Most of us in urban India often find it frustratingly amusing that how our kids can patiently respond in English to our endless questions intentionally thrown in the vernacular. In this beautiful piece in the Guardian, Adaobi narrates his experience of English versus the mother tongue in Nigeria, an experience that most Indians will be able to relate to, given similarities around colonial history and the heterogeneity of local dialects.
“..my parents had chosen to speak only English to their children. Guests in our home adjusted to the fact that we were an English-speaking household, with varying degrees of success. Our helps were also encouraged to speak English. Many arrived from their remote villages unable to utter a single word of the foreign tongue, but as the weeks rolled by, they soon began to string complete sentences together with less contortion of their faces. My parents also spoke to each other in English – never mind that they had grown up speaking Igbo with their families. On the rare occasion my father and mother spoke Igbo to each other, it was a clear sign that they were conducting a conversation in which the children were not supposed to participate.
Adaobi brings out the Singapore experience of adopting English as a critical tool towards becoming a developed economy under Lee Kuan Yew. “…he believed the future of his country’s children depended on their command of the language of the latest textbooks, which would undoubtedly be English.
“With English, no race would have an advantage,” he wrote. “English as our working language has … given us a competitive advantage because it is the international language of business and diplomacy, of science and technology. Without it, we would not have many of the world’s multinationals and over 200 of the world’s top banks in Singapore. Nor would our people have taken so readily to computers and the internet.” Within a few decades of independence from Britain in 1965, Singapore had risen from poverty and disorder to become an economic powerhouse. The country’s transformation under Lee’s guidance is often described as dramatic.
Speaking English was just one way of showing off, especially when one lived, like my parents, in what was then a small, little-known town. Some of my parents’ contemporaries distinguished themselves by appending their academic qualifications to their names. Apart from academics and medical doctors, it was common to hear people describe themselves as Architect Peter or Engineer Paul or Pharmacist Okoro.
Africans are no longer helplessly watching outsiders tell our own stories, as we did in past decades, but foreigners still retain the veto over the stories we tell. Publishers in Britain and America decide which of our narratives to present to the world. Then their judges decide which of us to award accolades – and subsequent fame. The literary audiences in our various countries usually watch and wait until the west crowns a new writer, then begin applauding that person. Local writers without some western seal of approval are automatically regarded by their compatriots as inferior.
Perhaps Ngũgĩ and some other African writers care little about westerners being able to read their works. It could be that Nobel prizes and sales figures mean absolutely nothing to them. Maybe they are quite content with a local audience – but the local audiences themselves may not be able to read the authors’ books written in Gikuyu or Igbo or Chi.
Africa currently has the world’s lowest literacy rates. Unesco reports that more than 1 in 3 adults in sub-Saharan Africa are unable to read and write, as are 47 million young people (ages 15-24). The region accounts for almost half of the 64 million primary school-aged children in the world who are not in school. Not even the English are born with the ability to read their language. They are taught – usually in schools.
That said, having one language to dominate others must have reduced conflict. If, for example, we decided to dump English and use a mother tongue as the language of instruction in local schools, which of the at least 300 tongues in Nigeria or the 70 in Kenya or the 120 in Tanzania (and so on) would those countries use to teach their children? This would be more difficult than ever today, when many African societies are becoming urbanised, with different ethnic groups converging in the same locality. Which language should schools select and which should they abandon? How many fresh accusations of marginalisation would arise from this process?
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