Sunday, February 18, 2007

In defence of English

What seems to have emerged from people's reaction to the Kalu interview is a disdain for English, or the ability to express one's self in English. English isn't Kalu's first language, so he should be allowed to butcher it the way he did - or so goes the thinking. I had two problems with the interview. First, he couldn't express himself, and second, even if he could, he had nothing to express. It wasn't about accent, because if it was, 99% of Nigerians would fall short of whatever glorious standard people imagine I've set.

OBJ speaks English with a thick okra-consistency Yoruba accent, yet he is very capable of expressing himself. OBJ is a surprisingly competent public speaker. Charles Soludo has an Igbo accent almost as strong as the akpu he probably eats, yet he makes sense when he speaks. Umaru Yar'Adua has a strong accent, Babangida has a strong accent, most Nigerians have strong accents - it's a reality. The case of Kalu was not one of accent, but one of a dearth of ideas. Chxta's analysis is on point.

A politician who cannot tell us what we, as an electorate, get for our vote should move to the backroom. We don't all have to be governor, or president, or senator, we can be advisers. As matter of fact, a leader is only as good as his closest advisers. If he can tell some apparatchik in Igbo, or Hausa, what his ideas for the state are, then fine. If Kalu wants to help Abia state, fine. But don't put his mug on the BBC, and then insult me by telling me this is the face of Abia state.

People in Nigeria forget that English is not just a colonial imposition, but is the egg that binds Nigeria together. I cannot think of anything else Nigerians have in common. The arbitrary colonial borders do not bring Nigeria together, as there are still vastly varying customs, languages, landscapes, an inexhaustible list of differences. This is Nigeria: a vast piece of land, around which Lord Lugard and his people drew a line, and then asked all the people within that line to speak English. It's the story of Africa, and now we have to deal with it.

The Rainbow Nation, South Africa, has 11 official languages, and eight non-official languages. But South Africa has 47 million people, while Nigeria has 140 million. India has 23 different official languages, and its own unique way of giving those languages some usage in system of government communication. The reality is that English and Hindi trump all in the usage stakes. Believe it or not, but even God's own country, the United States, does not have an official language at federal level. It is, however, the de facto language of communication. So wherefore Nigeria?

In Nigeria, nobody is formally educated in any local languages. Igbo, Hausa, and Yoruba are part of the curriculum, taught as foreign languages; rather than science, history, or maths taught in any of those langauges. People fail, or worse, don't do Nigerian languages for O'levels. It's Nigeria's loss. But everything is done in English, yet we are supposed to forgive politicians that cannot interact with us in the only way in which we should all collectively be able.

For those that say, "English is not his first language". I say that is no excuse. In essence, if someone has grown up in Sokoto, and goes to live in Abia state, they will in effect be disenfranchised. They may be within the same country, but they're not being communicated with because Orji Uzo Kalu, the state governor who should have the interests of all residents of his state, regardless of background, has failed to express himself to one of his citizens - as is his duty.

This is not a tirade against indigenous languages, or a declaration of love for Elizabeth Regina's English. I kick myself all the time for not being able to speak Igbo, and I pat myself on the back for the little Yoruba I can speak. The Yoruba that I speak was not as a result of living in Lagos, but came from slugging it out in a boarding school in Ondo state where the language was second nature to everyone. I have never been ashamed of my Nigerian heritage. This is about dealing with the reality of Nigeria as it stands today.

So those who want to forgive our politicians for not speaking English, good luck to you.

20 comments:

azuka said...

Good point Nkem.

Little else needs to be said. Failing woefully as a communicator, it's not surprising we'll seize on and criticize other aspects of his personality -- including the bullet head :-D.

Akin said...

Nkem,

I cannot agree with you more, it is a shame that the commentary regarding Kalu left the issues for the sentimental.

As you say, English is really the language of Nigerian identity as a whole; all the other indigenous languages are symbols of what divides us.

A well written blog, I commend it greatly.

Anonymous said...

Dude! U really hit the point!

sye said...

Nkem, I wish all Nigerians who registered for the forhcoming election can think straight enough as you've done - no sentiments, no ethinicity issue involved.

It seems to be a crime to expect more from our politicians, and this gets more worrying when confronted with the fact that journalists in Nigeria just flows along to make money where possible rather than giving rich analysis like yours.

May I recommend an e-magazine publication that will involve peopleof like mind as you be established. Honestly, that's one of the things we need at this day and age. Akin, please note ...

Have a good week bruv.

Chinyere Igwe said...

Nkem,

As much as I know, the reaction from some quarters with reference to your last article expressed what is partly wrong with Nigeria. The issue wasn’t just about his accent. However the Nigerian way has always been to chase rats when your house is on fire.

The minute we stop accepting below par human beings to represent us in governance (and stop making silly excuses for them), we might stand a chase to reconnect with the real world.

This is a brilliant article. Thanks

My Talking Beginnings said...

Well said nkem, well said!!!

My Talking Beginnings said...

Oh and chinyere, you have not replied me o! lol

Chxta said...

Nice one Nkem. I think this case should be wrapped up now.

Chxta said...

Today is day one of the Orji Kalu asset list release countdown. Please let's keep our eyes open for it. If it comes out as a paid advert in a Naija newspaper, can we be informed? Thank you very much...

Anonymous said...

Not too late for you to learn Igbo.

the flying monkeys said...

true African shirts!

To me, it was like the queen coming on Nigeria tv and granting an interview in yoruba/igbo...how would she express herself?

I think the following may be a strange opinion however...he should have employed the services of a western educated igbo interpreter...

That would undoubtedly have brought more honour had he conducted the interview in igbo...

The Oni of Ife would never grant any interview to the western media in any language other than yoruba...

I do not think the French president would have done otherwise...

Excellent piece.

kemi said...

Flying monkeys is still missing the point.

The Oni of Ife is a Yoruba ruler, he does not and is not running to be president of Nigeria.

Anybody who aspires to lead a nation of over 300 languages should speak VERY WELL the official language of the country.

How can you ask people to vote for you if they cannot understand you?

BBC may be "Western Media" but it is watched all over the world and more importantly by MILLIONS of Nigerians. The average Westerner would not have been as interested in the Orji Kalu interview as the average Nigerian.

My Talking Beginnings said...

I See the point raised by the flying monkeys. My father used to say, speak in the language you are most familiar with and you will be in control of the conversation!

TRAE said...

i can understand your view that you weren't against the guys accent but agianst the fact that he wasn't eloquent...had no ideas and totally failed in his bid to market himself as a presidential candidate.

but having read a lot of your past write ups and with a title like "Gogo Ett" it's evident that quite a substantial part of why you wrote the guy off is actually cos of his "igbotic speech". seems to me you hate all things not perfect Queens English.

April said...

"Charles Soludo has an Igbo accent almost as strong as the akpu he probably eats..."

Classic!

Well said Nkem (re the entire post), I totally agree with you.

Akin said...

What exactly is the Queen's English?

One rarely hears anyone speak with Received Pronunciation (RP) nowadays, in fact, expect a derisive look if your natural accent has been ditched for a POSH showing.

When I am in Nigeria, people think I have an English accent and when in the UK, they think I have an accent they cannot place so place me in a class usually above theirs.

When I am seriously stressed my accent as a kid comes out, this is a West Midlands accent which is considered one of the least desirable of the traditional English accents.

However, one does know when to use RP to open doors and gain access.

The real issue however is for a politician to understand that when speaking to a public audience you should be conveying ideas, hopes, promises and the concept of a useful future.

You do not have to be eloquent, but you must be articulate and there are many with rotten accents who speak perfect sense.

In the case of Kalu Orji Kalu, he was not articulate and we had to fall back on his eloquence which was also lacking - he had no ideas - so he laid himself bare to the just attacks on his views, his person, his presentation and his demeanour - even if he spoke the "Emperor's English" he would not have fared better, it would have been better sounding rubbish.

And that is still RUBBISH!

Get to the facts and issues and lay off the annoyingly emotionally sentimental.

Fred said...

Hear, hear!

the idiots said...

Akin you may come accross as uncouth, but you undoubtedly are the most ignorant of persons I have come accross. What a shame you are.

Ms zee said...

I must disagree with Trae, the official language in Nigeria is English. I wrote a 2.5 page letter in English language stating why I did not have to pay $5000 a semester to learn Englsih as a second language before coming to Canada. I was asked to do an interview which I passed. I did not have to sit for the interview , as soon as I walked in and introduced myself, I was asked if I schooled in the UK . No Sir I repliedm I learnt English in Nigeria . I believe anyone who is going to rule the Nation needs to speak good English accent or not. We all have accents; when my professors tell me they dont understand what I am saying because my accent is different I simply tell them they also have an accent and diffuse the situation..

In other words.. Go learn the Official Language!!

Aimie said...

would it make any difference if our politicians spoke in their native tongue and had someone translating into English for them