October 28, 2020

A problem of language


A couple of years ago, I was in a public primary school to retrieve some questionnaire I had earlier administered on the school teachers. One of the teachers had helped me collect them from her colleagues. When I got there that day, she was teaching her pupils so I had to wait for her to finish the class. While waiting inside the classroom, I took time to observe the lesson. I noticed that while teaching, she not only spoke tattered English, she did so rather animatedly. I could tell after watching her for about half an hour that she had a problem of language. She couldn’t express herself in English well enough and so she employed her body to do a lot of explaining. And I thought, why not teach in Yoruba instead? Of course, there are practical difficulties with that but left to me, the lesson would have been more beneficial if it had been in Yoruba which she appeared to be at ease with when she spoke to me later.

About this time last year too, I had just finished grading the examination papers of undergraduate students I had taught for the semester and there were a lot of shock. One of them was that most of the students didn’t have a proper grasp of the English language; some didn’t even have a basic understanding of it.

Today, whenever the West African Examinations Council and National Examination Council results are released, the news is reported more by the number of those who failed the exams than anything else. The failure rate seems constant, year in, year out, that one begins to wonder why the educational system is so consistently defective that it churns out such outrageous level of mediocrity.

I think of all the diagnoses that have been made, the bigger trouble remains that of language. We live in a society where reading and writing are increasingly becoming elitist hobbies and where a generation of people is growing up, blissfully ignorant of their handicap. Right from the primary school level, many pupils are taught by teachers who themselves need to read Brighter Grammar; who cannot teach properly because the curriculum says they must instruct in a language they are yet to master. So, they pass under-boiled knowledge to the pupils who in turn go through the motions of the system till they get to Senior Secondary 3.

When their West African Senior School Certificate examination results are released, they fail massively in not only English but others as well because they can neither understand the questions nor express themselves. By the time they wangle their way to the university, they have become the proverbial dried fish; no longer malleable.

My undergraduate students have ideas of what they want to communicate but have problems articulating them. Some cannot write a complete sentence coherently, and many have problems constructing meaningful phrases and clauses.

My experience was insightful. It was a disaster of sorts because it was a course that required writing more than anything else. And what worried me more, then, was the fact that they were at a stage in their academic lives where they were expected to know how to write to some level. At the university stage, it was near impossible to remedy the problem.

I have had cause to think about them today because of recent happenings that have fore-grounded the lamentable state of language in Nigerian education system; and why the problem is likely to persist.

The news that Oyo State is upgrading the Ibadan Polytechnic to a state university is one. Governor Abiola Ajimobi has aired his desperation to be one of the South-West governors who ‘owns’ a university for a while. He stated earlier this year that Oyo State is the only state in the zone that doesn’t have a state university and that he would create one.

Between when he expressed the desire to have his own academic empire and now, there had been some nine universities given provisional licences. When he finally whitewashes the state Polytechnic –or more appropriately, tarnishes it further with political acolytes — to become a university, it will amount to about 10 created within months and in a country where undergraduates have problems articulating their own thoughts.

How about suspending this move and spending the money that will go into this obnoxious conversion project on ensuring that Oyo State students can actually read and write? How about strengthening education at the primary and secondary levels where the foundation is weak?

In a country where pupils, routinely, fail English language and cannot make credit scores in other subjects, creating a university is more of flash than substance. And like all things Nigerian, you begin to wonder when having a university on every street corner became the fad. The way they are going about the university provisional licences, it would soon be like the abused “pure water” industry.

Another issue that brought up the problem of language use is the phrase, “heat up the polity” or “(over)heat(ing) the polity.” Somehow, in the past week, it has propped up so frequently in news reports that I began to wonder what it really means. It has gained a foothold in our national discourse just like the International Monetary Fund “conditionalities” or “homegrown democracy”; like Nigerian political speak that urges you “to deliver your constituency.”

In exasperation, I typed “heat up the polity” into Google search in the Internet and 77,000 entries popped up. I read almost all the 48 pages and found out that the use of the expression all came from Nigeria and even dates back to the Obasanjo administration! Except for cases where some foreign media (African media organisations especially) lifted from Nigeria, it’s basically a Nigerian expression.

The phrase even appeared in a presidential press release and that, for me, was a mighty snafu. Clichés are actually a sign of laziness, a lack of imagination and a mediocrity of sorts. The Presidency ought not to treat communication so flippantly so as to employ clichés in communicating with Nigerians. Considering that the Nigerian president has enough underlings in his employ that can craft elegant phrases and not turn out meaningless clichés, it shows a taking-for-granted mien.

The problem of language in Nigeria, symptomised by the persistent decline in the educational system, is actually a foundational one that needs a radical solution. I do not conclude that presidential press releases will be a part of solution to this problem but I believe taking the effort will surely set an example. Even if only symbolically.


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