This is the first part in a series that portray how Nigerian view their language and culture.
There are very urgent events that fill the media space at present, leaving us in danger of overlooking other matters that appear less pressing, even when these are fundamental issues that lie at the base of who a people are. This series sets out to draw attention to some of those issues.
Societies of the world are not one indistinguishable mass; they are different owing to the diverseness of their ways, a good blend of which gives humanity more possibilities than it ever otherwise had. Efforts are on, among serious societies all over the world, to repackage their ways in light of ‘globalizing’ circumstances. But failure to do this properly will sometimes leave a society as a pathetic mimicry of others. It is interesting to consider the forms that this trend has taken in the Nigerian case. We will illustrate with few instances.
One Japanese graduate said: ‘When my father was an undergraduate, he took his lecture notes in both English and Japanese. In my generation, we took our lecture notes purely in Japanese’. This example is not the only case whereby formerly colonized societies transited from using the former colonizers’ language onto adopting ones that are indigenous to them, ones with which they could engage their world more understandably.
The examples of India, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand are also very well known. These societies realize that it is in language that a people’s culture, knowledge, identity, pride and experience are stored, explained and transmitted. Others such as, in Africa, Kenya and Tanzania are in the process of such a transition.
Post-colonial Nigeria has maintained English as its lingua franca; it has been the language of administration and of education; it is the National Official Language (NOL) and, therefore, the language of access to power and resources. Through what is termed ‘linguistic relativism’, linguists make the point that all languages are equal, that no language is inherently better or higher than the other so long as they all serve the communication needs of their owners. It has, in any case, been shown that language can be an effective tool of power and domination.
As people and societies relate, certain groups occupying the more powerful sides of the divide can make their language the medium of access to power and resources. It will become the so-called high language as against the others that will become low. In a way, speakers of the ‘low language’ will begin to perceive speakers of the ‘high’ as superior or ‘higher’ beings.
This is clearly the case with most Nigerians and the English language. To bridge this inferiority gap, they go to every length to dissociate themselves from their own local ‘low languages’ in preference for English, the language of their former colonial ‘masters’.
Understandably, writers have advocated that Nigeria cannot help retaining English as its NOL due to its ethnically charged environment in which it will be very difficult (if not impossible) to determine which, out of the more than 300 odd languages, should become the NOL.
Several attempts have been made to build an indigenous NOL for the country, but all have failed because in no way can one language be successfully synthesized from the hundreds that exist, and no one of the ethnic languages will be acceptable as NOL by all others who, in fact, harbor mutual fears of being dominated.
Other suggestions have been made, such as allowing all ethnic groups that desire to use their local language for instruction in schools and other regional businesses (as is the case in Switzerland, for example) to do so, but also allowing English to remain the NOL for all practical purposes. Contestations regarding this have been robust, but this is not the forum to fully pursue the issue in this direction.
What other things that might be said notwithstanding, the way the ripples play out among Nigerians today is interesting. The last time I visited home with my family, my own aging, non-literate parents were disappointed that I was not raising my little son with the English language. As my father carried him—like they often did whenever we were home—muttering words like ‘come here’, ‘how are you?’, my mother remonstrated with me to raise him with English in order that he would join his peers to grow with the language. She mentioned other children in the neighbourhood describing how they leaked English like soup.
My parents are part of the many Nigerians who have come to naturally assume that children born in these times have come in ‘English times’. Their first attempts to communicate with a child is always made in English, no matter how bad their knowledge of the language is. My friends and relatives always recoil in horror whenever I ask them not to talk to my child in English. You always see their disappointment upon such a demand. Afterwards—perhaps too shocked to see that a person as ‘enlightened’ as I am could deny his child such a privilege—they make no further attempts to talk to the child. This reaction could also owe a lot to their alarm at my attempt to wean them from the assumption that English is the language with which children born in these times are condemned to be raised.
Many Nigerian parents now get angry at anybody who speaks local language to their children. They often present the excuse that since lessons at school are run in English, it would be useful for their children to get used to it from home. However, when confronted with the fact that children who are proficient in their mother tongue acquire other languages better, they are at loss as to what to reply; but they continue the practice anyway.
Because the authorities have made it the case that candidates sitting for senior secondary certificate examinations must pass at least one Nigerian language, one of my Igbo friends who has been raising his children in English has now got an Igbo language home teacher for them. But when the teacher is gone, the family resumes their English.
I accosted him on one occasion and he replied to the effect that they were learning enough from the teacher to pass Igbo (their own language!) at school. A child of a colleague of mine had told me on one occasion, ‘I just don’t like to speak that thing’ (as if even the mention of ‘Igbo’ was itself anathema).
The tragic irony in all this is that many Nigerian parents are not good English speakers. It then turns out that their children grow up with a mangled knowledge of the language. And because such children set off with the impression that they have already learnt the language at home, they hardly pay meticulous attention at school to learn its rudiments. In my experience teaching undergraduates in Nigeria, I now have little doubt that young persons who perform very poorly in written and spoken English are those who grew up speaking nothing but English.
Importantly, the way many Nigerian children grow up to perceive their local language as despicable somehow suggests to them that all things indigenous to them are to be similarly approached. As it is, cultures are integrated, patterned systems; changes in any parts do not go without changes in other parts as well. How this manifests in other domains is what we shall turn to subsequently.
Chidi Ugwu teaches in the Department of Sociology & Anthropology
University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Nigeria.