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The English Student In Africa (3)

Posted: Nov 3, 2015 at 12:00 am   /   by   /   comments (0)


By Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye,, 08112662685

It may be stated here that this essay is not a contribution to the language controversy that has plagued African literature right from its cradle, a controversy, one may dare say, that has almost irredeemably become trite even before it has been successfully resolved.  Nor am I here to emphasize the already over-stressed obvious point that for Africans or even Nigerians, with their multi-lingual and multi-cultural environment to continue to hear each other and ensure unhindered communication and mutual intelligibility, they will have to remain condemned to the use of this language shared by a majority, a language that cuts across the ethnic and linguistic blocks that make up their domain.

I think I am only concerned here with the English student, the obstacles that stand between him and his learning of English and the need for him to overcome those obstacles in order to make a success of his learning since he has voluntarily decided to study English.

We have so far secured two re-assurances, namely, that a Nigerian or simply a non-Englander can answer an English student comfortably without engendering any confusion about his nationality; and that if a non-Englander writes any work in English, the mere fact that he wrote in English cannot be a justifiable reason from appropriating his work into the body of the literature of England.  We may then have to insist that the English Student, whether in Africa or anywhere, has no choice but to endeavour to learn to speak and write English well or else, he should not have bothered nearing an English Department of a university or college in the first place.

But, the belly-aching truth, which has exploded us in the face today is that many English students do not try to go beyond speaking and writing semi-literate English.  What makes this situation so bad is that in this trying era of decolonization and recolonization, cultural nationalism and domestications of foreign languages, the English student may hide under one of these slogans to justify his inability to do well in a course he freely chose for himself.  Achebe’s statement during his famous 1965 lecture at the University of Ghana , Legon,  that “The price a world language must be prepared to pay is submission to many different kinds of uses” appears to have opened the floodgate for a lot of crazy experimentations with the English language.  And I am certainly not thinking about Amos Tutuola here!

When Tutuola hit the literary world with his Palm-Wine Drinkard (1952), Western critics decided that he wrote in “young” and “infant” English.  In fact, a certain Tom Hopkinson excitedly spoke of the emergence of a “new ‘mad’ African writing” produced by those who “don’t learn English; they don’t study the rules of grammar; they just tear right into it and let the splinters fly.” Prof Bernth Lindfors was to observe much later in the book, Critical Perspectives On Amos Tutuola, that “No one has tried to imitate Tutuola’s  writing, and no one probably ever will.  He is not the sort of writer who attracts followers or founds a school… In this sense he is a literary dead end.”

How untrue!  So many English students have consciously enlisted in Tutuola’s school (innocently founded by him) and Tom Hopkinson’s statement will more appropriately describe them today.  At least, Tutuola never for once answered an English student.  Achebe observed that Tutuola had “turned his apparent limitation in language into a weapon of great strength — half-strange dialect that serves him perfectly in the evocation of his bizarre world”  (see Achebe, Morning Yet On Creation Day, p.61).  One hopes that no English student aims at being applauded in these, one must say, no less glowing terms!

I want to state here in passing that the excitement and even applause the late Ken Saro Wiwa attracted because of the language of his novel, SOZABOY, not withstanding, his rule-less and syntax-less language is the best example of how not to domesticate English.  It lacks an audience and fits in properly as the best false step in the bids to evolve an indigenous language that will replace colonial languages.  The style is escapist since it has no rules, therefore, no basis for evaluation.  It cannot even be said to be addressed to the barely literate Nigerians whose ‘language’ the novel purports to use since it may even demand high academic attainment to even understand it.

So, it is a futile, defeatist rebellion against a colonial language, one which is even insidious to the African learner of English since many may now either emulate him or use his paradigm to explain away their ineptitude.  If Mr. Ken Saro Wiwa had not been hanged on October 10, 1995, on the orders of late Gen Sani Abacha, it would have been interesting to watch Saro Wiwa to also try and disorganise his Ogoni language in his next book in order to see how many people that would understand him?  Or is it only English that is fit for mutilation?  The challenge now is for all those African and European scholars who have made so much din about the book’s astounding literary, linguistic or stylistic merits to go ahead and further the work that Late Ken had pioneered by extending his brilliant model to their own indigenous languages.  We are waiting.

When Prof Chinua Achebe talked about subjecting English to different kinds of uses, it is clear from his works what he meant.  B. I. Chukwukere explains Achebe’s language-use thus, (seeAfrican Literature Today vol. 3 p. 19):

“Part of the greatness of Achebe, part of the pleasure we get in reading him, lies in the very fact that he has a sure and firm control of his English, exemplified particularly in his rendering of Ibo language-processes  — idioms, imagery, syntax and so forth  –into English.  The characters speak in a manner any Ibo or allied language-speaker would easily recognize as natural to them… Achebe neither rudely shocks nor seriously wounds the basic English sentence-pattern or sentence-structure, and at the same time he does not reduce the fundamental Igbo language idiom, sound and flow, to obscurity.”

In short, what Achebe has done was to achieve some local colour for his English without endangering international intelligibility of his work.  In this sense, Achebe is a good model for many learners of the English Language.

Now, the point is that most English students who have failed to perform well in their studies are not just those who have consciously decided to speak and write like the hero of Saro-Wiwa’s Sozaboy.  Complete honesty demands that we concede that many genuine, but clearly avoidable and surmountable obstacles, stand on the way of our English students, especially, in this part of the world.  One of these genuine obstacles is certainly not this naïve obsession in some English students today to evolve what they call “Nigerian English”(whatever that means). I wonder how I would feel if some Englishman shuffles onto my presence tomorrow and attempts to address me in what he calls “English Igbo” or “Anglicised Igbo”, which I may have some difficulty in understanding! Please, spare me the joke.

Truth is that for any language to be understood by all who share its codes, it must possess some established set of rules. And once these rules are flouted by any user, whether in the spirit of domestication, decolonization or nationalism, the language automatically loses its capability to be mutually intelligible. We must also concede that the English student is not exempted from the poor background in education which our public (and even private) schools have become such experts in giving out to their pupils.  Good teachers who write and speak English well are increasingly disappearing from our landscape.

But the student who decides to study English in an institution of higher learning should endeavour to purge himself of the poor English he had imbibed in primary and secondary schools. For instance, for him to articulate literate English speech, he must without delay identify the instances of mother-tongue interferences in the English he produces and try hard to overcome them. It is common knowledge that because of the absence of certain English speech sounds in most Africa languages, the African speaker of English tends to do what linguists and phoneticians have called Sound Substitutions while speaking English. That accounts for the reason the words “tank” and “thank” are not pronounced as different words by many learners of English.

Indeed, the target of the African learner of English should be to realize what Anke Nutsukpo calls  “Educated West African Standard English Speech”.  In it, “vowels, diphthongs and consonants are accurate in quality, and length (where necessary); sound clusters are fairly accurate, stress, rhythm and voice modulation are accurate.  Intelligibility is of a high level…” In fact, this is the closest approximation to what is called the Received Pronunciation (RP) English speech sounds.

…To be concluded next Tuesday