The Power of Language


Prof. Bola Akinterinwa and other professionals in international relations, at a recent conference organised by the Department of European Languages and Integration Studies of the University of Lagos, concurred that French is one language Nigeria should not ignore for the benefit of her citizens and the economy. Peace Obi reports

The 2017 international conference organised by the Department of European Languages and Integration Studies, Faculty of Arts in University Lagos, with the theme ‘The Francophonie and the Roadmap to Peace in Africa: The Contributions of Research Efforts in French Language and other Related Disciplines to Peace Efforts’, was a gathering of like-minded people. The Afe Babalola Hall of the University was filled with intellectuals, industry experts and veterans in international relations who assembled to promote and encourage the study of French in the country for the benefit of Nigeria and Nigerians. For the organisers and their guests, Nigeria surrounded by French-speaking countries can no longer play the ostrich when it comes to giving the deserved attention to teaching and learning of French Language in the country. The team of speakers called on policymakers, educators and individuals to take the right steps to escape the prison of isolation.

In a presentation titled ‘Beyond French as an Imperium in International Relations: The Implication for Regional Peace and Security’, Prof. Bola Akinterinwa said that French is a unique and powerful language, having succeeded Latin to become the language of diplomacy. And that French can be better appreciated when viewed as a language of communication, as a people, as a culture and as a civilisation. Considering French as a language of communication, the former Director General of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, said that French and English are the two official languages of the United Nations. According to him, in every United Nations assembly, whatever that is discussed generally must be documented officially in English and French.

“The place of French still remains quite important. At the level of communication, it is an official language of the United Nations. Until the end of First World War, French was the first international diplomatic language while English Language was then the language of business. But over time, because of the introduction of other international languages like Spanish, Arabic, Chinese and Russian, there has been competition with the French,” he pointed out.
Reaffirming the relevance of French in a modern world, the Professor of International Relations insisted that even though French is not the leading language in business, he said that it remains the leading language of diplomacy.

“So, the place of French is still there in terms of scientific consideration. We have many inventions by the French and the language is written in French. So, it is still valid. There is also French in terms of theatrical entertainment, we have many French music, films. The romantic aspect of French life is borrowed all over the world; democracy in itself as well. We look at what the French sold to the world, la egalitarian, la libertarian. Hundred years ago, the statue was given to the Americans. When you look at the number of speakers of French world over, it will always remain relevant,” Akinterinwa insisted.

Observing that French Language is also on the path of decline, Akinterinwa attributed it to the French Government’s attitude to non-Francophone sector and lovers of the language. Sharing an experience he had at the French Embassy, the Professor of International Relations said that the unfriendly attitude of the embassy staff discourages people who would have loved to visit France for various reasons. Akinterinwa however counselled that nothing should discourage Nigerians from studying the language. According to him, the future of the la francophonie is brighter than ever before. And that no matter how developed, sophisticated or connected the world may appear to be, French remains a language of interaction at the international arena.

Speaking further, the NIIA former DG advised Nigerians to take the study of French seriously, stressing that it is in their own interest as it offers huge opportunities. “You have to learn French for selfish reasons; it is in your own interest. Now for me, I speak French; it is with me. I sit down quietly if I don’t want to speak in French and nobody will know if I didn’t tell you. As a research fellow for instance, it is to your advantage. If you can only speak and write English, your research will be limited to only those materials written in English.

“For me when I am carrying out a research, I try to see what the Spanish authors say, what the French authors say, now add that one to the English author. So, it is very beautiful when you are a polyglot. You have access to different things and different opportunities. Whether the French Government wants to close its door or not, it is not even the issue. The only thing is that if there are more people speaking French, it is to their glory. It widens the base of French Influence, worldwide. So, it is mutually rewarding. For instance, I was one of those people who said we will not take French as a bilingual but we must make the learning of French compulsory. But my counsel is that let everybody speaks it, let public officials be compelled to learn French. So, if you are going to be in public service, within the two, three years before promotion, you must have proficiency in French Language, it is good for research purposes.

“It is now left for the French Government now to find a way of promoting its own interest by investing on people. I went on one year programme in the U.S., every time they send me newsletters of the people who came, they want us to be interacting, they want us to keep in touch, that that is how it should be,” Akinterinwa said.

In his earlier remarks, former Head, Department of European Languages, Faculty of Arts, UNILAG, Professor Samuel Ade-Ojo, said that the need for the country and individuals to be favourably disposed to bilingual or even multilingual cannot be overemphasised, especially as Nigeria is surrounded by francophone countries. According to him, French and English Languages are the two languages that enjoy global acknowledgement as being transcontinental and transnational. He noted that the idea was not to turn English speaking countries to French-speaking countries, but that it is to make them bilingual and to make of them polyglots. He stressed that the essence of francophonie is to emphasise the need to make French a language of peace, a language of cooperation and a language that can make life more meaningful and more fulfilling. “It is a language that has succeeded in working on the very essential elements of civilisation. French is a language of culture, it is a language of fashion, it is the language of good life; it is the language that makes human civilisation to have more impact.”

Speaking further, Ade-Ojo who is the first Nigerian academic to be honoured by the French Government with the ‘Chevaller de la Legion d’ Honneur’ (Knight of the Legion of Honour) for his exceptional qualities and commitment to the promotion of the French Language in Nigeria as well as France-Nigeria relations in general, hinted that French offers broader opportunities and that it has the power to free countries from the prison of isolation, warning that a monolingual may never be able to become a global citizen. “The minimum that you will need to have is two which will release you from the prison of isolation. You need at least two languages in this modern world. The world has become a global village made possible through the internet as well as through languages.

“One of the reasons for learning another language in addition to the lingua franca, generally referred to as national, official or legal language of a nation, it is to effectively respond to the need to be proficient in the language of the country’s immediate neighbours. For Nigeria, such a language is French, being the official language of all its neighbours, the reason for this necessity lies in the relevance of the language in facilitating the promotion of good neighbourliness, peaceful coexistence as well as the enhancement of unity and mutual understanding.”

In his recommendation, Ade-Ojo said, “French has to be taught to learners and we have them more in school. My advice is that the initial proposal of December 15, 1996 by Abacha should be worked upon, at least to make French the second national language or make it compulsory in schools. We need French in this country. It is indispensable for our being able to assert our greatness, our mightiness and the quality people that we have. And in a situation where most Nigerians who ought to be occupying the leading positions in the international organisations are not is because of their inability to speak French which is so minor. I am not sure whether we are really getting it right. Until and when we can recognise the impact that French can make to enable us conquer and virtually colonise our colonies, our neighbouring countries, economically in terms of making our weight felt, then we may not get things right,” Ade-Ojo said.

The Executive Director, Operations and IT, Access Bank Plc, Ojini Olaghere in her presentation said that the world is in a time when communication has become borderless with language as the key enabler. And that as business communities around the world rise to the demand for a globalised business operations, the power of language becomes eminent as a major tool for its accomplishment or otherwise. According to the executive director, business corporations need bilingual professionals to be in the international arena as well as towards achieving improved integration of the African economy for increased growth and development.”The bilingual professional is beneficial to the integration of the African economy in many important ways. They afford economies the opportunity to reach a wider range of stakeholders, creating more opportunities for the continent. Investors are always looking to Africa as the future for trade and industry.

“However, opportunities for investment and international partnerships are sometimes stifled as a result of the language barrier that exists between local entities and these international investors. The bilingual professionals break this barrier as they stand as the communication link between the continent and new and existing investment opportunities.”

Stressing that bilingual business approach increases networking opportunities, Olaghere said that it enable bilingual organisations tap into a larger pool of more qualified, culturally diverse workforce. “This creates opportunities for expatriates and employees with global experiences for further business improvement.

“At Access Bank, our bilingual business approach has opened our business up to a culturally diverse workforce with expatriate employees from Asia, Europe and from different countries across Africa. This has made our business adaptable, versatile and very dynamic providing limitless opportunities for growth. This is evident in our multi-national coverage and our cross-continental investment and business portfolio.

“We set-up our subsidiary in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), to foster relationships with stakeholders in this market towards improved integration of the African economy for increased and equal growth and development in the continent. This required us to identify the importance of other languages to our business especially the French Language,” Olaghere said.