with DANN JACOBS
Our use of a foreign language is a problem. In fact it is the problem. Do you dispute this? Then tell us how much of what is said in the broadcast and prints media you understand. Are they supposed to be wasting their time, energy and resources from day to day, year after year doing what they are doing to people’s sanity? Despite all the investment in manpower and all the billions put into them, how much is in broadcast media all over the country that sound decent, tolerable and intelligible any longer? It is all mumble-jumble, a cacophony, languages spoken in a way we should not comprehend. We have broken English and pigeon English. We have American English – the worst of them all to the ear. We have Queen’s English, We have Engligbo. Which one are we to listen to and speak in this country? We have Igbo in many variants. The musicians have their own numerous nasty languages which no one should be able to decode. Sometimes we have noise as language. In the prints media, some words and expressions have never been seen before. They are not for you to understand, but just to make the writer be highly regarded as one who knows English more than the English themselves. If they are regarded as such, so what next? The only thing they achieve in this is just confusion, ignorance, resentment and frustration across the country, for all the huge resources they are spending! Then look at the language of governance, law, justice, science, academics, religion, medicine, engineering and all other aspects of life! What can one make of them? Nigerians know how to waste their time. This language one is incredible. How do a people, for no just cause, keep doing a thing that is obviously counter and un- productive all the time, involving all the people in it?
One of my greatest embarrassments in life was when a European girl abroad engaged me in a brief dialogue about Nigeria. She asked where I really came from, to know where she may end up going to live if our relationship might end up in marriage.
Nigeria, I said. She asked what part? I said Eastern Nigeria. Then I was coming from Enugu and I said so. Then the mother of questions: The unanswerable question, the bomb. What language do you speak in your country?
English? You have no language?
Of course we have, Igbo.
Then why English, she muttered again, apparently angry. That got me frozen. I stammered as I never did. How could I explain this? I have never felt so stupid in my life. This happened over 40 years ago. Till now I have never been able to answer that question. While I was struggling with an answer which she knew very well I was in trouble coming up with, she came to my rescue, suggesting the implications of using a foreign language. What she told me has never been considered by any Nigerian. It has never occurred to any Nigerian. If it has, we won’t go on with the greatest impediment to our growth as a people, to our development. We are engaging in rubbish and we do not know, a self-destruct, the most disastrous bomb the colonizer deliberately left behind to consume the people.
She said it was a foolish thing to do. She said it was impossible to sustain, not meaning to be abusive or insulting, but just being frank and sincere. Why do you have to do that, she asked? I will feel ashamed to do that as a Nigerian, she said. Then I submitted to her lecturing and education on the matter. She was a much younger person to me, though.
“See, tell your country that your language, their natural language is indispensable to them. It has value that is inestimable. It is your first nature. It carries your entire being. It is your identity. You cannot do without it. It is your wisdom, your secret, your security, your only link with God that is acceptable to him. I don’t think any other language can link you with the Creator.” By then I was already quivering. I felt belittled and moreover defenseless. I was giving a thought to what she was saying. I wanted to hear more. I am not the type that runs away when about to be defeated in an argument. I dragged her into a coffee shop. We had coffee and were sipping it while she went deeper into the topic. I had something to offer in self defense: We don’t have one language. We have so many, up to over 400. I am not sure how many today. Nobody is. It is all speculation. Nobody takes the trouble to find out things. The foreign language makes us not so painstaking as others, not engaging our talents, very hesitant. We would have been freer with our language and thus more productive.
So, asked the girl, looking amazed? She was definitely surprised at me, at us. I continued:
So if we have to talk to one another we have to use one language. And it has to be English which all understand.
All cannot understand a foreign language. If you know anything through it, it is impaired knowledge. A foreign language is always a barrier to everything. You may think you have understood what is being said, but you have not. All of you In Nigeria pretend to know what is being said in English, but you have not. You have no emotional feeling for the language. It is not absorbable. It is not digestible. We have used a foreign language in my country too. It didn’t work. We went and excavated our own. It was a lot of work. We’ve got it right now. We can now only grow on our own language. The advantage is that there is no word we cannot understand in any subject or discipline. Learning is faster. We perfect our language so that it can carry the volume of information and knowledge we need to grow. Language unites us. It does not divide us. If the professor talks the ordinary person understands, fully. What you have is a mechanical or should I say technical insight into your national foreign language. You must be limited in what you can understand in any foreign language. The most tragic thing is what you can do with it. What you lift from a foreign language as knowledge can only be applied if translated into the mother tongue. Creativity requires flair, uninhibited fantasy and freedom. You roam in it before you can do wonderful things in arts, science and technology. When you lose your language you have lost all that. You will always be inferior to those whose language you use. You will always be trying to ape them. You can never measure up to them. They will treat you as their toddlers to bring up and you will not be able to get out of their tutelage. They are patronizing to you and you must accept it to be able learn from them.
To you in Nigeria, English language can only be a thing to brag with, to show off your erudition and prove that you are better than others. But it is not a viable working tool. It sets one person against the other in a useless competition that kills your sense of solidarity and cooperation. If you look into your country, you will see that people are in stiff competition with one another over everything. That sets up a scramble for every thing which you wrongly term corruption. People will find it difficult to uphold others. It is going to be a society of the survival of the fittest in which nobody survives: They say if I am not the fittest, nobody will be fit. Nobody will survive. All of us will perish. That is the mentality of people who use foreign languages, which keeps them in permanent state of underdevelopment.
The girl was a student of psychology at the University of Oslo, Norway. She was studying at the doctorate level. I have exchanged a few letters with her since I returned in which she was still updating me on her recent thoughts about what she calls “the language predicament of your country”. It is a national calamity to her. She cannot bring herself to understand why Igbo cannot be used in Igbo land and yet you are such indomitable lot, populous enough to be a country of your own. Her own country is only 4 million. Another country north of hers is 360,000. They use their language. Her latest thought is another question on how we cope with the cost of education based on a foreign language. She said it is impossible. We can never pay for books that will go round to millions in all the subjects, at all levels, most of which have to be imported. How do you cope with the large number of drop outs that must and are entitled to reject a difficult foreign language, who are by no means unintelligent or foolish, but are only limited by a foreign language when they could have succeeded by using their own language?
Why must a foreign language be imposed on them? It is an abuse of their fundamental human right, to use the foreign language, and deny them the use of their own language. How can we manage the use of a foreign language and know it so well that we can teach it competently to all the people in the country. For according to her national development will be a lost cause if 100% of Nigerians are not perfectly English-speaking. But this is impossible, she affirmed.
Recently, the white girl wrote me, asking another hard question, reminding me of a long forgotten issue: “I heard your President who is Hausa-speaking, giving his interview in the BBC, not in English, but in his native Hausa. Does that mean he cannot express his thoughts in English, the proud foreign national language of his people and country? Then why does he preside over a country that must use a foreign language in which he cannot express himself? Or is he projecting his ethnic language? For what purpose is he doing that? What if other Nigerians do the same, speaking their tribal languages, jettisoning English? And since English is the official yardstick for measuring intelligence, knowledge and competence in Nigeria, why would he be doing that? Does he want to be under-rated on those scores for resorting to his native language in the world arena? This act of his has two diametrically opposed implications: English has been recognized by him as incompetent for running the affairs of Nigeria, which is true. Every Nigerian could go over to his/her mother tongue in order to follow the president’s example, and in order to better express his/her thoughts. Without English, let’s see what is left of Nigeria. That would be the ultimate change. It will show the unity (one Nigeria) mantra as a farce after all. A friend is justified to say that at the fullness of time God will intervene in his own way and take care of the complexities, shortcomings and inadequacies of Nigeria. This one is one good sign. To your natural languages, oh, Nigeria. Thanks to the President’s example at the BBC.