"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: August 2012

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Are There Native English Speakers in Nigeria?


By Farooq A. Kperogi

Many native English speakers have asked me if there are native speakers of the English language in Nigeria. My answer is always that there are—depending, of course, on what one means by “native speakers.” I will explain what I mean shortly.

Increasingly, thousands of Nigerian children in urban areas—especially in southern Nigeria—are growing up monolingual; the only language they speak is English. They don’t even speak Nigerian Pidgin English self-consciously. That technically makes English their “mother tongue” (although their biological mothers may not speak English as a native tongue) and them “native speakers” of the English language (although they are geographically located in a part of the world where “traditional” native speakers—Brits, Americans, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, etc.—don’t live). So what kind of “native” English speakers are Nigeria’s English-speaking urban children?

 Before I answer that question, I will like to discuss the categories of English speakers that scholars have identified over the years. The first is “English-as-a-native-language” speakers who live mostly in the West—and in white southern Africa. They acquire the language effortlessly because it is the language of their parents and of their immediate surroundings.

 But “nativeness” in language isn’t solely about ethnic identity or culture. It can also be determined by the sequentiality of language acquisition, that is, by determining which language one spoke from birth even if that language isn’t the native language of one’s parents. A child born to Chinese immigrants in the USA or Britain who speaks only English, for instance, is a native English speaker.

Then you have “English-as-a-second-language” speakers. Speakers of English as a second language come from countries where people have a first—and sometimes a second, even third— language before they learn English, but where English is not only a school subject but also the language of instruction for all subjects at all or most levels of education. In these mostly linguistically plural countries, English often functions as the lingua franca and as the language of the media, government, the courts, elite social interaction, etc. Nigeria, Ghana, India, Kenya, Bangladesh, etc. are examples of countries with English-as-a-second language speakers. English-as-a-second-language speakers can, and often do, achieve near-native proficiency in the language if they work hard at it.

People in this category are, as I’ve pointed out, at least bilingual, that is, speak two languages, and at most multilingual, that is, speak more than two languages. But because they are disproportionately exposed to English in schools, work places, the media, etc., they are liable to either additive bilingualism (where proficiency in English can strengthen proficiency in the mother tongue and vice versa) and subtractive bilingualism (where proficiency in English can detract from proficiency in the mother tongue or vice versa).

Another category of English speakers is “English-as-a-foreign-language” speakers. People in this category come from non-English-speaking countries and learn English either only as a school subject or as adult learners seeking to get sufficient proficiency in English to be able to study in English-speaking countries, or to just perform basic communicative tasks in the language. Examples are people from China, Japan, Saudi Arabia, France, Spain, etc. 

Nigerians who are confronted with their bad English grammar often protest that people in economically successful countries like Japan, China, and some “Asian Tigers” don’t speak English and that, that somehow mitigates their own poor grasp of a language they have been learning from age 5 to adulthood. But that’s a bad contrast of contexts. People in those countries aren’t English-as-a-second-language speakers, although English may chronologically be the second language they have learned after their native languages. 

In these countries, English isn’t the language of instruction at all levels of education; it is just a subject in the educational curriculum—the same way that French, for instance, is in ours. English isn’t the language of government in their countries. Nor is English the language of the media. So it is unreasonable to expect the same degree of proficiency in English between English-as-a-foreign-language speakers and English-as-a-second-language speakers.

The last category of English speakers in the scholarly literature is speakers of “English as an alternate language.” These are people who live in countries where English is a native language but who have a native language that isn’t English. Examples are French Canadians, Native Americans, the Aborigines of Australia, the Maoris of New Zealand, and recent immigrant communities in native-speaker countries who still retain their native languages. These people have access to the native varieties of the English language if they so choose, but they are not technically native speakers because they first acquired a mother tongue before encountering English.

Now, where do urban-dwelling, monolingual, English-speaking Nigerian children fit in these categories? They are not considered “native speakers” of the English language because they don’t live in the traditional linguistic habitat of native speakers of the language—UK, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc. But they are not, technically speaking, English-as-a-second-language speakers because English is chronologically their first—and, for that matter, only—language. Plus, it is the only language their parents speak to them. And they are certainly not “English-as-an-alternate-language” speakers because they live in an English-as-a-second-language linguistic clime.

However, the English that monolingual Nigerian children speak has all the quintessential characteristics of Nigerian English, an English-as-a-second-language variety. So who are they? I propose that they be classified as speakers of “English as a native second language.”

This is obviously clumsy phraseology, but it captures the uniqueness—and, yes, clumsiness—of the situation of urban, English-only, Nigerian children. They speak a variety of English that will mostly certainly lead native speakers of the language in the UK, the US, Canada, etc. to think that the children speak another language before— or in addition to— English. But they don’t. Their English has all the “mother-tongue interferences” that their parents’ and teachers’ English has. Yet they do not speak any native Nigerian language and therefore don’t have the linguistic cognitive structures that lead to “mother tongue interference” in English. It seems to me fitting to describe them as “native speakers” of an “English-as-a-second language” variety.

The problem with this category of English speakers is that their “native” status doesn't guarantee the same level of effective communication in the language as traditional native speakers. As one linguist beautifully put it, 

“The mother tongue is an indispensable instrument for the development of the intellectual, moral and physical aspects of education. It is a subject thought and by which other subjects can be tackled, understood and communicated. Clarity of thought and expression is only possible when one has a certain command over the mother tongue. Weakness in any other subject means weakness in that particular subject only, but weakness in the mother tongue means the paralysis of all thought and the power of expression. Deep insight, fresh discoveries, appreciation and expansion of ideas are only possible when one understands the subject through being able to assimilate and be stimulated by the ideas of the subject.”

Replace “mother tongue” in the above quotation with “English” and you will appreciate the peculiar situation of monolingual, English-speaking Nigerian children. Next week, I will highlight the peculiar English expressions that are typical of Nigerian children and compare them with known native-speaker varieties. Keep a date.

Related Articles:
1. A Comparison of Nigerian, American and British English
2. Why is "Sentiment" Such a Bad Word in Nigeria?
3. Ambassador Aminchi's Impossible Grammatical Logic
4. 10 Most Annoying Nigerian Media English Expressions
5. Sambawa and "Peasant Attitude to Governance"
6. Adverbial and Adjectival Abuse in Nigerian English
7. In Defense of "Flashing" and Other Nigerianisms
8. Weird Words We're Wedded to in Nigerian English
9. American English or British English?
10. Hypercorrection in Nigerian English
11. Nigerianisms, Americanisms, Briticisms and Communication Breakdown
12. Top 10 Irritating Errors in American English
13. Nigerian Editors Killing Macebuh Twice with Bad Grammar
14. On "Metaphors" and "Puns" in Nigerian English
15. Common Errors of Pluralization in Nigerian English
16. Q & A About Common Grammatical Problems
17. Semantic Change and the Politics of English Pronunciation
55. The Arabic Origins of Common Yoruba Words
56. Idioms, Mistranslation, and Abati's Double Standards 
57. Native English Speakers' Struggles with Grammar 
58. Q and A on Nigerian English and Usage Rules
59. Of Yoruba, Arabic, and Origins of Nigerian Languages
60. Language Families in Nigeria


Saturday, August 25, 2012

Re: The Taxi Driver Who Saved Me


Reactions to the above article poured and continue to pour in torrents.  I am touched by how powerfully Nigerians identified with my story. Abdulrahman Dauda, the driver who saved me from myself, told me he has been inundated with phone calls since I published the article. This fills me with a lot of joy and hope. Find below a sample of readers’ reactions:

As hopeless as we might be about the Nigerian situation—the perennial larceny of the thieving elites—there are still good Nigerians, honest and dependable people which the Yoruba people call Omoluabi and your encounter has exemplified this. I was shocked to the marrow when I heard of the items you forgot but my shock waned and disappeared completely as I read on the article.

Despite our strains as a nation, our seemingly outright loss of hope occasioned by years of inept leadership and the monumental graft that has made the country an odd one among the comity of nations as well as the pervasive  moral decadence, Abdulrahman's honesty has re-enlivened our hope that there are still good people in this country. Every Nigerian should, however, take a cue from Abdulrahman and live a life of honesty, sincerity and trustworthiness to collectively change the status quo.
Abdullateef Aliyu (
aabdullateef@yahoo.co.uk)

This is a beautiful story. I did a feature story on the airport taxi driver who returned the 18 million naira to a Brit published in the Daily Trust of Friday, August 17, 2012. Mr. Imeh Usua, the Akwa Ibom state born taxi driver, plies his trade at Abuja international airport.
Hamid Yunus, Abuja

Thank you for sharing this inspiring story! Someday I hope to visit Africa and your column lets me know that most Nigerians are as friendly and honest as those I have been privileged to know in the US.
Rick Herder, Assistant professor, Southwestern Minnesota State University, Marshal, USA

Congrats for finding your stuff. This man with little education and money said he won't take what doesn't belong to him. Our fuel subsidy scammers, who have the best education in the world, think otherwise.
Dr. Raji Bello, Abuja

 Is there any reward for good other than good? May Allah bless you for rewarding him.  A similar case happened twice with the same person sometime ago with a staff of Nigerian Aviation Handling Company and on neither occasion was he rewarded.
Mahmud Aboki, Gusau

The taste of pudding is in the eating. You were lucky to eat a palatable pudding; you probably could have eaten a bitter and unpalatable one and the mood of your essay would bear this experience. In spite of self-inflicted rot, decay and degeneration in values, leadership and sense of pride in our nation, you are sure to meet with teeming but unsung Nigerians, North and South, whose tolerance, understanding and integrity provide one with assurances that Nigeria can be great( it's not great now) , given the right environment and right leadership. And this is the fear, a pathological one, that our ruling elite and their cohorts in the so-called private sector have: that ordinary Nigerians are capable of coming together. This reality was playing itself out during the fuel subsidy protest before the political BH was created and given a national outlook. Your experience is a great one that is worth sharing to especially outsiders by those of you in the diaspora. To Abdulrahman and countless others out there eking a miserable living with honesty and integrity, we salute your courage and join to pray that this scalless injustice and deprivation won't continue forever.
Mahmud Zukogi, Bayero University, Kano

I am not sure if you remember, but I am friends with Brenda Adams. We met a couple of times during your time in Louisiana. Over the years, Brenda has shared several of your posts and this is another one that brings tears to my eyes.  For all the bad things we hear about Nigeria, it is so nice to wake up on Saturday and get to read this story. Thanks you so much!
Erin Belsom, Lafayette, LA, USA

 I just finished speaking with [Abdulrahman Dauda] on phone and he was thanking and talking enthusiastically as I was busy commending him for such a superb help he'd done. I'm at least glad Nigeria is now able to redeem its tarnished image both locally and internationally. And I do hope your friends from the States read this comment.
Muhammad El-Bonga Ibraheem, Abuja

Your resolve to celebrate him has made him a celebrity in our eyes and it's praiseworthy! Few minutes after reading the post, I managed to call him. Though his line was busy for some time, we finally talked. From my experience with him, I would say he is respectful, innocent, and calm. Indeed he is one of the lucky and strong few that refuse to become fishes in the artificial lake of corruption, scam and so many contagious crimes that rule in our dear country Nigeria. I pray every good Nigerian gets a chance to prove his goodness. I pray taxi drivers would not be inspired by your fare comparison to increase fares or expect extra pay/reward. I believe they are wise enough to know that the living standard cannot allow so.
Abdulmalik Mustapha Abbamaina, Abuja

Good initiative for giving a personal testimony of the integrity of an ordinary Nigerian.
He's an exemplar of a teeming population of Nigerians who would rather make an honest living than indulge in sharp practices. This belies the bad media that stereotypically labels Nigerians in general terms as roguish. Much as there are many criminally minded Nigerians, there are even many more of our compatriots committed to good conscience and morality. Oftentimes, the bad broods gain the blitz more easily, thereby fostering negative reputation on the average Nigerian. Your experiential account goes some way in showing that the largely bad media image of the Nigerian is really not reflective of the true picture in all ramifications.
Vincent Oyefeso, Abuja

Your experiences with this extraordinarily honest Nigerian deeply touched me and strengthened my conviction that something good can still come out of Nigeria. Another interesting thing is that he does not even consider his action out of ordinary (from your account and speaking with him). I look forward to a Nigeria when people like Mr Dauda will be the majority, when you can deal with a Nigerian with a high measure of trust and that trust will not be misplaced. I rejoice with your good fortune.
Bertrand Chijioke

What a brilliant accolade to selfless honesty, epitomized by the exemplary Abdulrahman Dauda. It is most kind of you to celebrate and proclaim his honesty. It contrasts greatly with the dystopic image of corruption [not without some justification] of some notorious Nigerian elite, which you didn’t fail to point out.

As a young foreigner in Nigeria in the late 90s, I came to embrace the country as my second home, after meeting people like Dauda from every rung in the social fabric of the country. I could juxtapose his honesty with the rapaciousness, debauchery and thievery of top officials; one of whom I had the displeasure of encountering. What goes around comes around; applicable to both you, Farooq, and our hero of the day, Dauda. Thanks for sharing.
Samira Edi, London

Related Article:


Sunday, August 19, 2012

Language Families in Nigeria

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

A language family is a group of languages that traces its descent to a common progenitor. That progenitor is commonly referred to as the “proto-language,” which linguists can’t quite determine with precision or certainty, but which is nonetheless conceptualized as the “original” language from which several related languages devolved. 

Linguists have identified four language families in Africa: Afro-Asiatic, Niger Congo, Nilo-Saharan, and Khoisan or “click” languages. Of these four language families, as I pointed out in a previous article, three—that is, Afro-Asiatic, Niger Congo, and Nilo-Saharan languages—are represented in Nigeria.  That makes Nigeria the linguistic microcosm of Africa. 

(Khoisan languages, also called “click” languages because they sound like short light metallic sounds, are exclusive to southern Africa).

Before I discuss the language families in Nigeria in some detail, I want to remark that I have always found the distribution of language families in Nigeria fascinating because it dislocates our habitual perception of inter-ethnic relations. For instance, it is customary to refer to people in northwest Nigeria as “Hausa-Fulani” people. Yet, Hausa and Fulani belong to two separate language families. While Hausa is an Afro-Asiatic language, Fulani is a Niger Congo language. That means, as you will see shortly, Fulani, Yoruba, Igbo, Ijaw, etc. have a common linguistic ancestor, although the Fulani share more cultural and political similarities with the Hausa.
A map of language families in Africa; I left out Austronesian in my article
 Again, although the Fulani and the Berom of Plateau State see themselves as belonging to the furthest poles of northern Nigeria’s political and cultural divide, especially in light of the recent internecine ethnic conflict in Plateau State, they not only belong to the larger Niger Congo language family (to which many languages in central and southern Nigeria belong); they actually belong to the same Atlantic Congo subfamily of the Niger Congo family.

Another surprising fact about Nigeria’s language family classification is that Hausa, the most prominent member of the Afro-Asiatic family in Nigeria, shares the same ancestor with the Angas of Plateau State. In fact, just like Hausa, Angas belongs to the Chadic subfamily of the Afro-Asiatic language family. Yet two ethnic groups couldn’t be more culturally different than the Hausa and the Angas. Other well-known linguistic cousins of Hausa are the Tangale of Gombe State, the Bole of Yobe State, the Bachama of Adamawa State, and the Bokkos of Plateau State (which I learned is former Governor Dariye’s native language).

Let me know proceed to write brief notes on the three language families in Nigeria.

Niger Congo language family
This is by far the largest language family in Nigeria—and in Africa. In fact, some linguists claim that the Niger Congo language family has the highest number of distinct languages in the world. Proto-Niger Congo language is indigenous to Africa, and almost all languages in Nigeria’s southern and central regions belong to the Niger Congo group. The best-known Niger Congo language in the far north is Fulani.

The Niger Congo family has many subphyla such as Mande (represented in Nigeria by the cluster of Borgu languages around New Bussa and Kaiama called Boko or Bokobaru), Atlantic (which is represented in Nigeria by Fulani), Gur (which is represented in Nigeria by Batonu in Kwara State), Kwa (which is represented by such big language groups as Yoruba, Igbo, Itsekiri, Nupe, Igala, Ibibio-Efik, Idoma, etc. making it the biggest subphylum in the Niger Congo family), Benue–Congo ( represented in Nigeria by Tiv, Jukun, Tarok, Kambari, Ogoni, etc.) and Adamawa–Ubangian (represented by several Adamawa and Taraba languages).

Note that these classifications aren’t neat, unchanging categories. Linguists frequently revise the classifications based on new evidence. But experts have determined that the Niger Congo languages share sufficient similarities in structural characteristics and lexical properties to warrant being identified as a language family.

The Afro-Asiatic family
This is one of only two language families in the world that are found in two continents—Asia and Africa. The other is the Indo-European language family that is found in Asia and Europe. 

Arabic, Hebrew, Amharic, Hausa are prominent members of the Afro-Asiatic language family. Historical linguists say that the earliest speakers of Afro-Asiatic languages lived in Asia. Some of them later migrated to Africa. The Bayajidda myth of origin that the Hausa people cherish may very well be, as one anthropologist says, a folk crystallization of the memories of this migration.

As with the Niger Congo family, there are many subphyla of the Afro-Asiatic family in Nigeria. They are the Chadic subphylum (represented in Nigeria by Hausa, Angas, Bole, Tangale, etc.), the Semitic subphylum (represented in Nigeria by Shuwa Arab in Borno State), and the Berber subphylum represented in Nigeria by the clusters of migrant Tuareg or “Buzu” people in northern Nigeria. The other subphyla of the Afro-Asiatic family—Cushitic, Egyptian, and Omotic—have no representatives in Nigeria.

The Nilo-Saharan family
This is the least numerically significant language family in Nigeria. Most of the members of this language group are in Southern Sudan and East Africa, suggesting that the Proto-Nilo-Saharan language was somewhere between Southern Sudan and East Africa. Luo, the native language of President Barack Obama’s father, is a prominent member of the Nilo-Saharan language family.

The most prominent representative of the Nilo-Saharan language family in Nigeria is Kanuri. Other less well-known members of the group in Nigeria are Dendi (who can be found in small numbers in the Borgu area of Kwara State and in Argungu and Bagudo local government areas of Kebbi State) and Zarma (who are native to Niger Republic and whose language is mutually intelligible with Dendi, but who can be found in small numbers in many northern Nigerian states). Zarma and the Dendi are Songhai languages.

How languages are classified
Linguists determine the relationship between languages and map their divergence, that is, the time they started sounding different from their “original” source through the science of lexicostatistics and glottochronology. An American linguist by the name of Morris Swadesh was the first to develop what he called “100 basic vocabularies” that he said are so intrinsic to a language that they can’t be borrowed from another language. Some examples from his list are “one,” “woman,” “tree,” “sand,” “good,” “name,” “sun,” “moon,” “star,” “blue,” etc.

 He compared these vocabularies (which are now called the “Swadesh list") across languages to determine similarities in sound and meaning. He used this to group languages. 

Other linguists challenged, advanced, or tweaked his formula over the course of the years to map the development of languages and to classify languages. The formula isn’t fool-proof, but it has been used to shed light on the form and content of languages.

Related Articles:
1. A Comparison of Nigerian, American and British English
2. Why is "Sentiment" Such a Bad Word in Nigeria?
3. Ambassador Aminchi's Impossible Grammatical Logic
4. 10 Most Annoying Nigerian Media English Expressions
5. Sambawa and "Peasant Attitude to Governance"
6. Adverbial and Adjectival Abuse in Nigerian English
7. In Defense of "Flashing" and Other Nigerianisms
8. Weird Words We're Wedded to in Nigerian English
9. American English or British English?
10. Hypercorrection in Nigerian English
11. Nigerianisms, Americanisms, Briticisms and Communication Breakdown
12. Top 10 Irritating Errors in American English
13. Nigerian Editors Killing Macebuh Twice with Bad Grammar
14. On "Metaphors" and "Puns" in Nigerian English
15. Common Errors of Pluralization in Nigerian English
16. Q & A About Common Grammatical Problems
17. Semantic Change and the Politics of English Pronunciation
55. The Arabic Origins of Common Yoruba Words
56. Idioms, Mistranslation, and Abati's Double Standards 
57. Native English Speakers' Struggles with Grammar 
58. Q and A on Nigerian English and Usage Rules
59. Of Yoruba, Arabic, and Origins of Nigerian Languages




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