March 4, 2021

Mandarin in Lagos

In 1860, Alexander Crummell, an African-American, who adopted Liberia as his country of birth and one of the fathers of African nationalism/PanAfricanism wrote an essay titled, “The English Language in Liberia.” In the essay, he described the English Language as “unusual force and power,” “language of freedom,” “an item of compensation,” given to those who were exiled into slavery; one superior to the numerous barbarous tongues spoken in Africa and which, he argued, would bring the “supernal truths” of Christianity to heathen African homes.

One and half centuries later, African languages have gone through various stages of evolution. Some languages are dead, some are dying or some have been diffused with other languages and are spoken differently. Even the colonial tongue we adopted in Anglophone countries has undergone much cultural processing to produce new “Englishes,” such that we speak and write differently from those who brought the language. Yet, I still wonder what Crummell would have thought of the Lagos State policy of introducing Mandarin language and culture to public schools.

I have mixed feelings about it.

Let me say upfront that I am all for cultural syncretism. I also believe that as much as possible, everyone should learn a language other than their mother tongue or the language of their environment — history teaches us that language is power and access. Personally, I am less afraid of cultural imperialism or cultural invasion as I am of impeded imaginations. No culture anywhere in the world is pure, to begin with; as we are exposed to various cultures and languages, we borrow aspects of them to appropriate. Over time, the borrowed aspects become part of our culture. That is how cultures become expanded. For instance, what we call Jollof rice was originally from Senegal (some scholars claim even Senegalese borrowed from Gambia) but has become a Nigerian culture. And today, as world systems wobble, and all eyes are on the Asian Tigers, Lagos State might be making a definitive and proactive statement to go where the future cloud might settle. If China becomes the new West, and trade and global domination comes from Asia, we already have prepared Lagos children for the future.

But then, there are a few quick questions:

One is the issue of overall motive. It is important for Lagos state to declare whether China will reciprocate this gesture. In other words, are Chinese kids going to learn Yoruba or Igbo very soon? Or this arrangement is another Lagos ‘one-way’ traffic law? I ask this because language and culture are basically a power and domination thing, as the Crummell example shows. There are lessons to be learnt from history about this kind of relationship. It will not bode well if this is a cultural exchange that places a preponderance of power on the part of China. It’s important to scrutinise the motive of China behind teaching Nigerian children their language and culture and mediate this so as not to place the kids at a disadvantage.

One of the co-directors of the Chinese institute, one Prof. Lirong Jiang, was quoted as saying, “The knowledge of Chinese language will help students to further their studies in China and carry out research in various fields of human endeavour as China has become a success story in the world economy.” Really? But how does this benefit Nigeria in the long run?

If the logic is that these students will return to Nigeria to duplicate the “success story” of China, we should ask how come the thousands of Nigerian students out there in western countries do not want to return home even after carrying out their research in English and other European languages. Most people simply join the labour force of the country they find themselves. So, what is China getting out of this apart from recruiting labourers for global slave plantations? When colonialists invaded Africa, one of their ploys was to teach a few their language through which they administered their rule. Is that what is playing out here all over again? And why didn’t Lagos State outline the benefits it intends to derive from this policy, both on a long and short-term basis?

The second question is the issue of logistics and learning beyond classrooms; unless Lagos children are like parrots who can be taught virtually any speech sounds, it is not enough to get them to speak a language. They’ll need cultural immersion to foster an understanding of the world they are sharing through language.

One of the problems of speaking English in post-colonial societies is that we learnt the grammar but are still largely culturally displaced. While importing concepts into our worldview, traffic occurs; certain imageries are lost and for some, their impact is not as strongly felt. For instance, when a Nigerian uses an expression like “wake up and smell the coffee,” the message is not the same as it would be in a place like the US, where they have a coffee-worship culture.

One of the criticisms of my primary school education was that it didn’t use familiar motifs of my environment. I learnt “A for Apple” without ever seeing one. I read fairy tales and knew what an apple was supposed to be but I never saw it till my mid-teens. My story is by no means peculiar; there are millions of children out there who cannot visualise what they are taught in English simply because it doesn’t exist in their environment.

Granted that over the years we have appropriated the English Language to our culture such that the way we speak and write it is different from how an Oyinbo does (and we are still evolving). However, slapping Mandarin (with a different orthography and an entirely different worldview) on Lagos children who have yet to make a credit pass in English Language is, really, misguided good intentions.

Besides, how does the Lagos State Government propose to immerse them in the Chinese culture? By making them watch Chinese films or distributing chop sticks in school cafeterias? It is a long road which, if it cannot be properly managed, they need not saddle kids with for now.

Rather than going the route of an official policy, it might be better to facilitate a relationship between public schools and the Chinese cultural centre, where anybody who pleases can, on his/her own terms, learn Mandarin.


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