A recent article in The Guardian of the UK, titled “Why it’s time to stop worrying about the decline of the English language,” critically outlines the issues regarding the possibility of a breakdown in communication due to the deterioration in the quality of the English language spoken in the world today. This is even more glaring due to the advent of social media and the bastardization of what we now know as the Queen’s English and the imperatives of received pronunciation. The writer took a long historical survey of similar worries at several junctures in history, and how scholars and intellectuals have worried about lowering the quality of the language.
In the age of globalization, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and instant messaging, the grammatical structure of the English language is being assaulted in all its semantic and syntactic aspects by junk words and meaningless syllables that corrupt what we mean and what we say.
The issue behind the worry is essentially how to ensure that communication and meaning are not destroyed by the lowering of linguistic standards. By talking of “future plans,” “past history,” “new initiative,” “safe havens,” or “live survivors,” we are already undermining the integrity of the language. Yet, the writer was insistent that those who fear the degeneration of English do not understand linguistic flexibility and how languages acquire sophistication.
Why is this analysis important for an institutional reformer in Nigeria? Institutional reform demands that there are significant dimensions of a nation’s life that must be factored into the national development process.
From women to the youth, and from a state’s intellectuals to her educational system, there is a need to calibrate a systematic reform framework that ensures that a state is aware of all the elements that enable her to achieve good governance on behalf of the people. One is tempted to say it takes little reflection to see the place of language in national development. While this is so for other countries, the case of Africa and specifically Nigeria is different. And the reason is not far-fetched. Africa’s encounter with colonialism foisted on the continent an amalgamation process that spelled postcolonial crisis in terms of social cleavages along ethnic, religious, cultural and particularly linguistic lines.
In Nigeria, for example, there are more than four hundred languages and dialects competing for national attention. It, therefore, become a pragmatic consideration to retain English or French or Portuguese as the lingua franca in different regions of the continent.
It is at this point that English as a colonial language enters into the discourse on national development in Nigeria. The argument has always been that a foreign language cannot interact with the indigenous dynamics of a culture or society in ways that would engender proper development for the people. The advocates of what we can call the mother tongue development thesis hold strongly to the point that people can only be reached at the level of their understanding; and what best avenue to do this than through their indigenous languages.
As far as the development discourse goes, this is a solid argument that speaks to one dimension of the development issues. But then, reform thinking has never been founded on unilinear thinking about anything. The business of institutional reform demands a rounded perspective that takes insights from multiple levels. In this case, the indigenous or mother tongue thesis lacks the immediacy demanded by Nigeria’s development troubles. In other words, there are so many dimensions of the development impasse that the thesis fails to speak to directly. This is where we need to commence our rethinking of the role of the English language in our development plan.
The further point to make is that English, as a colonial language, has interacted sufficiently with our cultural realities to be considered effectively a Nigerian language. And this is where I begin to draw specific import of the essay on the decline of the language and how it relates to the Nigerian development realities.
The first, and the most significant I want to deduce derives from the worries which the writer of the essay on the decline of the English language tries to dispel. This is that even the owners of the Queen’s English are critically concerned about the quality of the language as a means of communication and social interaction. This is a valid point of anxiety because there is a sense in which it is a language that holds the society together. Thus, if the language of communication breaks down, then the fear of social anomie increases. In the same breath, there is a sense in which English serves as the critical linguistic thread that holds Nigeria together as a coherent linguistic entity. Thus, it becomes legitimate for us to then ask about the state of proficiency of the language in a state where it is the language of administration and education.