Veteran linguist and former Vice Chancellor of the University of Ibadan, Prof. Emeritus Ayo Banjo, has described the quality of spoken English in Nigeria as poor and discouraging.
Banjo, in a telephone interview with our correspondent, he noted that while more people appeared to be using English in the country, the mastery of the language, especially the spoken variety, had seriously declined over time.
Blaming the situation on the quality of teaching across the three tiers of education, he said, “I don’t think the schools have been doing a good job teaching English. Many users of the language are very deficient, whether you look at the pronunciation, the vocabulary or its pragmatics.
“About 75 years ago, very few people learnt English. Some of them learnt it either directly from Englishmen or from people who had immediately learnt it from the Englishmen. The standard was high at the time and the number of speakers was very small.
“Now, with the explosion in public education, many people are taught English, but they are taught very badly. The English of the English teachers is not something to write home about and that is why the language is deteriorating in Nigeria.”
But, Banjo, who clocked 83 early last month (May), endorsed the quality of written English in the country at the moment, describing it as a lot better than the spoken variety. The author of many seminal works on the English language confessed that he was very impressed with the kind of English he had read in some Nigerian newspapers lately, adding that they could have been written in Britain.
Speaking as Chairman of the Advisory Board of the $100,000 Nigeria Prize for Literature, sponsored by the Nigeria Liquefied and Natural Gas Company Limited, he noted that some of the literary works received in previous editions of the prize fell short of expectations because their authors used the English language inappropriately.
He said, “When you complain about the language in literary works, you are not just complaining about things like concord and spelling – although they occur sometimes in some of the entries that we receive. The problem lies in the fact that you are using the language to create. You may be able to speak English without making grammatical mistakes, but you may use the English in an inappropriate manner.
“A very good work of art, for example, would differentiate characters by the way in which they speak. It is not good to write a novel in which everybody speaks in the same way. It is also inappropriate when you write for children as if you are writing for adults. Many of those who write for children have no idea of how children speak English.”
Although Pidgin English is widely used in the country, Banjo does not think that it can be easily developed into the lingua franca for certain reasons. The major problem, he noted, was that it would require a lot of hard work to transform it into a first language. Other challenges include the lack of a standardised orthography, which makes different people to write down pidgin in different ways.
“To use a language as an official language, it has to be standardised. I don’t think pidgin has been standardised. In some parts of the country, especially the South-South, it has moved on and become creole. Now when it becomes creole, it means that some standardisation is coming into it. Still, you have to think of the vocabulary. I don’t see any problem about using pidgin informally as the common language in Nigeria, but you have to find out how many people in the country already speak pidgin. I am not sure that it is widespread in the North,” he said.