By Chris Anyokwu
English, the language of the modern-day descendants of the ancient Anglo-Saxon, is indubitably something of a status symbol, not only in the former Commonwealth, but also across the entirety of the English-speaking world as well as other language-areas or regions dominated by other world languages such as Mandarin (or Chinese), French, Portuguese, Spanish and Arabic. As part of the imperialist agenda of Great Britain, she had founded or set up the British Council to, among other things, propagate and disseminate the teaching, learning and speaking of the tongue, the spread of the metropolitan culture and civilisation, and, more fundamentally, the study, research and institutionalisation of British literary culture.
Thus, basically, the literature of any people is couched and conveyed through its language, and, more significantly, language is the vector or the conveyor-belt of culture, and culture itself the sum-total of a people’s way of life. Without language, therefore, there cannot be culture or even civilisation. The British knew this too well hence they had set up the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Foreign Service to help propagate and disseminate what today in academic discourse is known as Received Pronunciation (RP) form. In the book The Empire Writes Back, Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin remark that: “One of the main features of imperial oppression is control over language. The imperial education system installs a ‘standard’ version of the metropolitan language as the norm, and marginalises all ‘variants’ as “impurities.”
Continuing, these scholars note that “we need to distinguish between what is proposed as a standard code, English (the language of the erstwhile imperial centre), and the linguistic code, english, which has been transformed and subverted into several distinctive varieties throughout the world.” As a result of this, the so-called RP form had become for the subaltern world the holy grail of the performance of English, its synchronic parole realised and delivered in real time. Accordingly, the facility and dexterity of speaking the RP form or its approximates has become something of a life ambition both at the individual and collective level. Older Nigerians still remember fondly a very popular television comedy called “Ichoku” dramatizing a white man who speaks the Queen’s English and the Igbo interpreter who, in trying to convey the message, ends up mutilating the borrowed language in loose translation or transliteration. The humorous catch is in the ridiculous extent to which the interpreter goes in trying to “interpret” the English language in Igbo. The social prestige of English in post-colonial Anglophone Africa has made educational authorities declare English as a mandatory academic subject both in primary and secondary schools. More importantly, candidates are required to have a credit pass in it at GCE/WASCE in order to gain admission to University or secure employment in the civil service. Interestingly, this social prestige of English features as a major thematic concern in Chinua Achebe’s novel, No Longer At Ease. The Umuofia Progressive Union members pull their meagre resources together to send Obi Okonkwo to England to study English. He successfully completes his studies and earns a First Class in English. Upon his return to the country, his benefactors throw a welcome party for him during which he is expected to speak BIG GRAMMAR as proof of his acclaimed mastery of English. But Obi Okonkwo disappoints his people by speaking “is and was”.
Achebe, through the story, demonstrates that language is primarily for communication, and not an instrument of linguistic polarisation. It is the wrongheaded and mistaken notion of English as an instrument of class oppression that has given rise to the phenomenon of mimic-men in colonial and post-colonial Africa, Black apes who try to be “more English than the English” in dressing, accent, lifestyle, and even religion. Thus, upon handing over the reins of power to the local comprador-bourgeois ruling class, the departing colonialists had made certain that the myth of English as the ultimate passport to socio-economic and political Eldorado took firm root in Anglophone soil. Unsurprisingly therefore, virtually all the varieties of English, including the so-called Nigerian English (NE) are regarded as “impurities”, deformed variants of the standard code.
Thus for the average learner of English as L2 (i.e. second language), the desire to learn and master the foreign tongue is a life-long struggle. In his poetry volume, Waiting Laughters, Nigerian poet, Niyi Osundare captures the deeply perplexing psycho-epistemic quandary at the heart of this language-acquisition gambit:
Like the crusty verb of a borrowed tongue
salty with the insult of the sea
its nouns dotted with little maps
its proverbs crimson with memories of conquering
Here, my tongue
But where, the mouth?
The tongue is parrot
of another forest
– – – – –
A white white tongue
In a black black mouth
Back in the day, the radio was a veritable avenue for the learning or the teaching of English. For instance, the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria, based in Lagos, Ibadan, Enugu, and Kaduna used to dish out several educational programmes for the benefit of its listening audience. Its flagship news bulletins and news analyses were a virtual classroom for its listeners who would stay glued to their radio sets paying rapt attention to the vocal realisation of words, phrases and sentences. The emphasis was really not on the what but the how- the manner rather than the matter of the radio discourse in question. In the same connection, broadcasters trained themselves to make the grade in flawless delivery of content. They knew that the whole world was their oyster-shell, their constituency as they held their listeners in awe. Again, older readers of this article might be able to furnish a long list of celebrity broadcasters of yesteryear. Yours sincerely still remember a few who used to regale Lagos with their professional expertise on RN2 located at 45 Martins Street, in the heart of the popular Balogun Market on Lagos Island. I remember Jones Usen, Sebastian Ofurum, Jacob Akinyemi Johnson (JAJ), Irhia Enahimior, and Ernest Okonkwo on sport commentary. Not even Martin Tyler, Peter Drury, Jim Beglin, Jim Proudfoot, Jon Champion or Joe Spreight can match Ernest Okonkwo’s encyclopaedic nous and vocal lucidity. Whilst some of these broadcasters held listeners spellbound with their rich baritone voices, others captivated their captive audiences with their velvety, silky voices, as they enunciated the English language with such infectious ease. They succeeded in provoking several generations of youth to dream of pursuing careers in radio broadcasting. Thus, to pass English at GCE/WASCE, the classroom was not enough, you had to listen to the radio, to the master articulators of English in order to make the cut.
Sadly, that was then, and this is now, as the saying goes. Things have changed, have changed drastically and terribly, like everything else in contemporary times. True enough, the radio is for entertainment primarily but it is equally traditionally for instruction, for what the ancient Greeks called utile et dulce (i.e. “utility and delight”). But now, the utile element of radio broadcasting is almost completely non-existent. It is now all entertainment. Everything on the radio, by this logic, is eroticised: firstly, the problem of affectation. When you try to listen to the radio, as Don Williams counsels in one of his hit-tracks, you are repulsed and nauseated by the fakery, the pretentiousness, the theatrics that characterise the vocalisation of English by our On-Air-Personalities (OAPs) as they love to be called these days. They are never real! They sound neither like Westerners whom they fanatically try to mimic nor like their educated compatriots. This neither-nor instability of identity betokens an underlying identity crisis and crisis of consciousness. Perhaps as publicists, they embody and emboss our collective psycho-social anxieties and insecurities as an erstwhile subject race, still caught in the throes of decolonisation.
Back in the day, the radio was a veritable avenue for the learning or the teaching of English. For instance, the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria, based in Lagos, Ibadan, Enugu, and Kaduna used to dish out several educational programmes for the benefit of its listening audience. Its flagship news bulletins and news analyses were a virtual classroom for its listeners who would stay glued to their radio sets paying rapt attention to the vocal realisation of words, phrases and sentences. The emphasis was really not on the what but the how- the manner rather than the matter of the radio discourse in question. In the same connection, broadcasters trained themselves to make the grade in flawless delivery of content. They knew that the whole world was their oyster-shell, their constituency as they held their listeners in awe.
Secondly, the egregious practice of eroticising every word that comes out of their mouth. We are aware, as they say in advertising, that sex sells. More so, sex by other means particularly titillates and sets the lurid imagination on fire. There is no other medium where this mindset predominates than the radio in Nigeria. Thirdly, intonational obfuscation. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in Americanah execrates the catchy habit among Blacks and Browns who speak English as though every word, every phrase, every clause were a question. Girls and ladies are particularly notorious in this regard as they imagine that using the interrogatory tone makes them come across as sexy! Fourthly, the use of slang. Pray, have you heard lately our “OAPs” mouthing words and expressions such as “as in”, “like seriously”, “Basically” (thrown in at every turn), and so on? Fifthly, code-mixing and code-switching. The advice is, if you want to speak, say, Yoruba, please indulge yourself. But if you intend to engage your listeners in English, you cannot afford to drift at will from Yoruba to English and vice versa as if you were holding small talk at the salon or you were in your living-room playing the game of ayo.
The competition over the ear of the listener out there is keen and, therefore, it’s important to respect the listener and win their attention and admiration. Also, if the future of radio is simply “music, music, more music”, we are constrained to ponder: what stake will the radio have in the moral, spiritual, and, more immediate, linguistic development of the next generation? How does it play its role in propagating and disseminating culture, of historical consciousness, in the defence of memory? With the increasing globalisation of English in today’s world, can we as a people afford to be left behind in the mastery of the tongue Shakespeare spake? To argue to the contrary that English must be adulterated, Yorubanised, for instance, for our indigenous languages to grow will not do. The question is: How much of the propagation and dissemination of our local tongues does the radio promote in Nigeria today? The argument for cultural nationalism is wrong and defeatist in this regard. If English is the language of government business, commerce and trade, medium of instruction in schools and the Language of Wider Communication (LWC) as well as the language of diplomacy and international engagements, then we have got to master it. And since radio is such a powerful organ of information dissemination, the relevant regulatory authorities must dust up its rule-book, reposition and re-imagine its role in a rapidly changing, morally- permissive, anything-goes world.
*Chris Anyokwu writes from University of Lagos