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Response to defenders of presidential grammatical boo-boos

Every time my grammar column calls attention to grammatical infractions by members of Nigeria’s political class-from former President Goodluck Jonathan to Patience Jonathan, from ministers to governors, and from Aisha Buhari to President Muhammadu Buhari- I almost always get the same predictably familiar, knee-jerk reactions from their minions. No one seems to care when the grammatical errors of everyday people are called out.  In fact, bewailing the fall in the quality of English among secondary school students and undergraduates is a national pastime. 

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But when the political elite write worse English than the everyday people we delight in pillorying and someone highlights this fact, suddenly a ragbag of hackneyed defenses is invoked such as, “na English we go chop”; English is not our mother tongue; proficiency in English is not a substitute for intelligence; Koreans, Japanese, and Chinese people don’t speak English yet they are developed; insisting on proper English grammar is “colonial mentality”; so long as the message is understood, grammatical correctness is irrelevant; and so on.

I have responded to six of these escapist reactions. People who have followed this column regularly will find some of what I write here familiar.

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1. “Na grammar we go chop?”

When people say “na grammar we go chop?” [will grammar bring food to the table?] they are being disingenuous because the reverse is also valid: “na bad grammar we go chop?” The truth is that neither good grammar nor bad grammar from leaders brings food to the table, which makes the whole talk about its gastronomic utility silly and unproductive.  Knowledge of good grammar shows evidence of learning. Atrocious grammar, at best, betrays poor learning. That’s nothing to be proud of.

Perhaps the grammar-nescient crowd should unite and compel the National Assembly to pass legislation that will make inability to speak good English the new criterion to ascend to leadership in Nigeria. Maybe that is what will bring food to the table.

2. English is not our mother tongue

Of course it’s not, but it’s precisely because it’s not our mother tongue that its mastery shows evidence of cognitive agility. But how many Nigerians can write or speak their mother tongues proficiently? How many of them can expound high-minded thoughts in their native languages? In an August 26, 2012 article titled “The English Nigerian Children Speak,” I pointed out that we are raising a generation of Nigerians whose first and only language is a deformed, ghettoized, and impoverished form of English that is incomprehensible to other members of the Anglophone world. 

And in my July 7, 2013 article titled, “Multilingual Illiteracy: What Nigeria Can Learn from Algeria’s Language Crisis,” I wrote: “I am equally troubled by what I call the prevalent multilingual illiteracy of the present generation of Nigerians. A typical educated Nigerian speaks between three and four languages….

“But our proficiency in these multiple languages is gradually deteriorating. Except for Hausa and, to some extent, Yoruba, all Nigerian languages are endangered because of a lack of language loyalty, an incompetent mastery of the rules of the languages, and the tendency toward what linguists call code-mixing and code-switching, that is, an inelegant admixture of English and our native languages.

“The desire to speak English is often blamed for the pitiful state of our native languages, except that our mastery of English, on whose behalf we devalue our native languages, is also so awful that other speakers of the language can’t help but notice. (Any form of English that is unintelligible to the rest of the English-speaking world is useless.)  And Pidgin English, the other major ‘language’ we speak, is an anarchic, linguistically deficient language that not only has limited utility outside Nigeria, but that is incapable of being the medium for serious scholarly inquiry and global communication.”

3. English mastery isn’t synonymous with intelligence

First, correcting bad grammar isn’t the same thing as implying that people who speak or write bad grammar aren’t intelligent. But several studies have shown a correlation between mastery of grammar and intelligence. P.M. Symonds’ 1931 study titled “Practice Versus Grammar in the Learning of Correct English Usage” is one the first systematic scholarly inquiries into the relationship between aptitude for grammar and high IQ. The study found that people with a high IQ grasped grammatical concepts faster than those with a low IQ.  Richard A. Meade’s 1961 study titled, “Who Can Learn Grammar?” also found a correlation between superior intelligence and mastery of grammar. Several contemporary studies have affirmed these findings.

But it is also true that there are highly intelligent people who have no mastery of grammar, not because they can’t but because they invest their intellectual energies elsewhere.

4. Koreans, Japanese, Chinese don’t speak English

That’s a dumb argument. Koreans, Chinese, Japanese, etc. don’t speak English because they weren’t colonized by English-speaking people. English isn’t their official language. English isn’t the language of instruction at all levels of their education. It isn’t the language of their courts. Nor is it the language of their mass media. So there is no expectation that they should be proficient in English. But English is Nigeria’s official language. It is the language of education, of government, of the courts, of the dominant mass media, etc. in Nigeria.  That means there is an expectation that an educated Nigerian should be proficient in English. Citing the examples of Korea, Japan, etc. to justify poor mastery of English by a Nigerian is a notoriously imperfect and intellectually fraudulent contrast of contexts.

Grammarians in Korea, Japan, China, etc. also take their leaders and everyday people to task on correct usage in their native languages. For as long as English remains the official language of Nigeria, it will always be fair game to call attention to the grammatical bloopers committed by users of the language. This also happens in countries where English is a native language. Donald Trump-and before him George Bush-is habitually pilloried in the media for his incorrect grammar.

Should we decide to adopt, say, Ogoni as our official language, and the language becomes the language of instruction at all levels of our education, like English is now, then language enthusiasts would be justified to use the rules of Ogoni grammar to call out grammatical lapses.

In Nigeria, you can’t proceed to institutions of higher education if you don’t have a credit in English-even if you want to study mathematics or, for that matter, a Nigerian language! Yet minions of politicians don’t want anyone to point out grammatical errors in official communication, errors that would earn students a failing grade in their exams if they were to commit them. That’s hypocritical. Plus, this is a grammar column, not a general-interest column.

5. English grammar is “colonial mentality”

Nigerians who dismiss mastery of English as evidence of “colonial mentality” lack self-reflexivity. The very name of our country, Nigeria, was handed to us by English colonialists, and it’s derived from English. More than 50 years after independence, we are still stuck with it. And people talk of English being a holdover of colonialism? 

Well, English is now, for all practical purposes, the world’s lingua franca. Proficiency in it opens a world of opportunities. It is a ladder to upward social mobility and is the vastest repository of the world’s knowledge. As of this month, more than 50 percent of all content on the Internet is written in English. The next “rival” to English is German with 6.3 percent. Russian is 6.2 percent. Arabic is 0.6 percent.

Similarly, the majority of the world’s scholarly and scientific papers are written in English. That’s why universities in Europe and Asia are increasingly switching to English as their language of instruction. One German university president said English has become so central to global knowledge production and circulation that for scholars who are non-native English speakers, there are now only two options: either publish in English or perish in your native tongue. That’s why proficiency in English is now mandatory for South Korean academics. They can’t be tenured, i.e., be given permanent employment, if they don’t demonstrate sufficient proficiency in English grammar. So there goes number 4.

In the contemporary world, you shut out English at your own expense. It is hard-nosed pragmatism to embrace its epistemic resources both for development and for subversion.

Most importantly, though, as I’ve argued several times, the truth is that English is the linguistic glue that holds our disparate, unnaturally evolved nation together. Although Nigeria has three dominant languages, it also has more than 400 mutually unintelligible languages. And given the perpetual battles of supremacy between the three major languages in Nigeria-indeed among all of Nigeria’s languages-it is impossible to impose any native language as a national language. So, in more ways than one, English is crucial to Nigeria’s survival as a nation. Without it, it will disintegrate.

6. Message, not grammar

Does clarity of meaning trump grammatical correctness? Maybe. But that may be true only where poor grammar doesn’t interfere with meaning itself. For instance, in Buhari’s June 12 letter, he used “distract” when he actually meant “detract.” That’s an example of an eye-catching grammatical error that can distract the reader and detract from the message!

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