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Declining English language use by Nigerians – Part 2


PHOTO: Universum

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 thirty one 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 twenty four Anglophone and the thirty one 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 francophonie.

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 enable Nigeria rethinks 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.

Olaopa, a retired federal permanent secretary and Professor of Public Administration, wrote from Ibadan.


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