Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

English in West Africa - Nigeria

A Research Project at the Department of Linguistics
Institute of English and American Studies
Humboldt University, Berlin


Nigeria: Brief Introduction


Extract from: Wolf, Hans-Georg (2001). English in Cameroon. Contributions to the Sociology of Language 85. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
[see this volume for the references given]


With a population of more than 110,000,000 (July 1998 est., see US.G.CIA 1999e, online), Nigeria is the most populous state in Africa. It became a British colony comparatively late. From 1630 on, British traders had the lion’s share of the slave trade along this coast until its prohibition in 1807. British influence expanded only after the British occupied Lagos in 1861 to quell the further export of slaves. In the 1880s they extended their sphere of influence to the Niger delta, to the Lagos hinterland, and to Benin. These southern areas became a protectorate in 1906. In the North, the Royal Niger Company became active in 1879 to compete with French commerce and was officially supported by the British government in 1897. The protectorate of Northern Nigeria became the model of “indirect rule” (see section In 1914 the two protectorates were united under one administration to form the colony of Nigeria. During World War I, British rule was enforced in Igbo country, which became the eastern part of Nigeria. Nigeria became an independent state in 1960 (Der Grosse Brockhaus vol. 8 1979: 245f.; Fage 1991: 823).

Nigeria’s overwhelming dominance in terms of population makes her variety of English the prototype of WAE; as Görlach (1984: 39) emphasizes, “the future of English in West Africa will more or less be decided by what forms and functions it will take in this state, whose population and economic power surpasses [sic] those of all neighbouring coastal states taken together.” Or, as Kachru (1995: vi) has stated, “The West Africans have over a period of time given English a Nigerian identity.” Because of this, considerably more works have been published on Nigerian English and the role of English in the linguistic situation in Nigeria than on the other varieties of WAE (for a collection of articles and further references, see, e.g., Bamgbose, Banjo, and Thomas (eds.) 1995).

With 471 languages (including English and PE) spoken in Nigeria (SIL 1996-99e, online), the linguistic situation is quite complex. English is the official language, but Hausa (with about 21% of the population as L1 speakers), Igbo (about 16%) and Yoruba (20%), as the three major languages, have semi-official status. Thus the government encourages each child to learn one of the three major languages other than his own mother tongue (Igboanusi 1997: 22, based on National Policy on Education 1981), in addition to English. However, the implementation of this policy is lacking (see Igboanusi 1997). These languages also serve as lingua francas in parts of Nigeria: roughly, Hausa in the North, Igbo in the East, and Yoruba in the West. A language transcending regional, ethnic and social boundaries is Nigerian Pidgin English. Faraclas (1996: 1) estimates that it is spoken by more than 40 million people as an L2 and more than 1 million as an L1. The number of speakers of Nigerian English is unclear; the figure of 1,000,000 L2 speakers of English listed in the Ethnologue (SIL 1996-99e, online) for the year 1977 seems to be too small to be accurate for today.

The last point draws attention to the fact that “anglophone countries” in West Africa or Africa in general actually is a misnomer. As Schmied (1991: 27) rightly cautions, African nations are primarily “afrophone”; only an educated minority speaks and uses English. Schmied (1991: 27-33) also makes note of methodological and conceptual problems related to determining the number of English-speaking and English-using Africans (some of which I mentioned in section 1.2.). Bokamba (1991: 497) estimates that the percentage of L2 speakers of English in African countries (outside of South Africa) ranges between 10 and 20, with the exception of Liberia, where 40% of the population are estimated to speak English (which is due to her unique history, as outlined above). The fact that only a comparatively small portion of the population in anglophone (West) African states speaks standard English is in part due to British colonial policy (see section, and it would be illuminating to compare these figures with estimates for the number of speakers of English at the time of independence.


Speech sample Nigerian English