The Lame Excuse That English Is Not Our Language

The Lame Excuse That English Is Not Our Language

By Azuka Onwuka

Whenever one makes an effort to ensure that the written and spoken English used in communication is correct, some people always jump in with the lame excuse that English is not our language. As if that is not enough, they add the other angle that what is important is communication, not the correctness of language.

This it-doesn’t-matter mentality is the hallmark of mediocrity. It is such a celebration of mediocrity that has made us a retrogressive nation.

But is it true that English is not our language in Nigeria? Well, let us dissect the position of English in Nigeria.

English was brought to us in Nigeria by the British during colonization. Since then, it has been in use in Nigeria. We understand what people from other ethnic groups say when they speak English. Consequently, English has displaced our indigenous languages to the second place. The three major Nigerian languages of Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba are used to support English.

If English is not our language, what language is used to teach Nigerian students from primary school to the university level? At the primary school level, both the local languages and English are combined to teach the pupils. But from the secondary school level, much of the teaching is expected to be done in English.

What is the language used by the President of Nigeria to address the nation? Since English is not our language, why did Dr Olusegun Obasanjo not address Nigerians in Yoruba when he was president? Why did Alhaji Umaru Musa Yar’Adua not address Nigerians in Fufulde or Hausa? Why did Dr Goodluck Jonathan not address Nigerians in Ogbia? And why does President Muhammadu Buhari not address Nigerians in Fufulde or Hausa? Why did Nigerians react angrily when Buhari spoke to Nigerians in Hausa during the 2017 Eid-el-Fitr while he was on sick leave in London? Since Hausa is “our” language while English is foreign, what was the uproar about?

To take it further, why is our Constitution written in English and not in Hausa or Igbo or Yoruba? Why does the National Assembly (made up of the Senate and the House of Representatives) hold sessions in English alone and not in other Nigerian languages? Are they unpatriotic?

The reason is simple. Even though English was borrowed, it has become Nigeria’s national language. Even if some try to deny it, Nigeria has only ONE national language: English. Hausa is not our national language. Igbo is not our national language. Yoruba is not our national language. Nigerian languages are sectional languages. If any Nigerian president, or senate president, or speaker of the House of Representatives, or a minister were to address the nation in any Nigerian language, Nigerians would react angrily because not everyone would understand what was said. Secondly, it would be seen as an imposition of a sectional language on every Nigerian: an attempt at linguistic supremacy or linguistic colonization.

When a Nigerian leader speaks at the United Nations, or the Commonwealth, or the African Union, or the Economic Community of West African States, he or she has only one language to use: English. It is not optional. It is mandatory.

Nigeria is an English-speaking country. English is the only language that can be used to communicate with Nigerians on the national level without any complaints or protest.

If that is the case, how then is English not “our” language? How then is English a “foreign” language among Nigerians?

It is a blind argument embarked upon by those who wish to promote mediocrity because they are not confident of their English skills. The English skills of a Nigerian who stopped his or her education at the primary school level or even the secondary level can be excused, but not a person who graduated from the university. What is that person’s excuse?

The truth is that those who argue that English is not our language are not good at speaking and writing their indigenous languages. They simply look for an excuse to hide their spirit of mediocrity. Those who believe in the pursuit of excellence do not give such flimsy excuses, because they know that whatever is worth doing is what doing well. They pay attention to details, because they know that a mistake of one inch can cause a plane crash or an auto crash or the death of a patient being operated upon.

It is even more annoying to hear the shallow argument that after all, the Russians, Germans, Japanese and others are great even though they don’t speak English. English is not the only language in the world. The Germans speak German because German is their national language. The Japanese speak Japanese because that is their national language. It is the language spoken by the majority of the people; so it is used as the official language of the nation.

It is not the same in Nigeria. If anybody wants to stop speaking and writing in English in Nigeria, the person should push for the dissolution of Nigeria and the emergence of ethnic groups as countries. If the Hausas or the Igbos or the Yorubas or the Efiks were to be one country, English may not be their number one language. If we use an independent Yoruba country as an example, the Yoruba lawmakers can deliberate in Yoruba; their head of state will deliver the Independence Day speech or New Year’s speech in Yoruba language. Their president can deliver his speech at the United Nations or African Union in Yoruba, with an interpreter interpreting for other heads of state. Chemistry, biology, physics or history will be taught in school in Yoruba. No child will be afraid of speaking in class for fear of being laughed at. Yoruba or Igbo or Hausa can be projected and marketed among other nations and become global languages.

There was a time English was seen as the language for the vulgar (or the riffraff). Those who had class and learning spoke Latin and even Greek. For example, William Shakespeare was initially ridiculed because he was said to have knowledge of “small Latin and less Greek.” William Tyndale who translated the Bible into English was burnt at the stake in 1536 for bringing the “Word of God” to ridicule by translating it into the low-class English “mother tongue”.

Today, Latin and the old Greek spoken some two thousand years ago are dead, while English is the most popular language in the world. It happened because the United Kingdom rose as a military power and an economic power and marketed her language across the world. Nigeria has no common language except English to market. So we are stuck with English.

In addition, among the English or the Americans or Canadians who have English as the indigenous language, they also have to strive to learn how to speak and write it correctly according to the rules of English. People from Africa and Asia who learnt English as a second language go to these three countries, where English is indigenous, to teach them English. Therefore, if Igbo or Hausa or Yoruba or Urhobo were to be the official language of a country, rules would still guide the writing of such languages. The indigenous people would still have to learn how to write the language correctly.  Many people would still fail exams conducted in such indigenous but national languages.

As long as Nigeria is together as one country, there is no other language that can be used in official national communication but English. As the English say, you can’t have your cake and eat it!

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