How Not To Treat Vernaculars, By Ifeanyi Uddin

When, recently, in a circular to all staff, my employers forbade the speaking of “vernacular” in favour of the English language, my initial reaction was of extreme crossness. I guess at the back of this was a recollection of the distasteful responses associated with similar policies growing up. Overtly paternalistic teachers in the primary and secondary schools enforced this ban on the vernacular with a passion much suited to nobler pursuits. Add to this my parents’ insistence that English was the “lingua franca” at home, and like my teachers (and current employers) prohibited the speaking of all “vernacular”, it was then an irresistible invitation to rebellion. And rebel a couple of us did.

Looking back on those days, it would have been nice to have had today’s insights to hand, and to have tried them on my school masters just before they enforced the not too slight chastisement from their ubiquitous wand of noble wood. Nonetheless, by the time I reached secondary school, I intuitively recognised a problem with this ban on the vernacular. Growing up in Ilorin, where Yoruba was the native language it was easy for most persons to imagine English as the only non-vernacular. But with an Esan father and an Igbo mother, I was convinced that to the extent that both Esan and Igbo were just as foreign to Ilorin as English was, they had just as much claims over Yoruba as English did when it came to forbidding vernaculars.

Much latter, I learned that in so far as a definition of the “vernacular” included use of “a language or dialect native to a region or country rather than a literary, cultured, or foreign language”, the use of this adjective was passé. Derogatory even! Easy to understand the effort by the colonial administration in force in the country until 1960 to derogate from whatever utility our local languages had. Raising up their English language as a more literary and cultured one than any of our local variants must have helped reinforce their right to rule. Just as the associated doubts raised over the utility of our cultural products helped make us more subservient.

But post-1960 this argument ought to have lost much of its shine. There are tremendous advantages from our status as an English speaking country no doubt. And there could be more. Both India and South Africa are building offshoring competences on the basis of this status – so there could be commercial gain too. However, just as important, new research has found that considerable advantage accrues to multilingual children. They are obviously better adjusted than their peers who speak only one language.

In truth, (to my regret today) most of my growing up was spent resisting another foreign impost: the French language. I would have been better of literate in another European language, but the free 45 minutes that one got from not attending French lessons in the secondary school was spent honing my Yoruba. The language of truancy then was not English. I doubt if it is even today. Not surprisingly, we ended up with local languages too poor to be of much use. And a handle on the English language that still is pathetic, especially when it tries too hard to impress.

Yet, it is this ersatz English that is the dominant feature of our lived experience, including its most odious form: the de-odourised version that our sophisticates deploy when announcing their presence. Our local languages, on the other hand, literally atrophy, despite UNESCO’s best efforts. There are strong and obvious arguments for promoting cultural diversity. Just as there are for enriching our “vernaculars”, including being able to find corresponding words or phrases for such key concepts as “quantum computing” and “deoxyribonucleic acid” – in other words, to move them out of the cultural ghettos to which both colonial and post-colonial policies have consigned them.

I despair, though, that forbidden to speak vernacular in school, at home (where parents still remain, as mine were concerned some 4 decades ago, to ensure that their kids speak like the Queen and her court), and at work, our local languages are doomed. I think that they are doomed any which way. For the “strongest” argument I heard discussing the ban on “vernacular” at work is that it is not “corporate” to speak Yoruba in the work place. Our “vernaculars” may yet thrive as the argots for shebeens and speakeasies; but they are not now likely to rival Mandarin Chinese as a language of science, arts, or of good breeding.

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