Watch Your Tongue!

I have a confession to make. I love the Igbo language and I do have an ear for it, but sometimes I do get stuck in the course of a conversation. I usually know what it is I want to say but the delivery of the content becomes amateurish from time to time. My accent is flawed; I don’t have that Igbo drawl that separates the wheat from the tares. And to make matters worse I don’t have a vocabulary that covers some of the words. I have to smear my own mother tongue with words from a foreign vocabulary. Disgusting!

To those who can speak their local dialect with the fluid ease that makes the rest of us cower in disgrace, I say “please don’t weep for me yet. I am concerned enough to work on this deficiency.” And no, I am not about to blame my parents. I also do not regret not spending more of my formative years in eastern Nigeria. If anything, I am about to make a hullabaloo about this vernacular thing, if only for the sake of posterity: the countless Nigerians yet unborn.

Imagine it’s the year 2082. Nigeria is still in one piece (hopefully), but we find that there is an even bigger problem. Nigerians are speaking Queen’s English, French and hard core Pidgin in their homes and workplaces. In the high society weddings we find black men in tuxedos and large hipped beauties in spaghetti strap dresses and ball gowns. There are no ‘aso-ebis’, no caftans, no cliques rattling on excitably in Igbo, Yoruba and the likes. All we find are Hollywood clones: people who are trying to be the best at what they cannot even do.

In the year 2092, a pupil will probably raise up his hand in geography class to ask ‘what does the word ‘xyz’ mean, teacher?’ (In reference to a local parlance) and the down in the dumps tutor would quip in futile retort. “A primeval language our fore-fathers spoke, but which spiralled inadvertently into extinction!”

You see my Igbo may be imperfect, but the really scary part is that I am better off than many of my peers. The progeny of the younger generation can barely communicate in vernacular at all, because modern parents speak only Queen’s English to their young children. They keep their indigenous language at bay because they (erroneously) believe that it will flaw their children’s delivery of the English language. Talk about a priority scale. Due to a phenomenon known as child language acquisition/CLA, many children can master up to three different languages at a time. If only their parents realised how receptive children are to speech, they would teach them to speak their mother tongue from birth, as this amazing prowess begins to decline at age five.

I visited the Goethe Institute in Victoria Island, Lagos, once and saw dozens of young Nigerians trooping in to register for German language tuition: courses which cost as much as a hundred thousand Naira.

“Very admirable,” I thought. “This shows that our people are eager to learn, to broaden their horizon.” But do we care about our own God-given lingo?

I have friends who run off to French class every week but can only say elementary words like “come” or “go” in their local dialect. In my school days, youngsters who were out of sync with their culture were considered ‘cool or chic’, whilst those who were in touch with their culture were regarded as ‘bush.’ Some of us have perfected various foreign accents (nothing wrong with people speaking through their noses either) but don’t see the need to dig into our history as a people.

How did we live before Independence? What led to our being merged as a people?
Who fought for our independence? What induced the Biafrian war? What are the origins of our distinct traditions? What components of our ethnicity can evolve and what should be discarded? What is our future as a people? Isn’t it funny that some of us know so much about Greek mythology and so little about our own affairs? The teenagers I meet these days have memorised the top 100 artists on the US billboard charts, but cannot list the 36 states and their capitals.

Sometime in 1998, a course mate at the University went in for a beauty pageant.
She is an attractive person and was doing quite well until the panel of judges asked her who the Vice President of the Country was. She was so clueless that she mentioned the name of a man who was incarcerated at that time for an alleged coup attempt! She emerged as a third runner up in the competition and people couldn’t stop sniggering behind her back. It was the talk of the campus for months, but I soon found out that many undergraduates did not know the actual answer either.

Do some ethnic groups fare better than others do in this regard? Random surveys conducted show that certain cultures are more protective of their dialects and yet children, of the new era generally, cannot speak their mother tongue fluently. Most youngsters can decipher simple sentences or phrases yet lack the confidence to express themselves. Many are totally inept. Mastery of the Igbo language is made a bit more difficult by the fact that it has so many dialects and sub-dialects, unlike what obtains in other milieu. But then some of us Igbos would be pleased to find a legitimate pretext wouldn’t we?

Whilst editing this critique, my word processor underlined the words that it found utterly indecipherable. It automatically rectifies badly spelt English, but must prompt a full spell check when I key in a word like ‘aso-ebi’. When I comply, the closest match that it can recommend is ‘amoebae’. To my chagrin, it further remonstrates when I type in alien words like ‘Naira’, because it is uncertain if I’m trying to spell some other word like ‘Maria’, ‘Nadir’, or ‘Nora’. I wish that Nigerian IT whiz kids would invent software that complies with our local languages. When I type my Igbo name, I would love to put dots under the letter ‘O’ and simper when an American asks what that means. Come to think of it, I do have a Computer Science degree.

It would be brilliant if our Embassies and Consulates abroad could set up local language schools. We really should emulate institutions like the British Council and the French cultural Centre. Or do we actually think the governments who invest so much on cultural exchange are imprudent? The secret to the universal appeal of western civilisation is essentially indoctrination. A variety of mass media project western cultures, makes them so accessible that even those who have not left these shores are convinced that they have.

Vernacular has been added to the school curricula. So what? More can be done, unless our culture deserves to run to extinction. Already the process has set in. if you doubt me, listen to people speak Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo on the streets and notice how adulterated those languages are.

Parents should begin to teach their children those values that are crucial to their socio-cultural and moral development. Letting our children know who they are and where they come from is the key to our future. Reminding them that they are Africans even though they own British or American passports and enjoy the privileges that a dual nationality affords them, is the least that a realistic parent can do. We will have worse leaders tomorrow if we do not become better people ourselves and pass on the wisdom we have accrued to our progeny.

True, I may not be the best ambassador for this cause (did I hear you hiss and say “go polish up your Igbo first?”), but the truth is sublime whether it comes from a donkey’s mouth or from the lips of a fundamentalist prophet. In fact the more qualified the oracle, the less that people listen. They’ll be busy looking for flaws, looking for something to make the preacher look bad. I understand human nature so well that I first stripped myself of all pretence.

Our language culture is declining and it’s time we finally did something about it. Don’t you think?

March 26th, 2004 by