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The Growing Use of Indigenous Nigerian Languages Online

Culture + Technology, Trends + Research

Does being online mean being alive? An article about the online use of Nigeria’s indigenous languages as a means of connection and a unifying force that drives cultural pride.
By Adebola Rayo, storyteller and founder of the communication company Asterism.

…when linguists insist that more people who speak Yorùbá (or Igbo, Edo, Hausa, Fulfulde, etc) use their languages more on the internet where most of us now spend much of our time, we are trying to revitalise the languages. …If all of our business will be conducted using technology in the coming future, then whichever language is not present in these technologies is effectively on its way to destruction.”

Nigerian linguist, Kola Tubosun (SOAS)

The area today known as Nigeria came under British occupation after the colonial partitioning of Africa at the Berlin Conference of 1884. What followed was decades of colonisation that took resources out of Nigeria and imposed British language, education, and religion on the people. Although Nigeria gained independence from British rule in 1960 and officially became a federal republic in 1963, relics of British colonisation remain till date. Over the decades, the country has dropped some things, including the Queen’s headship (1963) and British currency (1973), but it cannot seem to shed one strong relic of colonisation—English Language.

Even though Nigeria has hundreds of cultures and about 400 languages, English remains the language of business, education, and power. In a country with many indigenous languages, this might be deemed a practical concession, but at what cost, and to whose detriment? What does the future hold for indigenous languages in such a climate?

A language only survives if there are willing speakers who converse in it and pass it on to other generations. However, an individual’s ability to speak and their willingness to use an indigenous language is often influenced by several external factors. For example, for many decades in Nigeria, it was not unusual for students to be barred from speaking “vernacular” in school—the word often used derisively to refer to indigenous Nigerian languages. 

In a 2019 paper on the Use of indigenous languages for social media communication. The Nigerian experience (Sunday, O., Yusuff, A., Iretomiwa, S., et al.), the authors cited listed reasons for low use of Nigerian languages on social media as including lack of literacy in those languages; English as the default language for software and interfaces; and the negative perception of the use of indigenous languages. 

The three widely spoken indigenous languages in the country are Hausa (30 million speakers), Yoruba (18.9 million speakers), and Igbo (24 million speakers), but how do you preserve this wealth of culture without enabling conditions? According to UNESCO, 29 minor languages in the country have already become extinct, and others remain vulnerable to extinction. 

Today, some indigenous language speakers are not waiting for government policy or formal inclusion in places of education or business. They are propagating their languages in digital spaces, after all, speakers make the language. In recent years, the use of indigenous Nigerian languages on digital platforms has grown. It has come a long way from March 2012, when the linguist, Kola Tubosun, organised #TweetYoruba, using the hashtag to promote the use of Yoruba on Twitter and encourage speakers to tweet in Yoruba. During that first #TweetYoruba day, there were 24,000 tweets shared in Yoruba (Tech Cabal). This act of language activism caught the attention of the Translation desk at Twitter, and the language was added to the social media app a few years later.

Nigerian indigenous languages are not only being propagated by linguists or done as an act of activism. As short form videos Facebook, Tik-Tok, and Instagram become even more popular, several content creators are using those mediums to propagate their Nigerian languages. Nigeria has 50% internet penetration, and the web traffic is mostly via mobile phones (72.8%) with widespread social media use—Facebook (47.81%), Twitter (27.13%), Instagram (11.68%). Some content creators, with followers ranging from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands create content that is either focused on their Nigerian language/culture itself or entertainment delivered in their indigenous language. 

One such creator is lekan_kingkong. With about 890,000 followers on Instagram, he creates content in Yoruba, sharing videos on culture and language, but also skits and humorous voiceovers on contemporary issues in Yoruba. He averages over 100,000 views on his videos, and it is not unusual for creators like Lekan_Kingkong to collaborate with other content creators who have the same focus. Many comments on their videos confess to loving the use of indigenous language or being encouraged to learn it or teach it to children. 



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Perhaps another factor that is contributing to the use of indigenous languages online is a growing embrace of same by Nigerian celebrities online. For example, the globally celebrated Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, proudly expresses her Igbo culture, language, and identity, often posting videos and photos showing her in T-shirts with Igbo words or phrases to her 2 million Facebook and 1.3 million Instagram followers. It’s beyond personal platforms though. In 2021, the Nigerian-British actor, John Boyega, teamed up with H&M, a fashion house, on a collection. The ad for the collection, released online, featured Nigerian highlife music, the actor mostly speaking in Yoruba, and then Nigerian pidgin English and English.

As individual use of indigenous Nigerian languages online grows, so is use by institutions. In 2018 BBC launched BBC Igbo and Yoruba, after many decades of broadcasting in Hausa. They also began creating digital content in those additional languages. Today, BBC’s Igbo platform on Instagram has 184,000 followers, while its Yoruba platform has 335,000. Its Hausa Twitter and Instagram platforms, which date back to 2015 and 2008 respectively, have 1.1 million and 2.1 million followers respectively.

The online use of Nigerian indigenous languages by Nigerians in Nigeria, Nigerians in the diaspora, and even non-Nigerians who speak the language, has become a medium of connection, a unifying force that drives pride of culture. In a sense, it is also a potential tool for minimising exclusion. Nigerian social media can be elitist in that most of the content is in English, excluding those who don’t speak the language, which is usually those who mostly live in non-urban areas of Nigeria or have not received education in English. More content in indigenous languages offers inclusion to a wider group of people.

Undoubtedly, digital platforms magnify and extend the reach of these languages beyond the individual and their immediate physical community. Nigeria has a multilingualism that only a few other countries can boast of, and as machine translation efforts continue to be integrated on digital platforms, more Nigerians may get comfortable speaking and writing in their indigenous languages on social media platforms.

Far back as 2013, Google Translate included Hausa, Yoruba, and Igbo in translate, while other platforms continue to add or improve their machine translation. Instagram, for example, now allows viewers click for a translation of some indigenous Nigerian languages posted in captions and Instagram stories. This means that speakers of those languages need not worry about excluding some of their audience when they write in those languages. 

Perhaps this is what will keep Nigerian indigenous languages from extinction. If speakers cannot use them in places of education, business, and power, perhaps continued engagement with digital content in those languages will sustain the languages. At the very least, the next generation may not have to contend with the shame that was once associated with speaking or writing in indigenous languages in public.


“…nígbàtí àwọn onímọ̀-èdè bá tẹnumọ́ọ pé ọpọ̀lọpọ̀ àwọn ènìyàn tí wọ́n ń sọ èdé Yorùbá (tabi Igbo, Edo, Hausa, Fulfulde, àti bẹ̀ẹ́bẹ́ẹ̀ lọ) ń lo àwọn èdè wọn púpọ̀ lori intanẹẹti níbití ọ̀pọ̀lọpọ̀ wa ti ń lo àkókò wa bayii, à ń gbìyànjú lati sọ àwọn èdè náà ji.Tí ó bá jẹ́ pé a ó máa lo ìmọ̀ ẹ̀rọ̀ fún gbogbo àwọn ìṣòwò wa ní ọjọ́ iwájú, èdè yòówù tí kò bá sì ní orí àwọn ẹ̀rọ̀ yìí ń lọ sí oko ìparun. ”

Onímọ̀-èdè Naijiria, Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún (SOAS)

Àgbègbè tí a mọ̀ sí Nàìjíríà lónìí wá sí abẹ́ àkóso ilẹ̀ Gẹ̀ẹ́sì lẹ́yìn ìgbà tí àwọn agbókèèrè ṣàkóso pín ilẹ̀ Áfíríkà ní Àpérò Berlin ní ọdún 1884. Ohun tí ó tẹ̀le ni àwọn ọdún ìgbókèèrè ṣàkóso tí ó kó àwọn ohun àlùmọ́ọ́nì jáde kúrò ní  ilẹ̀ Nigeria tí ó sì sọ èdè, ẹ̀kọ́, àti ẹ̀sìn ilẹ̀ Gẹ̀ẹ́sì di kàn-ń-pá fún àwọn ènìyan. Bó tilẹ̀ jẹ́ pé Nàìjíríà gba òmìnira lọ́wọ́ ìṣàkóso ilẹ̀ Gẹ̀ẹ́sì lọ́dún 1960 tí ó sì di ilẹ̀ olómìnira ìjọba àpapọ̀ ní ọdún 1963, àwọn ohun ìsẹ̀ǹbáyé ìṣàkóso ilẹ̀ Gẹ̀ẹ́sì ṣì wà títí di òní olónìí. Ní àwọn ọ̀pọ̀ ọdún tó tẹ̀le, orílẹ̀-èdè naa ti ju àwọn nǹkan kan sílẹ̀, ara àwọn ohun tò jù sílẹ̀ ni ìdarí Olorì ní ọdun 1963 (Queen’s headship, 1963) àti owó ìlú Gẹẹsi (1973), ṣùgbọ́n kò lè fi ohun ìsẹ̀ǹbáyé ìsàkóso òkèèrè kan tó làgbára sílẹ̀ — ìyẹn Ede Gẹẹsi.

Bí ó tilẹ̀ jẹ́ pé Naijiria ní ọgọọ̀gọ̀rún àwọn àṣà àti àwọn èdè bíi irinwó (400), Èdè Gẹẹsi jẹ́ èdè ìṣòwò, ẹ̀kọ́, àti agbára. Ní orílẹ̀-èdè kan tó ní ọ̀pọ̀ èdè ìbílẹ̀, a lè pe èyí ní ìyọ̀ǹdá àmọ́ọ́mọ̀ ṣe, ṣùgbọ́n ní iye wo, àti pe, tani èyì palára? Ọjọ́ ọ̀la wo ni àwọn èdè abínibí ní ní irú ojú-ọjọ́ bẹ́ẹ̀?

Ọ̀nà tí èdè kan fi le wà láàyè ni tí àwọn tí ò fínnú fíndọ̀ sọ èdè naa bá wà tí wọ́n sì ń fi le àwọn ìran míràn lọ́wọ́. Bí ó ti wù kí ó rí, agbára ẹnì kọ̀ọ̀kan láti sọ̀rọ̀ àti ìmúratán wọn láti lo èdè ìbílẹ̀ kan sábà máa ń nípa lórí ọ̀pọ̀ àwọn nǹkan ìta. Fún àpẹẹrẹ, fún ọ̀pọ̀lọpọ̀ ọdun ní Nàìjíríà, kìí ṣe ohun àjèjì tí wọ́n bá ní kí àwọn akẹ́kọ̀ọ́ má sọ̀rọ̀  pẹ̀lú èdè “abínibí” wọn ní ilé ẹ̀kọ́—ọ̀rọ̀ náà tí wọ́n sábà máa ń lò lọ́nà ẹ̀gàn láti tọ́ka sí àwọn èdè abínibí ilẹ̀ Nàìjíríà. 

Ninu ìwé ọdún 2019 kan tó dá lóríi Ìlò àwọn èdè abínibí fún ìbáraẹnisọ̀rọ̀ l’áwùjọ. Ìrírí Naijiria (Sunday, O., Yusuff, A., Iretomiwa, S., et al.),  Àwọn òǹkọ̀wé náà tọ́ka sí ìdí tí ílo àwọn èdè Nàìjíríà fi dín kù ninu ìtàkuròsọ ayélujára gẹ́gẹ́ bí àìní ìmọ̀ lati ka àwọn èdè wọ̀nyẹn; ìlò èdè Gẹẹsi lati kọ ẹ̀rọ kọmputa àti àwọn atọ́kùn wọn; àti ìrònú òdì nípa lílo àwọn èdè abínibí. 

Àwọn èdè abínibí mẹta tí ó gbajúmọ̀ ní orílẹ̀-èdè naa ni Hausa (ọgbọ̀n (30) miliọnu olúsọ), Yoruba (miliọnu 18.9 olùsọ), àti Igbo (miliọnu mẹrinlelogun (24) olùsọ), ṣùgbọ́n bawo ni a ṣe le tọ́jú ọrọ̀ àṣà yìí láìsí àyíká tó fi ààyè gbàá? Gẹgẹbi UNESCO ṣe sọ, àwọn èdè kéékéèké mọkandinlọgbọn (29) ti parun patapata ni orilẹ-ede naa , àwọn èdè tó kù náà sí wà ní bèbè ìparun. 



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Lónìí, awọn olùsọ díẹ̀ ninu awọn èdè abínibí kò dúró de ètò ìmúlò ìjọba bẹ́ẹ̀ si ni wọ́n kò dúró de sísọ èdè wọn di èdè tí a le fi kọ́ni ní ilé ẹ̀kọ́ tàbí fi ṣòwò. Wọ́n ń tan àwọn èdè wọn káàkiri lori ayélujàra, gẹ́gẹ́ bí a ti mọ̀, àwọn tó ń sọ èdè ló ń gbé èdè lárugẹ. Ní àwọn ọ̀dun kòpẹ́kòpẹ́, ìlò àwọn èdè abínibí ilẹ̀ Naijiria ti gbilẹ̀ síi lori awọn ìkànnì ayélujára. Ọjọ́ ti pẹ́ gan lati Oṣu Kẹta ọdun 2012, nígbà ti onímọ̀-èdè, Kola Tubosun, ṣètò #TweetYoruba, ìyẹn lílo hashtag lati ṣe igbéláruẹ ìlò Yoruba lori Twitter lati ṣe kóríyá fún àwọn eniyan lati sọ̀rọ̀ lori Twitter (tweet) ní èdè Yoruba. Ní ọjọ́ àkọ́kọ́ #TweetYoruba yẹn, ẹgbẹrun mẹrinlelogun (24000) ọ̀rọ̀ ní a pín ní èdè Yoruba lórí Twitter (Tech Cabal). Ìgbésẹ̀ ìgbòkègbodò èdè yìí gba àfiyèsí ní Ibùdó Ìtumọ̀ èdè ní Twitter, wọ́n sì fi èdè náà kún àwọn èdè tó wà lori aapu ìtàkurọ̀sọ ayélujára wọn ní ọdún díẹ̀ tó tẹ̀le.

Kíìṣe àwọn onímọ̀ èdè tabi ìṣatikiyan èdè nìkan ni a fi ń tan èdè abínibí Naijiria káàkiri. Bí awọn fidio kúkúrú Facebook, Tik-Tok, ati Instagram se ń di gbajúgbajà síi, ọ̀pọ̀lọpọ̀ àwọn  aṣẹ̀dá ohun ìdánilárayá lori ayélujára ń lo àwọn ọ̀nà yẹn lati tan awọn èdè Naijiria káàkiri. Ọwọ́jà intanẹẹti dé ìlàjì orílẹ̀ èdè Naijiria, orí foonu alágbèéká ni ìgbòkègbodò ayélujára ti ń wáyé jù (72.8%) wọ́n sì ń lòó káàkiri fún ìtàkurọ̀sọ àwùjọ lori ayélujára —Facebook (47.81%), Twitter (27.13%), Instagram (11.68%). Díẹ̀ ninu awọn àwọn aṣẹ̀dá ohun ìdánilárayá lori ayélujára, tí wọ́n ní awọn ọmọlẹ́yìn bii ẹgbẹgbaarùn ún sí ẹgbẹẹgbẹrun ń pèsè ohun tó dá lorí èdè/àṣà Naijiria fúnrararẹ̀ tabi ohun ìdánilárayá ti a ṣe ní èdè abínibí wọn. 

Ọ̀kan nínú àwọn irúfẹ́ aṣẹ̀dá náà ni lekan_kingkong. Pẹ̀lú awọn ọmọlẹ́yìn tí ó tó 890,000 lori Instagram, ó ń ṣẹ̀dá ohun ìdánilárayá ní èdè Yoruba, ó ń pín awọn fọ́nrán fidio tó dá lori àṣà ati èdè,ó sì tún n ṣe awọn eré apanilẹ́ẹ̀rín kukuru àti ọ̀rọ̀ àwàdà lori awọn ọ̀rọ̀ tó ń lọ l’áwùjọ ní èdè Yoruba. Àwọn eniyan tò wo fidio rẹ maa ń tó 100,000, àti pé kìí ṣe ohun àjèjì fún aṣẹ̀dá ohun ìdánilárayá bii Lekan_Kingkong lati ṣiṣẹ́ pọ̀ pẹ̀lú aṣẹ̀dá ohun ìdánilárayá miiran tí wọ́n ní àfojúsùn kan náà. Ọ̀pọ̀ awọn tó fèsì lórí fídíò wọn jẹ́wọ́ pé wọ́n nífẹ̀ẹ́ sí lílo èdè ìbílẹ̀ tàbí pé ó ń ṣe kóríyá fún wọn láti kọ́ ọ tàbí kí wọ́n kọ́ àwọn ọmọdé. 

Ìdí miran tó seése kó mú kí lílò èdè abínibí gbilẹ̀ sii lori ayélujára ni bí awọn olókìkí ní ilẹ Naijiria ṣe tẹ́wọ́gbàá lori ayélujára. Fún àpẹrẹ, òǹkọ̀wé Nàìjíríà tí gbogbo àgbáyé ń bu ọlá fún, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, fi tìwúrí tìwúrí gbé àṣà Igbo rẹ, èdè àti ìdánimọ rẹ jáde, ó sábà máa ń fi fídíò àti fọ́tò tí ó fi sẹẹti alápá kékeré tí ó kọ àwọn ọ̀rọ̀ tàbí gbólóhùn èdè Igbo sí rẹ̀ han àwọn ọmọlẹ́yìn tí ó tó miliọnu meji (2) lori Facebook ati  miliọnu 1.3 lori Instagram. Ó kọjáa pèpéle àdáni nìkan. Ní ọdún 2021, òṣèrè ilẹ̀ Gẹẹsi tí ó jẹ ọmọ ilẹ Naijiria, John Boyega, darapọ̀ mọ́ H&M, ilé-iṣẹ́ asọ kan lati jọ ṣe àwọn ìkójọpọ̀ kan. Awọn ipolowo fún àkójọpọ̀ náà, tí wọ́n gbé jáde lórí Íńtánẹ́ẹ̀tì, fi orin highlife ilẹ̀ Nàìjíríà hàn, òṣèré naa sọ̀rọ̀ lédè Yorùbá jù lọ, lẹ́yìn náà, èdè àdàlù oyinbo (pidgin) Nàìjíríà àti Gẹ̀ẹ́sì.

Bí ìlò ẹnì kọ̀ọ̀kan ti àwọn èdè ìbílẹ̀ Nàìjíríà ṣe ń dàgbà lórí Íńtánẹ́ẹ̀tì, bẹ́ẹ̀ náà ni àwọn ilé-iṣẹ́ ń lò. Ní ọdún 2018 BBC ṣe ifilọ́lẹ̀ BBC Igbo ati Yoruba, lẹ́hìn ọ̀pọ̀lọpọ̀ ọdún tí wọ́n ti ń gbóhùn s’áfẹ́fẹ́ ní èdè Hausa. Wọ́n tún bẹ̀rẹ̀ ṣí ṣẹ̀dá awọn ohun ìdániláraya lori dijita ní àwọn èdè àfikún yẹn. Lónìí, pèpéle èdè Igbo BBC lori Instagram ní awọn ọmọlẹ́yìn 184,000, nígbà ti pèpéle èdè Yoruba ní ọmọlẹ́yìn 335,000. Pèpéle èdè Hausa lori Twitter ati Instagram, èyítí ó ti wà lati ọdún 2015 ati 2008 ní ṣíṣẹ̀ǹtẹ̀lé, ní ọmọlẹ́yìn miliọnu 1.1 ati ọmọlẹ́yìn miliọnu 2.1 ní ṣíṣẹ̀ǹtẹ̀lé.

Ìlò àwọn èdè abínibí Naijiria lori intanẹẹti nípasẹ̀ àwọn ọmọ orílẹ̀-èdè Naijiria ni Naijiria, awọn orílẹ̀-èdè Naijiria ní òkè-òkun, ati pàápàá awọn tí kií ṣe ọmọ Naijiria tí wọ́n ń sọ èdè naa, ti jẹ́ kí ó di ohun èlò ìsopọ̀, ohun èlò ìsọ̀kan alagbara tó ń mú ìwúrí bá àsà. Ní ọ̀nà kan, ó tún seése kí ó jẹ́ ohun èlò lati mú àdínkù bá ìyàsọ́tọ̀. Ìtàkurọ̀sọ àwùjọ (social media) ti Naijiria wà fún awọn tí ó kàwé nitori pe èdè Gẹ̀ẹ́sì ní wọ́n ṣábà maa n fi kọọ́, èyí kò kan àwọn tí kìí sọ èdè naa, ìyẹn àwọn tí wọ́n ń gbé ní àwọn ìgbèríko Naijiria tàbí àwọn tí wọn kò kọ́ ẹ̀kọ́ ní èdè Gẹ̀ẹ́sì. Ọ̀pọ̀ àkọsílẹ̀ tí a fi ọgbọ́n inù gbékalẹ̀ tí a kọ ní èdè abínibi maa ń tàn dé ọ̀pọ̀ ẹgbẹ́ awọn eniyan.

Láìsiyèméjì, àwọn pèpéle dijita ń sọ àwọn èdè abínibí dí ńlá ò sí ń mú kí àwọn èdè naa rìn jìnà kúrò ní àrọ́wọ́tọ́ ẹnì kọọkan àti agbègbè tó sún mọ́ ni. Nàìjíríà ní èdè púpọ̀ tí àwọn orílẹ̀-èdè díẹ̀ péré lè ṣogo fún, bí àwọn akitiyan ìtúmọ̀ èdè pẹ́lú ẹ̀rọ (machine translation) ṣe ń di lílò lori awọn pèpéle dijita, ọ̀pọ̀ àwọn ọmọ orílẹ̀-èdè Nàìjíríà lè ní ìtura láti sọ̀rọ̀ àti kọ ọ̀rọ̀ ní àwọn èdè ìbílẹ̀ wọn lórí àwọn pèpéle ìtàkurọ̀sọ àwùjọ (social media).

Ní ọdún 2013, Google Translate fi èdè Hausa, Yoruba, ati Igbo kún pèpéle ìtúmọ̀ wọn, nígbàtí awọn pèpéle yòókù naa ń tẹ̀síwájú lati se àfikún tabi mú kí ìtúmọ̀ èdè pẹ̀lú ẹ̀rọ̀ wọn dára síi. Fún àpẹrẹ, Instagram ní bayi ńgba awọn olùwò láàyè lati wo ìtumọ̀ dìẹ́ ninu awọn èdè abínibí Naijiria tí a fi se àkọlé tabi fi sinu àwọn ìtan Instagram. Èyí túmọ̀ sí pé àwọn tó ń sọ èdè yẹn kò ní lati kọminú pé bóyá àwọn ya àwọn kan lára àwọn olùgbọ́ wọn sílẹ̀ nígbà tí wọ́n bá ń kọ̀wé ní àwọn èdè yẹn. 

Bóyá èyí ní yoo yọ awọn èdè abínibí Naijiria kúrò ní oko ìparun. Tí àwọn olùsọ-èdè kò bá lè lò wọ́n ní àwọn ààyè ti ètò-ẹ̀kọ́, ìṣòwo, àti agbára, bóyá ìbásepọ̀ tabi lílò àwọn èdè wọ̀nyí lori ayelujara yoo mú kí àwọn èdè naa dúróore. Ó kéré tán, ìran tó ń bọ̀ lè má ní láti dojú kọ ìtìjú tí ó so mọ sísọ tàbi kíkọ ọ̀rọ̀ ní àwọn èdè abínibí ní gbangba.

Tubosun, K. (2019). Why Write in Yoruba on the Internet? SOAS University of London. 

H&M. (2021). Presenting: Edition by John Boyega 

Sunday, O., Yusuff, A., Iretomiwa, S., et al. (2019). Use of indigenous languages for social media communication. The Nigerian experience. African Language Digital Media and Communication, Ed. Salawu, A.

Oluwafemi, B. (2014). It Took Only Two Years, But Twitter Is Finally Getting Translated Into Yoruba. Tech Cabal.

Photo credits: Muhammadtaha Ibrahim Ma Aji, Unsplash / Moro Dada, Unsplash / Igwatala