By Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye
Perhaps, it is worth stating that in resolving to use the phrase “The English Student” to refer to my subject in this essay, I am quite conscious of the fact that I have chosen to make myself vulnerable to misunderstanding and misrepresentation as to whom I am actually referring, at least, in this outset. But then, the phrase suits my taste perfectly and I can only volunteer some explanations to clear the ambiguity my choice has already created.
For instance, you would earn an instant forgiveness if you have already concluded that I am referring to a student from England. After all, does the mere mention of a Nigerian student not immediately leave you with the unmistakable impression that a student from Nigeria is being referred to? Or is an American student or Kenyan student not simply a student of American or Kenyan origin? What remains to be done here is to remind us that while English can refer to both a person from England and his language, the same cannot be said of Nigerian, Kenyan or American. One is yet to hear of a single language called Nigerian or American. We only have many languages known as Nigerian languages, the word “Nigerian” alone not yet being the name of a single language just as English is. And there is nothing yet derogatory or backward about it, in either case.
Countless authorities on English and acclaimed English textbooks are unanimous in their statement of what English is and who the English are. Every definition seeks to re-confirm that English is a people’s nationality as well as their language. A. S. Hornby’s Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary states that the English are “the people of England (sometimes wrongly used to mean the British, i.e. to include the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish)”. Further, Hornby declares that English is equally “the language of England, used in Britain, most countries of the British Commonwealth, the USA and some other countries.” Indeed, various respected English text books do not show any disagreement with Hornby.
Many universities in Nigeria and Africa now have English departments and English has since been engaging serious attention as a subject of study and a language of instruction in our schools and colleges. It may even be observed that many students in these parts prefer to know English more as a subject offered in schools alongside other subjects like Geography, Igbo, Physics, Sociology, etc, than as any other thing. And because of this, it seems too natural for us (and we have all become so used to it) to refer to any student offering English as a course of study in any of our colleges as “the English Student” just as we have the “History Student”, the “French Student” or the “Economics Student”. We have always assumed that no one is left in doubt as to what we mean. In fact, little or no thought is even spared for the semantic ambiguity we are creating. Again, it is equally assumed that any one hearing of our “English departments” will not be deluded into thinking they are merely centres where researches and studies are carried out on England, her people, language and culture or subsidiaries of English embassies in the countries where they are located. It may even be added here that Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa and French which also serve to represent a people’s language as well as their homeland enjoy this dual classification and role as English does. Hence we occasionally hear of “Igbo department,” French teachers” or “Yoruba students” in our schools and colleges.
It would have been so good to proceed with the main issue of this discourse with the refreshing feeling that the initial ambiguity occasioned by the use of the phrase “the English Student” has been cleared if there was not a more worrisome angle to this issue of misrepresenting and misplacing anything with the word “English” prefixed to it. In fact, this has nothing to do with lexical, structural or semantic ambiguity as any fair-minded person would expect. One may not even make a strong case for obtuseness. Rather, it all has to do with an attitude born of colonial hangover and ill-defined owner-of-all mentality which inform the line of reasoning of a certain group of “experts” who are heir to an attractive but specious criticism that insists with temerity that any work done or expressed in English belongs to the English people, i.e., the people of England. Some have even widened the English constituency to include all Europe and even the entire Western world, deliberately and conveniently forgetting that English also came to some of those “advanced” nations the same way it came to Africa. (Merrian-Webster Collegiate Dictionary says that English is the language of “many areas now or formerly under British control,” and this does not apply to Africa or the so-called first world alone). Indeed, this contrived and simulated misconception which has attained dogmatic status is propagated with even greater intensity and renewed vigour to the utter discomfort of some English students and some African writers.
ENGLAND: The Original Home Of English
It is with mild surprise that Africans watch some literary colonizers, who are of completely different and even strange cultures and who possess different values and experiences, as they spread their hands in clumsy attempts to appropriate works and records of other peoples’ cultures, values and experiences because of the lame reason that they are expressed in “their” language. It is (at least in my view) the same spirit and motive that led to the colonization of the peoples that own those cultures, values and experiences that are now informing the bid to indirectly recolonize them by appropriating their works and records. In fact one looks forward with bated breath these days to seeing a Ghanaian who knows and speaks only English and whose parents spoke only English while bringing him into this world being declared an Englander with full rights and privileges. That will perfectly dovetail with Adrain Roscoe’s bold, magisterial assertion in his book, Mother is Gold: A Study in West African Literature, that, “if an African writes in English his works must be considered as belonging to English letters as a whole.” John Knappert, in an essay, “Swahili as an African Language”, which appeared in the journal, TRANSITION, No 13 (1964), was even more explicit: “In Europe,” he declares, “there is no literature in a non-European language. Even in India, literature in English would not be called Indian literature. Every piece of literature written in English even if written in Africa, is a contribution to English literature, not to any African literature. Literary History has always been classified by language: Greek, Latin, Sankrit, not by country or continent. I do not think there can be any other African literature but literature in African language.”
Unfortunately, John Knappert’s deductions and conclusions, delivered with dogmatic absoluteness, are amazingly arbitrary and misleading. Who, by the way, made the law that literature should be classified by language only and not by country or continent? Who said that the nationality of a writer, his subject-matter, setting, “colour” attitude, environment, professed values, ethos, etc., should not play a leading role in classifying his work? And why should this law (assuming one exists except in the imagination of the Knapperts of this world) automatically apply to all peoples’ literatures without due cognizance and regard to the diverse linguistic histories of various peoples? That a phenomenon has always been taken for granted in the imagination of Knappert and his literary ilks does not automatically mean that it is right and acceptable and also binding on all peoples, more so, in a multi-faceted discipline like literature that does not easily admit absolutes and dogmas. The only lesson here is that those who revel in making dogmatic pronouncements on literature would occasionally find themselves in tight corners. Ask Ngugi and Wole Soyinka.
Certainly, one amazing flaw in John Knappert’s much-vaunted logic is that it failed to take notice of the reputation of English as an international language, a reputation English acquired due to colonialism and overbearing meddlesomeness. That one speaks and writes in English does not make one an Englander. (It is even tragic that vestigial remains of the products of this warped mentality are still being peddled in some literary and intellectual quarters even till today.
Chinweizu& Co. in their thought-stirring book, Towards The Decolonization Of African Literature (1980) have deftly dealt with these appropriation bids based on language claims and I will just be content to briefly summarize their views here. These scholars called our attention to the distinction “between English as a language used in literature by many outside the British nation, and English letters as a body of works of the British nation.” They outlined some situations existing in world literature whereby we have regional literatures, e.g. the European regional literature, which include national literatures in different languages, and then the American regional literature, e.g. U.S. literature (in English), that of Canada (in English and French) etc. Then they talked about the language literatures, “many of which include many national literatures.” The following are English language literatures: “(a) British national literature; (b) the national literature of those countries where an exported English population is in control, e.g Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand; (c) the national literature of those countries where English, though neither indigenous nor the mother-tongue of the politically dominant population or group, has become, as a legacy of colonialism, the official language or one of the official languages, e.g., Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, India, Jamaica, Trinidad and Malaysia”.
According to these writers (Chinweizu&Co) “Inclusion [of a work] within a national literature is something to be determined by shared values and assumptions, world outlook, and other fundamental elements of culture– ethos, in short.” Since “language and nation are not the same, and language criteria are not the same as national criteria” especially as some “fundamental differences in values and experience” may often be noticed “between two nations who use the same language” these scholars insist that the “language employed to carry out larger and more important cultural functions, is hardly by itself to be considered sufficient, let alone exclusive grounds for assigning a work to one tradition or one body of literature rather than another”. (Pp. 9-14)
Profs Rosemary Gray (president of the Academy), and Profs Njabulu Ndebele (UCT). Bernth Lindfors (Texas) and Peter Titlestad (UP), all three winners of the EA Gold Medal for distinguished service to English
What can now be restated here is that English, the language of England, refused to confine itself to its ancestral home. It is equally true that all those who use English now (beside the Englanders) are aware that they are using a borrowed language. And this, I am sure, does not apply to Africa or the so-called Third World alone.
It is possible that the English student on whose head and career this gratuitous din takes place may not allow himself to be bothered by it all. After all, even if English is not the national language of the country of the English student and writers from his country do not write in English, the serious task of learning to not only speak English well but also to write it well would still have seriously engaged him. But then, the English student cannot just distance himself from his people whose literature is being appropriated by foreigners. Unless, perhaps, his studies have compelled him to swallow and internalize imperialist prejudices and dogmas about him and his people.
We may have to see Chinua Achebe’s thought-provoking questions and the interesting remarks which he made in a paper he entitled, “Thoughts on the African Novel”, (Morning Yet on Creation Day, London: HEB, 1975, p.50): “But what is a non-African language. English and French certainly. But what about Arabic? What about Swahili even? Is it then a question of how long the language has been on African soil? If so, how many years should constitute effective occupation? For me it is again a pragmatic matter. A language spoken by Africans on African soil, a language in which Africans write, justifies itself” (emphases not mine).
As we try to chew over that, let’s attempt some form of stocktaking. In the course of this survey, we saw some of the nations whose literatures appear in English. Also, it is self-evident that such an awkward situation arose out of contacts and gratuitous migrations that have much, if not all, to do with English-men.
But an entirely new situation, which would certainly throw up fresh challenges for language and literary colonialists is quietly emerging, and it is interesting that speculations about this are commencing with by two bright English scholars. Declaring that “Geographical dispersion is in fact the classic basis for linguistic variation”, Randolph Quirk and Sydney Greenbaum in their book, A University Grammar Of English, toyed with the possibility of the emerging dialects of English growing to become distinct languages. This would seem to be true, because, already, American English, for instance, has come to mean more than English spoken in America. A lot of disparities in grammar, vocabulary and spelling now exist between the American English and the British English.
Again, whatever is the history and origin of America, the truth is that it is presently, just another continent, far removed from the home of English like Africa is. One wonders why the English contact with Africans should not qualify them for a use of English like the others to produce autonomous, indigenous works? “Is it then a question of how long the language has been present on the African soil? If so, how many years should constitute effective occupation”, to quote Achebe again.
Ngugi wa Thiong'o: Writes In His Native Kikuyu Language First And
Later Translates To English
One trite point we just cannot be tired or ashamed of re-echoing is that colonialism must continue to carry the can for my having, for instance, to address you in this column in English, instead of a “Nigerian language.” If the colonial intruders had not brought distinct African communities together and imposed on them a language with which to communicate with each other ever before they were ready or tried to achieve such amalgamations by themselves, all these language controversies and talks of annexing other peoples’ recordings of their cultures, values and experiences just because of the language used in expressing them would not have even arisen. It is indeed disheartening that these annexation bids have already created undue anxiety in some Africans.
Such anxious states of mind, I believe, gave birth to such outcries like late Dr. Obi Wali’s famous essay, “Dead End Of African literature,” published in the journal, TRANSITION No 10 (1963). Said Obi Wali: “…until these [African] writers and their Western midwives accept that any true African Literature must be written in African languages, they would be merely pursuing a dead end, which can only lead to sterility, uncreativity and frustration.” I think I can fully understand the worry and discomfort that throw up these kind of outbursts. It all has to do with the avuncular air and the owner-of-all disposition the European appropriator assumes when declaring any work written in English as belonging to the English people or even asserting that an English student is an Englander in the making.
I may only have to remind us here that one gets a child either by giving birth to one or by adopting one. Nigeria and some other nations have found themselves with no ready alternative than the English language, forced upon them by colonialism, and so had to adopt it to facilitate easy communication among their multi-lingual people, who were arbitrarily forced to come together by the thoughtless, but self-serving initiative of the colonialists. Put differently, they have adopted an English solution to a problem created by the English, at least for now, although I do not foresee a credible, workable, acceptable alternative even in the distant future; what with the hyper-politicization of all efforts at facilitating a national language adoption and evolution.
Forgive me if I pitch my tent with what would appear as Achebe’s disarming, pessimistic finality on the matter. English in Nigeria is simply a child of circumstance, serving Nigeria faithfully as the language of state administration, with our laws and status books written in it. This adopted ‘child’ or rather, now, acquired slave, has served most faithfully in preventing Nigeria and a section of Africa from re-enacting a modern-day Tower of Babel situation. Justice demands that even the devil be given his due.
It may be stated here that this essay is not a contribution to the language controversy that has plagued African literature right from its cradle, a controversy, one may dare say, that has almost irredeemably become trite even before it has been successfully resolved. Nor am I here to emphasize the already over-stressed obvious point that for Africans or even Nigerians, with their multi-lingual and multi-cultural environment to continue to hear each other and ensure unhindered communication and mutual intelligibility, they will have to remain condemned to the use of this language shared by a majority, a language that cuts across the ethnic and linguistic blocks that make up their domain. I think I am only concerned here with the English student, the obstacles that stand between him and his learning of English and the need for him to overcome those obstacles in order to make a success of his learning since he has voluntarily decided to study English.
We have so far secured two re-assurances, namely, that a Nigerian or simply a non- Englander can answer an English student comfortably without engendering any confusion about his nationality; and that if a non-Englander writes any work in English, the mere fact that he wrote in English cannot be a justifiable reason from appropriating his work into the body of the literature of England. We may then have to insist that the English Student, whether in Africa or anywhere, has no choice but to endeavour to learn to speak and write English well or else, he should not have bothered nearing an English Department of a university or college in the first place.
Ama Ata Aidoo
But, the belly-aching truth, which has exploded us in the face today is that many English students do not try to go beyond speaking and writing semi-literate English. What makes this situation so bad is that in this trying era of decolonization and recolonization, cultural nationalism and domestications of foreign languages, the English student may hide under one of these slogans to justify his inability to do well in a course he freely chose for himself. Achebe’s statement during his famous 1965 lecture at the University of Ghana, Legon, that “The price a world language must be prepared to pay is submission to many different kinds of uses” appears to have opened the floodgate for a lot of crazy experimentations with the English language. And I am certainly not thinking about Amos Tutuola here!
When Tutuola hit the literary world with his Palm-Wine Drinkard (1952), Western critics decided that he wrote in “young” and “infant” English. In fact, a certain Tom Hopkinson excitedly spoke of the emergence of a “new ‘mad’ African writing” produced by those who “don’t learn English; they don’t study the rules of grammar; they just tear right into it and let the splinters fly”. Prof Bernth Lindfors was to observe much later in the book, Critical Perspectives On Amos Tutuola, that “No one has tried to imitate Tutuola’s writing, and no one probably ever will. He is not the sort of writer who attracts followers or founds a school…. In this sense he is a literary dead end.”
Ezekiel (Es’kia) Mphahlele
How untrue! So many English students have consciously enlisted in Tutuola’s school (innocently founded by him) and Tom Hopkinson’s statement will more appropriately describe them today. At least, Tutuola never for once answered an English student. Achebe had observed that Tutuola had “turned his apparent limitation in language into a weapon of great strength — half-strange dialect that serves him perfectly in the evocation of his bizarre world” (see Achebe, Morning Yet On Creation Day, p.61). One hopes that no English student aims at being applauded in these, one must say, no less glowing terms!
I want to state here in passing that the din, excitement and even applause the late Ken Saro Wiwa attracted because of the language of his novel, SOZABOY, not withstanding, his rule-less and syntax-less language is the best example of how not to domesticate English. It lacks an audience and fits in properly as the best false step in the bids to evolve an indigenous language that will replace colonial languages. The style is escapist since it has no rules. It cannot even be said to be addressed to the barely literate Nigerians whose ‘language’ the novel purports to use since it may even demand high academic attainment to even understand it. So, it is a futile, defeatist rebellion against a colonial language, one which is even insidious to the African learner of English since many may now either emulate him or use his paradigm to explain away their ineptitude. If Mr. Ken Saro Wiwa had not been hanged on October 10, 1995, on the orders of late Gen Sani Abach, it would have been interesting watching Saro Wiwa to also try disorganizing his Ogoni language in his next book in order to see how many people that would understand him? Or is it only English that is fit for mutilation? The challenge now is for all those African and European scholars who have made so much din about the book’s astounding literary, linguistic or stylistic merits to go ahead and further the work that Late Ken had pioneered by extending his brilliant model to their own indigenous languages. We are waiting.
When Prof Chinua Achebe talked about subjecting English to different kinds of uses, it is clear from his works what he meant. B. I. Chukwukere explains Achebe’s language-use thus, (see African Literature Today vol. 3 p. 19): “Part of the greatness of Achebe, part of the pleasure we get in reading him, lies in the very fact that he has a sure and firm control of his English, exemplified particularly in his rendering of Ibo language-processes — idioms, imagery, syntax and so forth –into English. The characters speak in a manner any Ibo or allied language-speaker would easily recognize as natural to them… Achebe neither rudely shocks nor seriously wounds the basic English sentence-pattern or sentence-structure, and at the same time he does not reduce the fundamental Igbo language idiom, sound and flow, to obscurity.” In short, what Achebe has done was to achieve some local colour for his English without endangering international intelligibility of his work. In this sense, Achebe is a good model for many learners of the English Language.
Now, the point is that most English students who have failed to perform well in their studies are not just those who have consciously decided to speak and write like the hero of Saro-Wiwa’s Sozaboy. Complete honesty demands that we concede that many genuine, but clearly avoidable and surmountable obstacles stand on the way of our English students, especially, in this part of the world. One of these genuine obstacles is certainly not this naïve obsession in some English students today to evolve what they call “Nigerian English”(whatever that means). I wonder how I would feel if some Englishman shuffles onto my presence tomorrow and attempts to address me in what he calls “English Igbo” or “Anglicised Igbo”, which I may have some difficulty in understanding! Please, spare me the joke.
Truth is that for any language to be understood by all who share its codes, it must possess some established set of rules. And once these rules are flouted by any user, whether in the spirit of domestication, decolonization or nationalism, the language automatically loses its capability to be mutually intelligible. We must also concede that the English student is not exempted from the poor background in education which our public schools have become such experts in giving out to their pupils. Good teachers who write and speak English well are increasingly disappearing from our landscape.
But the student who decides to study English in an institution of higher learning should endeavour to purge himself of the poor English he had imbibed in primary and secondary schools. For instance, for him to articulate literate English speech, he must without delay identify the instances of mother-tongue interferences in the English he produces and try hard to overcome them. It is common knowledge that because of the absence of certain English speech sounds in most Africa languages, the African speaker of English tends to do what linguists and phoneticians have called Sound Substitutions while speaking English. That accounts for the reason the words “tank” and “thank” are not pronounced as different words by many learners of English. Indeed, the target of the African learner of English should be to realize what Anke Nutsukpo calls “Educated West African Standard English Speech”. In this “vowels, diphthongs and consonants are accurate in quality, and length (where necessary); sound clusters are fairly accurate, stress, rhythm and voice modulation are accurate. Intelligibility is of a high level” in fact, this is the closest approximation to what is called the Received Pronunciation (RP) English speech sounds.
Indeed, the English student should not allow himself to be distracted by some ill-defined ideologies about language domestication and make a flourishing failure of his studies. If the Philosophy or Sociology student is not barred by some pseudo-Afrocentric slogans from making a success of his career, one wonders why the English student should endure such an undesirable, unprofitable and totally needless sanction. The English student should learn how to resolve the phonological conflicts between his mother tongue and the English langauge. This becomes easy if student makes up his mind to practice the articulation of the speech sounds regularly after disabusing his mind on the impossibility of pronouncing English speech sounds intelligibly by a non-native speaker or the desirability of such an attainment.
The same care and determination should be exercised in all attempts to produce elegant and edifying written English. Here too, genuine, institutional obstacles exist. The course contents designed these days for our English students by our universities do not really offer the students practical solutions to their grammatical problems. Most English students who have offered the course that go under the name of “Discourse Analysis” are still wondering how the wonderful knowledge they got from it could help them write better English. Yes, the English student has also studied a lot of the history of linguistics; he knows so much about Ferdinand de Saussure, the father modern of linguistics, about his Acoustic Image and Concept theory, also about the Paradigmatic and Syntagmatic relationships he identified in the study of meaning; he also has heard about Ogden and Richards and their Triangle of Signification or Semiotic Triangle and how they disagreed with de Saussure’s tripartite approach to the study of meaning, otherwise, called Semantics. What of Bloomfield the Behaviourist and Chomsky the Mentalists? All these the English student has heard about. Yet, he lacks the good grammar to express all these wonderful knowledge!
It is time we get down to meaningful business and begin to formulate curriculum and courses whose contents will effectively address the grammatical malady of the English student in a most practical way.
But this does not excuse the English student from the serious work he has to do on himself. Reading culture in Nigeria has achieved an all time low, and so, if the English student fails to avail himself of the rich literatures, produced by serious writers, which we can still find today despite the literary drought in the land, then, he should have now one to blame for his sickening grammar. The practice of restricting oneself to only the books recommended for the courses one is offering, is one way working hard to fail. There should be that curiosity, that greed to devour and swallow every good book that one can find. And while reading literary works, a keen eye should be reserved for beautiful styles and good presentations, and not just the story itself. In the process, one gets one’s grammar polished without knowing it.
But talking of writing today, how many English students actually write? How many try to take their time to formulate admirable prose beyond the scope of hurried assignments and barely literate term papers? Indeed, writing regularly affords one opportunity to improve, mature and produce better materials.
Reading here, by the English student should not be restricted to novels, poems and plays. Granted, there is a lamentable dearth of literary materials nowadays, because, many universities do not consider it a priority anymore to order them, but a serious English student can go into the library and look for the old issues of literary journals gathering dust in some obscure corners of the University library. The old ones are even better, because they were published when serious-minded scholars invested time and rigour in the critical enterprise. Such journals like, African literature Today, Research in African Literatures, The Literary Griot, Black Academy Review, Presence Africaine, Journal Of Commonwealth Literature, Black Orpheus, Transition, Okike, Matatu, and several others. Some of these journals are no longer coming out, and the universities have virtually stopped ordering the ones that are still being published.
It is most unfortunate that we are blessed with a government that parades a noisy army of “intellectuals” yet the government’s apathy towards literary development has reached a nauseating height. What indeed is this government’s policy on the development sustenance of its literature? What has it done or plans to do to promote literary culture in both our schools and colleges, and in our entire polity? I have once argued that this government has the resources to help re-invent the robust literary culture that flourished in this nation in the 1960s, 70s and even much of the 80s and go on to make Nigeria the centre and rallying point of literary activities in Africa. This will, to a great extent, exert considerable impact on the English Student and make him infuse a greater sense of purpose in his study. It will equally provide sufficient incentive for re-enthroning challenging literary scholarship which appears to be lamentably vanishing in our universities.
What is the future of literary scholarship in Nigeria. Indeed, what is the furture of our education? In many English students today, the excitement of academics is, lamentably, at its autumnal stage. How many English students bother to see if they could get at some of the books and journals cited in bibliographies of some of the books they have been forced to read, to try to get additional knowledge?
The point is that the present teachers of English will retire someday and today’s English students will become tomorrow’s English teachers. The sooner adequate preparations are made to safeguard that tomorrow, the better for everybody. Already the public primary and secondary schools are in pitiable states. The rot may soon become intractable if allowed to eat deep into our university system. Achebe has already lamented the poor reading habit among many of us in an essay in Times Literary Supplement as far back as 1972 which he called, “What Do African Intellectuals Read” It is even worse today even among our English students.
Finally a word must be passed to University admission seekers who enter for English for reasons other than that they have a love for the course. It needs no saying that they may never do well. The same applies to those who are more interested in reading just for examination purposes while studying English. That they won’t do well is quite obvious. They may even end up not passing their examinations well.
The English student is one who loves to learn the English language and literature in English with admirable enthusiasm and excitement. He may not be an Englander nor will whatever he writes be appropriated to the body of English letters. Rather, he is one who makes effort to study English well, in order to speak and write it well. He reads good literature, good newspapers and journals in order to enrich his vocabulary and style. He is careful in deciding what to believe after reading some declarations like “A novel may be badly written by Western standards, in terms of language, and still portray life vividly and meaningfully for us” (Ezekiel Mphahelele, The African Image (1962) p. 11; or this by the celebrated English novelist and literary theorist, Virginia Woolf, “any method is right, every method is right, that expresses what we wish to express, if we are writers; that brings us closer to the novelist’s intention if we are readers.” Whatever choice the English student makes should be influenced by a desire to make a success of his chosen career.
NOTE: This an old essay, on an equally old debate. A greater part of it was written as an undergraduate, many years ago. I can’t really say why, but I feel compelled to put it out here today. If any information it contains is able to help a student out there, my day would have been made.