My column last week about the tendency by everyday people to defend mediocrity in English usage among the Nigerian elite ignited an interesting debate. Dr. Ahmed Umar, Associate Professor of Linguistics at Federal University in Dutse, pointed out that even our native languages are not exempt from this, so I invited him to write a guest column to bring this problem to a broader audience. He graciously obliged me. Enjoy:
For about three decades now, Nigeria, both as an Anglophone and ‘English-administered’ country, has gloomily witnessed a steady fall of standard in many of its citizens’ competence in English. This malady appears to be dominant among the youth, who must have come into the system of education in the twilight of the ‘reading culture’ era, and the dawn of the ICT one (at least, in Nigeria, as in similar peer nations). Indeed, a country should be so gloomy if none of its approximately 500 local/native languages has been unanimously chosen as its lingua franca; if English has proven to be its only medium for administrative/official, legal and educational communication, especially at the federal level.
The present disastrous ‘standard’ (if one may somehow sanitize the situation with this stable sememe) of competence in English in the country is aggravated by a phobic attempt by those affected to camouflage their incompetence in English (even in basic, simple terms of its usage) with such retorts as: “English’s not my mother tongue.”; “Na English I go chop?”; “Competence in English is not intelligence!”. To adequately understand the nature of this syndrome, we need to, first, examine the status of English in the broad context of language, then trace the genesis of the present power of English in Nigeria.
The essential role of language in the cohesion and development of any society is both a universal and linguistic truism. Between two or more individuals, no meaningful communication or transaction can ever take place without using the tool of language (verbal or non-verbal). From matrimony, to trading, to worshipping, to education, to government, language remains the sole ‘vehicle’ conveying messages between interactive participants.
The essence or value of any language in any society rests and thrives on that society’s collective recognition of that language as the tool of communication among its members (Wardhaugh, 2006). In linguistics, such a collective recognition is known as convention. Accordingly, the social categorizations of ‘language’, ‘dialect’, etc., reflect such a convention, whereby, for instance, if Mandarin is recognized by a community as its ‘language’, English or Arabic may intrude even as gibberish into that community; where only Swahili is recognized as ‘language’, Hausa or Yoruba or Igbo may be deemed a meaningless set of sounds or letters.
Similarly, one society may have recognized more than one language in variable degrees or statuses. In Nigeria, for instance, each of the approximately 500 languages, especially the ‘major’ ones, may have sub-types or dialects. Such geographically based sub-types of a single language may differ from one another more in lexis than in structure, and may be mutually understood by all the speakers of that language, at least, in structure. All those speakers of the language constitute its “speech community” (Joseph, 2014), and, within each speech community, other “communities” could exist by variables of region, culture or other social engagements that bind them together. If, for instance, we consider Hausa as a speech community on the level of ‘language’, its ‘dialectal’ level could reveal other speech communities, whereby one community’s “barci” [sleep] could be another’s “kwana”. Within that same Hausa ‘language’ speech community, sociolectal variations may, for instance, facilitate the following varieties of naming a religious cleric: “alaramma/ustaz/shehi” [by a ‘religious’ speech community]; “malam” [by a conventional/moderate speech community], and “lakum” [by a deviant, young speech community].
Such language variations evolve and thrive not only on the variables of regional varieties and functional (including communication) necessities, but also on social cognitive and attitudinal changes that are triggered by other changing events/factors within the affected language speech community (Murphy, 2017). To the speech communities of all those 500 languages referred to above, the greatest changes occurred when Arabic and English arrived into the area today called ‘Nigeria’. The arrival of these two languages introduced not just new formal lingual resources, but also other socio-cultural values of those languages and their speech communities (i.e., the Arabs and the English).
Arabic came into Nigeria some 900 years earlier than did English, via the northeastern part of the country (Davies, 1956); with Arabic came its large lexicon and Islam. Consequently, today, many of Nigeria’s 500 languages and their speech communities use (mostly modified) Arabic words, especially in (Islamic) religious engagements and interactions. Indeed, before the advent of English to northern Nigeria, the Arabic language and Islam had also been the dominant systems of education, formal transactions and government, especially after the Danfodio revivalist campaigns. Remember, Hausa was existent then, but its essence, especially in education, judiciary and governance had been superseded by Arabic language and Islamic jurisprudence. So much so that, today, about 50% of the Hausa lexicon, especially in religious, social concepts, originate from Arabic.
In turn, English came to Nigeria some 250 years or so years ago via its southern part, especially the south-western ports. With English came its lexicon, political power and Christianity. On its arrival, that colonizing English ‘speech community’ wasted no time in practically establishing English as the medium of communication in trading, legal and, later, administrative interactions and transactions. In fact, the English colonialists can be said to have laid more functional emphasis on and imposition of their language and administrative/transactional rules than propagation of their religion, Christianity, and education, these last two having been mainly done by the missionaries.
However, because the English political power has, since its advent to Nigeria, survived and thrived, English remains the only official language of administration, dominant medium of educational communication/instruction, and judiciary. A few states in Nigeria today may be ‘informally’ conducting their legislative or administrative interactions in their local languages. However, when it comes to formally relating to the central/federal government or most foreign/international communities, those states have had to use English as their medium.
Now, since its colonial introduction to Nigeria, the English language has had a mixed practical and cognitive repertoire of values: medium of administrative/educational/legal communication and transaction; symbol of high social class; civilization; modernity; and material wealth. As an L2 (second language) or FL (foreign language), its adequate formal acquisition by Nigerians has mainly been via formal education, at school, a place or system that may have always been associated by the infantile or teenage L2 learner, from the onset, as ‘strange’, introducing a ‘strange’ language.
The vast sociolinguistic difference between the learner’s L1 and English may not have been helpful. Eventually, as the learner grows in the system, he/she may assimilate, or even excel at, it. However, that initial cognitive value of intimidation may abide by the learner for much longer, if not a lifetime.
In terms of regional exposure, formal Western education, as dominantly spread and symbolized by English, can be said to have been in the southern part of Nigeria for over 50 years before it reached its northern part. Consequently, the level of exposure to that education and to competence in English have since been higher in the south than in the north. In the south, learners of English as L2 have had those greater pedagogic orientations of longer exposure to English, wider use of (non-standard) English (i.e., Pidgin), better-equipped schooling (number of competent teachers, options of schools, etc.), and more frequent use of both standard and pidgin English at home.
In the north, such learners of English as L2 have had the relatively weaker pedagogic orientations of shorter regional exposure to English, narrower or, in most situations, no use of English as a lingua franca, less equipped schooling in number of competent teachers, adequate schools, etc., and less or no frequent use of English at home. But, despite these regional imbalances, a then existent ‘reading culture’ and easier interaction with English native speakers in Nigeria and abroad had produced those who had sound competence in English in both southern and northern parts of Nigeria.
A competent primary school teacher of those days, down to the early 80s, could exhibit a much better command of appropriate Standard English than many ‘professors’ of the present ICT age! Also, ask many students at the secondary or tertiary level of education today about the practical (formal/structural analyses, productions, etc.) and theoretical (definitions, conceptualizations, etc.) inputs of their lessons, they would tell you that composition (letter/essay/summary writing, minimal grammar input) far outweighs core grammar (forms/structures and analyses) in the presentations of English Language content.
The question here is: if one does not adequately know the rules of a language, how does one speak/write well in that language? So, a situation has evolved whereby many of even those who ‘major’ in English cannot speak or write it well! Bad tree bearing bad fruit; bad seed begetting bad trees! So, what has really happened to kill that golden ‘English era’ in Nigeria?
The answer to this question can be found in some global revolutionary waves that came to the shores of Nigeria in the late 90s. Before the emergence and proliferation of cellular/gsm phones and internet use in Nigeria from the late 90s to date, competence and excellence in formal Western education and, by extension, its medium (English), had meant a deep and wide ‘reading culture’.
To be concluded next week