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Brief History Of English Language In Nigeria


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The Christian Missionaries who came from Great Britain introduced formal Western education to Nigeria, just before the middle of the 19th Century. Prior to then, education was done informally, as children were taught tradition, culture, history, and the likes by their parents who were in turn taught by their own parents. After the introduction and acceptance of the formal system of education, the entirety of it was left in the hands of the missionaries and they began teaching children and adults who cared to learn the English language.

The invasion of the European colonial masters and slave trade activities along the West Coast of African in the 18th century is believed to have paved the way for their tradition, language, and  The entry of the British who were English speaking people in 1841, to the southern and south-western parts of Nigeria, inevitably raised the question of a language to adopt for communication between the indigenous population and the guest; more so, the European guests felt the ‘native’ languages were too “extensive and not of high quality… and never likely to become of any practical use to civilization”.

Brief History Of English Language In Nigeria

The exact date that English language usage started in Nigeria is not certain. However, it is believed that the first intimate contact between the British and some ethnic groupings in Nigeria was in Southern Nigeria. This must have been at some period before the Atlantic slave trade. It is on records that as from 1553 English men paid frequent visits to the Nigerian shores, especially the ports of Ancient Benin and old Calabar, and the type of communication which evolved between the English men and the Nigerians was a simplified kind of communication in English called Pidgin. Note, however, that Portuguese and not English was probably the earliest European language to be used in Nigeria. According to Adetugbo [1984:8], a certain Oba in Benin was reported to have spoken Portuguese. The language was in use for economic interest and because it was the language of commerce and diplomacy in the ancient Benin kingdom.

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Actually, the advent of English in Nigerian can be classified into three major periods, namely: the period before the missionary activities, the period during missionary activities and the period after the amalgamation of the southern and northern protectorate. It is important to add that there is no clear cut demarcation between these periods as each period shades into another period. Now let us discuss these periods in turns.

The Status of English Language in Nigeria

The English language is Nigeria’s ‘second’ language. A second language is one that comes after one’s primary language. Ironically, it is also Nigeria’s dominant language, with the use of English being taught at various levels of the Nigerian educational system – Pre-Nursery schools, Nursery schools, Primary schools, Secondary schools and Tertiary institutions of learning. When every guiding and holding factors are scrutinized, the history and role of the English language in Nigeria is something noteworthy.

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English language in Nigeria is a second language. It is a second language because Nigerians already had their first language or Mother Tongue (L1) before the incursion of this foreign language called ‘English’ into the country. In this instance, a foreign language (English) left its native environment and met with another language or languages (Nigerian indigenous languages). It is true that the culture and values of the people are embedded in the language they speak. As such it is said that ‘language is culture’ and none can be separated from each other.

So, when two languages meet, then two cultures have met and there is likely to be a lot of changes in that society. The changes will affect the culture and the language of the recipient society or speech community, and the effect will impact on the entire recipients’ society, which in this instance is Nigeria and its citizenry.

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The English language did not come to Nigeria just on its own. Its incursion into Nigeria was caused by lots of factors like trading, slavery, colonization and missionary activities in Nigerian by the Europeans and this was done in phases. As such English as a language is a borrowed blanket which has been converted to personal use by the borrowers so as to suit their purposes.


The establishment of the English language in Nigeria could be merited to the joint effort of the colonial administration, trading activities, missionary activities and the resulting political process in Nigeria. The exact time in which the English language got its foothold on Nigerian soil cannot be exactly pinpointed, but available records show that this happened in the 14 century and extended till the present day as the language is still evolving.

English language in Nigeria is a second language. It came to be through a language contact situation, and when two languages meets two cultures must also meet because the culture of the people is embedded in the language. A lot of activities led to implantation of English language in Nigeria such as the boom in the slave trade and the monopoly enjoyed by England along the West Coast of Africa set the stage for easy permeation and the use of English along the West coast and its land, including Nigeria. This contact situation between Portuguese, English and indigenous Nigerian languages, resulted in the birth of pidgin. In other words, slave trade activities enhanced not only the spread of English in Nigeria but the emergence of English Pidgin.

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However, the spread of English was also enhanced by the native indigenous interpreters, many of whom were trained abroad, and later served as professional’s interpreters to slave traders and ship captains.

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