What “self”? Is English my father’s language?


By Ganiu Bamgbose

You most likely have heard this from someone or said it to someone as a Nigerian. The answer is a straightforward “NO”! English cannot be your father’s language as a Nigerian. Even if your father scolds you for speaking his father’s language and commends you for speaking another person’s father’s language (I mean English), English is definitely still not your father’s language. Even if as a Nigerian you now speak English as your mother tongue, well, it is not your father’s language. Now that we all know that as Nigerians, English was never, is never and can never be our father’s language, what’s the palaver?

The focus of this short piece is the double standard of many Nigerian speakers of English who cannot clearly map out their personal language policies. Many, if not most, urban residents in Nigeria adopt English as the language of the home. The use of English in some homes is sacrosanct and its violation is sacrilegious. Siblings could even threaten to report one another to their parents for speaking vernacular. Some of us even grew up assuming vernacular is a negative word. That’s because we got beaten at home and in school for speaking our indigenous languages. On the contrary, the adults around us who impose the English language on us as if it were the certificate to make heaven don’t speak it among themselves. Parents wine and dine with their native languages. Teachers speak the forbidden vernacular in their staff rooms. At the end, since we young people are not allowed to speak vernacular and it is what we hear around, we end up translating vernacular into English and confidently utter sentences such as: come now now, I am coming back, I want to baff, “ominipotent” God. Then, when we get confronted by how the language should be spoken or fail exams repeatedly, we then lament that ENGLISH IS NOT OUR FATHER’S LANGUAGE!

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This essay is a piece of advice to all Nigerians and other second language speakers of English. As long as English is taken as the language of the home in a home which is not an English home and a society that does not reflect the worldview of the English people, a large population of the speakers will be mediocre speakers of the English language. Young people acquire languages while adult learn languages. Every child can acquire a minimum of two languages conveniently and a simultaneous acquisition from the early stage helps them to set the features of the languages apart. The National Policy on Education in Nigeria states that children should be taught in the language of the environment until primary 3. I have not seen a single school that adheres to this. Children who are forced to speak English at homes and in schools in a community where the worldview is different from what obtains in native English communities will lose on both ends. They won’t speak their native language well and they will also be poor users of English. An exposure into their world with the language of that world makes it easier to find equivalents for the experiences of their world in other languages. It is evident that the surviving generation of Nigerians who spoke their mother tongues before the English language cannot be rivalled by the younger/recent generation of English speakers.

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However, if modernity and sophistication won’t let you expose your child to your native language first, help them grow as Bilinguals who simultaneously acquire both languages to avoid being neither here nor there.

Ganiu Abisoye Bamgbose (Dr GAB) writes from Ibadan.

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