable linguistic force, a communicate phenomenon, even institution, to be reckoned with in Nigeria. There is no doubt that Pidgin has made enormous inroads and advances in different domains of Nigeria’s linguistic life.
A lot of Nigerian authors have written in Pidgin English while some incorporate it in their works to depict the naked Nigerian society. MamanVasta wrote his collection of poems such as “Catch Naira for Me” in Nigerian Pidgin, the late Ken Saro-Wiwa wrote his novel “Soza Boy” in Nigerian Pidgin English. Also the dialogue between Brother Jero and Chume was beautifully captured in Pidgin English in Soyinka’s Trials of Brother Jero (1964)

Nigeria users of English are always faced with the problem of choice. This is because users are always plagued with the choice of language to use in different situations since the main purpose of language is for communication. This is the major aim of English for Specific Purposes (ESP).
AsWiddowson (1978, p.7) observed “…new studies shifted attention away from defining the formal features of language usage to discovering the ways in which language is actually used in real communication”.
Different situations actually warrant different modes of communication. In Nigeria, for instance, the form of English used in formal settings differs from the form used in market settings.There should be an appropriate form of the English language used in specific situations. English for specific purpose (ESP) highlight the need to use language in appropriate settings.
In corroborating this sentence Crystal and Davy (1969, p.4) acknowledge that:
A particular social situation makes us respond with an appropriate varietyof language and that as we move through the day, so the type oflanguage we are using changes fairly instructively with the situation.
(Cited in Umera-Okeke and Okeke 2014 p.182)
Knowledge of ESP is important for users in general and Nigerian users of English in particular to achieve communicative competence.
Baldeh (1977,p.43) said communicative competence:
aims at helping the learner turn his considerable dormant grammatical competence into a real practical mastery of the language, being engaged in such everyday activities as buying stamps, going to the cinema, asking the way, visiting the dentist, going shopping, asking the time etc.
Obviously, language use varies from situation and English for specific purposes came in order to address this issue.
According to Umera-Okeke and Okeke (2014, p.182) ‘’ESP therefore involves sieving out from our repertoire of language those syntactic structures relevant for a particular social situation’’.
According to Busser and Lapolla (2015) “Social, cultural and natural environment of speakers influences the structures and development of the language they speak”.
Nigerian users of English should be able to choose between the Standard English, the Nigerian English and the Nigerian Pidgin English as the case may be. These varieties perform different communicative purposes despite reactions against each of them. There are factors that influence the choice to be made in any communicative situation. These factors include:
Environmental Factors
In Nigeria, the Nigerian Pidgin is thriving every day. It is the language widely spoken by 60% of Nigerians (Daily Post, Oct. 2017). Nigerian pidgin is used more for communication, trade, Political discussions, Churches and amongst Nigerian undergraduates, graduates and post graduate students. The Pidgin English is equally taking its place in media house. In fact WAZOBIA radio station operates solely on the Nigerian Pidgin English. The Pidgin English has equally dominated the language of advertisement (Ibrahim, 2016)
Ibrahim (2016,p. 86) noted that:
Due to the use of Pidgin English in several contexts, as well as the fact that it is used by people irrespective of their educational status, there has been a noticeable change in the negative perceptions of pidgin.
This is true because the toxic political climate in Nigeria has brought both the educated and the uneducated to the table as they are both engaged in electoral talks. These talks of course are done in the Nigeria Pidgin English. Pidgin is use for political campaigns. We hear expression such as.
“Buhari for president” “Goodluck for president’’ “Vote for Atiku’’ This government nawaoo’’ also Airtel, Glo and Mtn conduct majority of their adverts in Nigeria pidgin to reach a greater percentage of the population. Pidgin is therefore considered a “Nigeria thing”.
Still on environmental factors, it would be out of place for Wole Soyinka to come to a gathering of Mile 1 market women and start using his “elite” English.The obvious outcome is that communication will be lost.Either he embarrasses himself or the market women would embarrass him by asking him if he was okay.It would be wrong for him to say (in the market):
“I would like some bean cake’’ instead of “I wan buy akara.
In the same vein in a law court, it would be wrong for a lawyer to say to a judge.
“See am, I hol evidence here’’ instead of “I would like to tender this as an evidence”. The environment and situation indeed influences our choice of language use.
Also, there is the language of education which is used in educational settings. Medical jargons are used in hospitals and medical institutions and classes.The Standard English is used for both instruction and communication in learning institutions. Although in secondary schools in places like Warri and some villages, Nigeria Pidgin is used for instruction.

These are a set of conscious behavioursand beliefs that are associated with the expression of a coherent social identity of a specific community(Busser 2015)
Although Buda (1991) opined that “often no satisfactory explanation can be given as to why speakers make the choices they do”.
He further stated that “the choice of language is dictated primarily by the milieu in which the speaker finds himself”.
Cultural factors influence the choice of language use in certain contexts in Nigeria. For instance in the Igbo culture, it is rude to reply in English especially when an elder is addressing a younger one in the native language.
The participants involved in a discussion equally influence the choice of linguistic code to be employed. Speakers might resort to the use of the native language when they are from the same language background also the native language can be used as a code to exclude others who are not of the same language identity with the speakers.

3. SOCIAL FACTORS:certain factors in the society affect our language choice.The choice of a language here is based on utilitarian consideration.This means the reason why a speaker chooses to use a particular code or language.
Buda (1991) says that “a speaker may feel that use of a particular language will place him in an advantageous position either within a group or within socials context’’
For instance in Nigeria,even Professors of English utilize the Nigeria Pidgin in the market.This is because it will enable them to rapport well and not to get cheated. The idea is that traders hold in “high status” anyone who speaks the “Standard English” and as a result they charge them more than they would charge ordinary Nigerians who use the Pidgin English. So Nigerians use language in very accommodating manner.
Also when someone wants to sound too “elite” or try to socialize with the “perceived high class” they tend to speak the “RP” some go to the length of pretending not to know how to use the Pidgin English.
PSYCHOLOGICAL FACTORS: in multilingual nations, attitudes of speakers influence their language choice. Bilinguals tend to mix languages in their communication. This most times reflects competence in L1 and L2, while some scholars say it affects performance.
Ritchie and Bhatia (2008)opined that language mixing “reflects a natural and universal aspect of bilingual verbal behaviour”. The technical term for this is “code switching” (CS) and “code mixing”(CM). Code switching and code mixing are psychological factors that show creativity and complexity.
Buda(1991) observed that “Psychological factors sometimes preclude an easy and spontaneous switch to another language”.
For instance an Igbo speaker may feel comfortable switching to the Igbo language when he realizes that the addressee is an Igbo person.E.g. I want yam.A chọrọm ji (code switch).Inwere exercise book (code mix). While Code Switch is done at the sentence level Code Mix is done at the lexical level.It is important to note that the choice of language to use is not a one way street.As individuals are different so also are their reasons for choosing any code at any point in time.Buda sums it up by saying that “the use of language will reflect the infinite complexity of human relationships” (Buda, 1991, Retrieved from >buda>texts>language)
Still on psychological factors and how it affects language use. A lot of mothers see the English language as a language of “prestige” this has caused them to ban the use of Pidgin English or even the native language in their homes. They would proudly tell you that their children only speak the English language.
Some schools fine/punish students who speak their indigenous languages in the classroom.The indigenous language is given the negative tag of a “vernacular”

Holmes(1992,p.105)defined a national language “as a language generally developed and used as a symbol of national unity and it is often regarded as a symbol of nationhood”
There are certain criteria for choosing a national language.Nida andWonderly(1977) gave 3 criteria for choosing a national language
They are:
A national language should be politically neutral (no political bias as it must not unduly favour any of the linguistic communities against the other communities in the same state.)
The language choice should be linguistically related to other indigenous language as this will aid its learning by non –native speakers within the country.
The language should be spoken as a mother tongue by a substantial community of speakers who can serve as satisfactory models.
(Cited in Mustapha 2010,p.63)
In British former colonies like Nigeria, the English language has dominated the administrative affairs in the nations. The English language was part of the colonialmasters’ strategy to conquer their colonies by imposing their language and way of life. (Crystal 2003)
Ngugi (1986,p.16)said the Europeans:
needed to control Africans’mentality, culture and sense of identity.To do this, English French and Portuguese were forced on Africa as tools of cultural alienation. The domination of a people’s language by the language of the colonizing nation was crucial to the domination of the mental universe of the colonized.
As a result of this,a lot of scholars are calling for the dethronement of the English language which is widely regarded as a language of imperialism.
Banjo (1990,p.18) said:
It is understandable that some of the Nigeriannationalists should look upon the English language as the symbol of colonialism. To such nationalists,the indigenous cultures could not possibly come back into their own unless the English language, together with its cultural baggage was reduced in importance in the national scheme of things.
While some scholars are against the English language, some others see it as the answer to the national language question since no ethnic group in Nigeria can lay claims to the English language.
Mustapha (2010,p.65) argues that “since no ethnic group in Nigeria can lay claims to English as its own,this political neutrality that it satisfies,qualifies it as the national language for the country’’.
He further stated that:
Since the kind of English used inNigeria is a distinct variety from the English of the colonizers, it might as well be the long awaited national language that the country had been longing to have (p.65).
The absence of a language policy in Nigeria is one of the factors responsible for the absence of a national language in Nigeria.
Bamgbose (2000)said that there must be a language policy because the “absence of any statement of policy—is indeed a policy in that it usually means a continuation of erstwhile policies”.
These erstwhile policies, some of which were made during the colonial erafavour the English language.
Bamgbose (1991, p.105) said:
…the policies of the past continue to influence and in some cases,determine those of the present. The colonial legacy is a recurrent factor in the language policies of African governments. In practically all fields (education,communication,administration, politics and development), the question has always been whether or not it is desirable or even possible to break away from the existing practices and if so at what cost…”
Also the three major indigenous languagesIgbo,Hausa,and Yoruba are not equally preferred because of its lack of political neutrality. Scholars have warned against the use of any of them as the national language.
Banjo(1991) cautioned that the political survival of Nigeria as a country would be more seriously threatened than it is if the government should adopt any of these major languages as the national language.
Babajide(2007)argues that the imposition of one of these major languages constitutes a threat to the continued existence of the (minority)languages because they are likely to be relegated to the status of language of rurality.
Attempts which have been made to use any of the major languages failed wholly. The then Sarduana of Sokoto, Sir Ahmadu Bello who was the governor of the defunct Northern regiontried to enforce the use of the Hausa language throughout his sphere of influence. This move was rejected and resisted by the Tiv people because they regarded it as an affront to their social identity. The result was a riot which claimed many lives and destroyed properties.
Mustapha(2010,p.67) opined that:
as a secular state,Nigeria favours multi faith,thus any move toimpose any language of those whose major religion is Islam might be interpreted in some quarters as a subtlemove to turn the country into an Islamic state.
He further asserts that.
the recurrent religious intolerance in some states dominated by Hausa speaking people that often claim many lives and leads to loss of properties of those of the other faith …may not encourage large votes for Hausa as Nigeria’s national language.
The fact is that the multi ethno linguistic nature of the Nigeria society does not favour the choice of any of the major indigenous languages. Meanwhile, the choice of any of the minority languages is fraught with ethnic issues not to mention the low population of its speakers.
A lot of scholars however, have called for the choice of the Nigerian Pidgin English as the national Language
Osakwe (2005, p.20) in advocating for the Nigerian Pidgin states that: “The propagation and enforcement of NP in formal and informal contexts suggests that NP may become the elusive national language Nigerians have been searching for.”
In corroborating this stance (Onyeche 2004, p.53) states that:
Even among Swedes married to Nigerians or Swedes who have lived in Nigeria, NP is upheld as a symbol of being a Nigerian. Although some of these Swedes have tried to learn the Nigerian Languages of their spouses, they still try to speak NP through which they feel they can bond with Nigerians.
Adeniran (2005, p.1) says he prefers the term “Nigerian Pigdin (NP) because lexico syntactically, their manifestations violate the rules of the parent language (English)”.
It is interesting to note that the search for the choice of a national language has led to attempts to establish an alien language. A good example is the failed “WAZOBIA” language which is a combination of words from Hausa Yoruba and Igbo languages.Also, Alex Igbeneweka produced a dictionary of GUOSA language which is still a combination of Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa. It failed too. An example of Guosa is:Bikofunmiruwa – Please give me water. Having examined all failed attempts at arriving at a choice for a national language, some scholars have tried to provide a solution to the problem. Instead of aiming for one language as the national language, Nigeria can join countries like South Africa, Singapore and India who have multiple national languages.
Mustapha (2010, p.72) propose that:
Where it is a near impossible to have one language as a national language; this paper posits that pluralism as practiced in Singapore and India is worthy of emulation especially in Nigeria and other multilingual societies grappling with the problem of choosing a national language from a plethora of languages.
This means that the solution to the problem of choice of a National Language in Nigeria is plurality.

This study has tried to examine the factors that influence language choice in Nigeria. Socio-linguistics is the study of languages in relation to the environment. Every study of sociolinguistics deals with language as it is used not as in abstraction. There are certain factors which influence the way individuals use language. Wole Soyinka when asked why he prefers to use complex language said he does so because he is writing for the elite class. This style of course goes contrary to the Achebean simplicity in language use.
Some of the factors that influence our language use include environmental factors, cultural factors, social factors and psychological factors. Environmental factors condition our language use, for instance while the Standard English is used in the elite circle for conference or other academic gathering; it would be wrong to go to the market and use the Standard English especially when addressing an illiterate trader. Also, a lot of people may use the RP either to sound too elite or for the benefits attached to it. This is a psychological factor.
Also individuals may code-mix or code-switch especially when their addressee shares the same linguistic background with them.
Nigeria is a multi-ethnic/lingual community therefore the choice of a national language would remain a fractions one until all hands be on deck to drive for a solution.

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Babajide, A. (2007). Nigeria national language(s): A fantasy. In Adeyanu, D. (ed) Sociolingustics in the Nigerian context. Ille Ife: ObafemiAwolowo University press Ltd, pp.38-56
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