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Second language difficulties

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And still they gazed and still the wonder grew
That one small head could carry all he knew!”
The Deserted Village by Oliver Goldsmith

Language as a determining factor in national development is still not understood by the planners, the executors and the politicians. It is the problem of English, of French and of Portuguese. To continue to think that the colonies of these languages could use these languages to develop is to think wrong. And the evidence is there for all to see. There is a general lack of development, human and infrastructural.

Let’s begin with Education. It should but it did not occur to the excolonial subjects that the same language which had continued to belittle them could also grow them through education. Going through the education syllabus of the colonial master was wrong. And to use the colonial language to do it was madness. Yet, what indigenous language could they use that would embrace all ethnic groups of the multi ethnic newly minted nation-state?

After colonisation, the ex colony needed restoration therapy. The colonial languages that have inflicted such deadly wounds could not be the curative. Yet every one of the educated elite took pride in their knowledge of the colonial language.

And what did they know in these languages? In the English speaking areas of West Africa their English was bombastic. And in many cases it was show off, boasting that preferred Dr. Johnson’s that “Rome was not built in a day” was inferior to “the metropolis of Italy was not accomplished in the single cycle of the sun” or words to that effect. They were the people, these initial elite of British Education, who exemplified that Oliver Goldsmith couplet from the Deserted Village about the teacher:
“And still they gazed and still the wonder grew
That one small head could carry all he knew.”

There was no consciousness of the British industrial revolution in the colonised persons’ education. And was the subject even on their syllabus?

The colonial policy of destroying local indigenous industry such as the various smiths – gold, silver, bronze – did not help matters. The educated elite made to despise its own history and inheritance did not care much for local political sagacity especially in its subtle anti-colonialism.

At the same time this elite hardly knew much about the vaunted western political liberalism supposedly being the engine of western civilisation. Besides politics, there was the issue of administration. The conflict that destroyed the civil service and vanquished the educated professionals under the military is still to be chronicled. All of these areas covered by the English language did not reveal themselves to the colonial subject. A study of the manifestoes of African political parties fighting for independence shows vagueness in the area of economic planning and industrialisation.

It is not as if the colonial powers were particularly interested in advancing the economic independence of these ex colonial nation states. After all they wanted the statues-quo of colony status to continue after independence.

These issues might seem unrelated to second language difficulties of independent African countries. Yet, they are related. It is just that the conclusions made about mother tongue Education does not have the consequence of moderating the role of colonial languages in the Education, administration and the political manipulation of the ex colonial subject now a citizen of an independent country. There ought to be a consequence on the fact that mother tongue Education is best. Instead, it is as if we say o yes we know but it is much easier to go on with second language education. It will do for us. From whence comes the courage to follow through on what we know is best for us?

Just as we do not allow consequences in mother tongue conclusions, we do not permit it in second language usage either. And the greatest difficult exists here. Is it true that second language planning, second language administration, second language politicking are really inferior to mother tongue planning, administration, politicking? Is the use of second language like the use of second hand clothing, tokunbo vehicles, tyres, spark plugs, shoes, all second hand hand-me-down soiled things?

Even if all this was true, what is the alternative? Take Nigeria. There are over 250 languages. There is no financial wisdom in using all these languages in education, in administration, in politics. It is impossible. And to chose any of the languages of the bigger ethnic groups is to impose colonial status on the small ethnic ones. This is also intolerable and it is unacceptable. In such a situation what is to be done? The minorities would prefer the second language option. No ethnic group in Nigeria owns it.

What happens to the unity of the country when each big ethnic group chooses to use its own language in its own area of control? Willy-nilly, every non-speaker of that language must either learn the language or else go back to his or her own language land.

The conclusion must be reached that whatever the logic of mother tongue decision might be for now the language of Nigerian possibility is none other than English, the second hand language we battle to use for our good. Being second hand it is diminished. It is soiled. It is not the best. It cannot do for us what a first class, totally our own language can do for us. And do it for us without our feeling diminished by using something previous used by someone else.

So, when we ask that question again: what is to be done? We must answer with the statement that we must make English our language. We must take it by scoff of its neck and push it to obey us, just as it has obeyed others who have achieved with it. We have to achieve with it. Education. Industrialisation. Moral high ground.

And what about our much beloved mother tongue logic? Long ago, when we matched into the class rooms in the morning we used to sing, to boom boom of the big drum,
A o soyinbo yes!
A o sodewa aree
We will speak English, yes!
And speak Yoruba as well!!

It is not a world of either English or Yoruba. It is a world the abundance of English and the plenitude of Yoruba. Human and physical infrastructure must be made available to ensure the bounties of both.
bankole.omotoso@elizadeuniversity.edu.ng


In this article:
Kole Omotoso
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