A recent article in The Guardian of the UK, titled “Why it’s time to stop worrying about the decline of the English language,” critically outlines the issues regarding the possibility of a breakdown in communication due to the deterioration in the quality of the English language spoken in the world today. This is even more glaring due to the advent of the social media and the bastardization of what we now know as the Queen’s English and the imperatives of received pronunciation. The writer took a long historical survey of similar worries at several juncture in history, and how scholars and intellectuals have worried about lowering the quality of the language. In the age of globalisation, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and instant messaging, the grammatical structure of the English language is being assaulted in all its semantic and syntactic aspects by junk words and meaningless syllables that corrupt what we mean and what we say. The issue behind the worry is essentially how to ensure that communication and meaning are not destroyed by the lowering of linguistic standards. By talking of “future plans,” “past history,” “new initiative,” “safe havens,” or “live survivors,” we are already undermining the integrity of the language. Yet, the writer was insistent that those who fear the degeneration of English do not understand linguistic flexibility and how languages acquire sophistication.
Why is this analysis important for an institutional reformer in Nigeria? Institutional reform demands that there are significant dimensions of a nation’s life that must be factored into the national development process. From women to the youth, and from a state’s intellectuals to her educational system, there is a need to calibrate a systematic reform framework that ensures that a state is aware of all the elements that enables her to achieve good governance on behalf of the people. One is tempted to say it takes little reflection to see the place of language in national development. While this is so for other countries, the case of Africa, and specifically Nigeria, is different. And the reason is not far-fetched. Africa’s encounter with colonialism foisted on the continent an amalgamation process that spelt postcolonial crisis in terms of social cleavages along ethnic, religious, cultural and particularly linguistic lines. In Nigeria, for example, there are more than four hundred languages and dialects competing for national attention. It therefore become a pragmatic consideration to retain English or French or Portuguese as the lingua franca in different regions of the continent.
It is at this point that English as a colonial language enters into the discourse on national development in Nigeria. The argument has always been that a foreign language cannot interact with the indigenous dynamics of a culture or a society in ways that would engender proper development for the people. The advocates of what we can call the mother tongue development thesis hold strongly to the point that a people can only be reached at the level of their understanding; and what best avenue to do this than through their indigenous languages. As far as the development discourse go, this is a solid argument that speaks to one dimension of the development issues. But then, reform thinking has never been founded on unilinear thinking about anything. The business of institutional reform demands a rounded perspective that takes insights from multiple levels. In this case, the indigenous or mother tongue thesis lacks the immediacy demanded by Nigeria’s development troubles. In other words, there are so many dimensions of the development impasse that the thesis fails to speak to directly. This is where we need commence our rethinking of the role of English language in our development plan.
The further point to make is that English, as a colonial language, has interacted sufficiently with our cultural realities to be considered effectively a Nigerian language. And this is where I begin to draw specific import of the essay on the decline of the language and how it relates with the Nigerian development realities. The first, and the most significant I want to deduce, derives from the worries which the writer of the essay on the decline of the English language tries to dispel. This is that even the owners of the Queen’s English are critically concerned about the quality of the language as a means of communication and social interaction. This is a valid point of anxiety because there is a sense in which it is language that holds the society together. Thus, if the language of communication breaks down, then the fear of social anomie increases. In the same breath, there is a sense in which English serves as the critical linguistic thread that holds Nigeria together as a coherent linguistic entity. Thus, it becomes legitimate for us to then ask about the state of proficiency of the language in a state where it is the language of administration and education.
English is already implicated in the way we think, our policymaking processes, our educational and pedagogical dynamics and or administrative framework. Does it not stand to reason therefore that we should be concerned about its expressive capacity in our national context? Take our pedagogic framework as a good example. Education, and specifically higher education, in Nigeria is conducted in the English language. And from this sector we feed many other sectors of the Nigerian national life. The problem however is that our mastery of the language that would have facilitated easy communication in commerce, industry and administration is undermined by inadequate expressive capacity. We have graduates who do not have a proper mastery of the language. Even worse, we have graduates of English who cannot speak English. And to further complicate matters, we have policy makers who do not understand the finer details of the role that language plays in administration and governance. Thus, we see how from pedagogy down to employment and the practical side of policymaking, the deployment of proper linguistic training constitutes a large part of making development work for Nigerians. If we then take seriously the argument about the possibility of the English language declining, it become a more fundamental worry for a country where English is the lingua franca. This mere possibility therefore becomes a call to arm in terms of the direction of Nigeria’s education reform. While the need to facilitate the visibility of Nigeria’s indigenous languages remains fundamental, it is equally an urgent reform issue to rethink the role that English plays in Nigeria’s determination of educational and administrative excellence.
The next issue concerns the relationship of English to Nigeria’s strategic and comparative advantage as a regional power in Africa. And here, the same point I made for the relevance of the English language addresses the relevance of French language in Nigeria’s curricular dynamics. Teaching English or French addresses the pragmatic understanding of relationship not only in terms of interethnic or intercultural communication or relations, it also speaks to interregional and bilateral trade dynamics. And this is all the more so in terms of the French language. In Africa, there are 31 Francophone countries with an estimated 120 million Africans who speak some varieties of French and those who have it as either a first or second language. This makes Africa the continent with the highest number of French speakers in the world. Nigeria as an English-speaking state is sandwiched between the 24 Anglophone and the 31 Francophone African states. It, therefore, becomes a fundamental point of diplomatic pragmatism for Nigeria to consider the place of French as a legitimate, but strategic curricular deployment to facilitate trade and diplomatic relations in a continent where a larger portion of the states are Francophone.
The refusal to implement the teaching of French as a significant concession to the pragmatic reading of Nigeria’s international relations dynamics, and diplomatic philosophy could only remain as a sentimental but futile refusal. It does not emanate from a deep and clear interpretation of how our African-centric worldview and, indeed, national interests could be properly facilitated and promoted through an instrumental understanding of the role the French language would play in our penetration of the trade space of the French-speaking African countries. In terms of policy recommendation, therefore, this argument speaks to the need to push a diplomatic reform that enables Nigeria rethink her foreign policy dynamics. For instance, how should we begin to see the linguistic skills and competence of an average diplomat in Nigeria? How, for instance, should we commence the reconfiguration of Nigeria’s foreign relation institutional apparatuses in ways that will enable Nigeria properly projects her continental leadership?
I recommend the commencement of a reform conversation between the Nigerian Institute for International Affairs and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as other strategic stakeholders on the strategic role that English and the French languages can play in facilitating the strengthening of Nigeria’s regional leadership on the continent, especially in terms of bilateral and multilateral trade relations. This is one dimension of Nigeria’s national development that has been subordinated to the mother tongue discourse for too long. It is high time we began to extricate it for its pragmatic utility.
- Professor Olaopa writes via email@example.com