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Of widow’s might and the law taking its place!

By Kole Omotoso
28 January 2018   |   3:40 am
The state and condition of use of English in English speaking Africa has become problematic. Language as the instrument of thought needs to be clear, simple, plain and consistent.

The state and condition of use of English in English speaking Africa has become problematic. Language as the instrument of thought needs to be clear, simple, plain and consistent. That African thoughts in the English speaking parts of the continent have become unclear, difficult, obtuse and inconsistent has to do with the use of English. So, should the local African languages jump in and save African thoughts for Africa?

Unfortunately, the African languages are not there to save the day. Given the African unconscious language policy of learning one language and forgetting the previous one African languages have been lost by their previous speakers. This situation has led to the those who speak English do not speak any African language while those who speak African languages do not speak English. There is therefore a state of a language-less vacuum. Those who know should tell us if this is the same thing in French speaking, Portuguese speaking and Swahili speaking rest of Africa.

English use in Nigeria is in a mess, and at a time when many English graduates specialise in English grammar, English and linguistics and the technical aspects of the English language. It would seem that the better we’ve got at the technical aspect of English, the worse we’ve become in the use of the machine called English language. Of course we know now that the shift to linguistics and the mechanics of English is a dodge to avoid reading anything in English!

The first Department of English was set up in 1948 at the University College Ibadan. That programme as it was emphasised the massive consumption of English Literature. First year was devoted to the English Novel, Poetry and Dramatic writing. Second year was devoted to Shakespeare and the third year was devoted to Literary Criticism. This diet produced some of the best writers in Nigeria, which is to be expected. But it also produced an average user of English who was competent and clear in the use of English. It was the age of pen-friends and letter writing. There were even professional letter writers such as Royanson in T.M. Aluko’s One Man, One Wife.

The shock to the English Departments across the continent started in East Africa when Ngugi and others insisted that Africa must read its own writing. That movement gave rise to English Literatures, multiple Literatures across the board.

English in England Literature took a back stage and fewer and fewer speakers and writers of English quoted from the source. Fewer and fewer readers bothered about English Literature from England. No longer were speakers and writers of English familiar with

“And still they gazed and still the wonder grew
That one small head could carry all he knew!”
This is not to say that the new did not delight.
“God Almighty bless my soul
How many chicken did I stole?
Ten last night
Ten the night before
And I’m going out tonight
To steal some more!”

From here onwards, disaster struck because the empire, as they say in the lingo, the empire struck back. Bad English is also good for the Revolution. The result today is unclear, obtuse, difficult and ungrammatical English.

What about the unconscious subtractive African Language learning policy? In Nigeria kindergarten babies are taught a subject called “Etiquette”. In English and it includes learning how to eat with knife and fork at age two and thereabouts. They are not taught “Omoluabi” precepts and concepts but English etiquette. Some parents are happy. Other parents are not so happy that their children are not learning to speak Yoruba or whatever other language available. So, we learn English and subtract our previous language. In other climes and other places of pride their conscious language policy is additive, you add a new language to the new one learnt.

The next shock to the English language, at least in Nigeria was the switch to linguistics and the mechanics of the English language. Suddenly, it was discovered that you did not have to read those fat novels and thread through those lines of poetry or care much about waiting or not waiting for godot to get degrees of masters and doctorates. Everybody and their uncle moved to linguistics and some aspects of language mechanics.

There were consequences. Literature was ignored and finally left out of English departments. There was a reported argument where a final year English student at one of our public universities spoke about Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe being a play. A visiting professor marked this as wrong and penalised the student. The most senior members of the department rose in defence of the student saying that it was not a serious mistake, just a small oversight which can be overlooked! The visiting professor insisted that it would be a tragic day for English in Nigeria when a graduate of English cannot distinguish between a novel and a play. The department would have none of that and stood by the student and cancellation of the penalty against him.

As if the legal profession knew what was happening in the country, that is, that teachers were no longer reading literary texts and so students were no longer reading naively, plays and poems, insisted that prospective law students must score credit in English Literature to study Law at the university. After all you need to read tomes in the profession of law and if you have not learnt to do so through reading literature how else would you learn it?

English programmes need to be re-designed in Nigerian universities to recapture the reading of English Literatures, the reading of novels, plays and poems. Such re-designing must now include English and its various grammars and phonetics, English Literatures that would include African Literatures, United States of America Literatures, Asian Literatures, Caribbean Literatures, Latin American Literatures. All these can further divide into different countries Literatures in English and in English translations. In addition, Creative writing needs to be added as part and parcel of the English department, not as some esoteric aspect cocooned in a separate enclave. Under this creative writing would be different types of creative uses of the English language consequent on reading English literature that would teach that it is the widow’s mite and that the law must take its course!

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