By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Although I am a strong advocate for native languages, there are two major reasons why I advocate the retention of English as Nigeria’s official language and as our language of instruction at schools. The first reason, which I have explored extensively in previous columns, is that Nigeria, as it’s presently constituted, is held together by English.
In an April 24, 2010 article, I wrote: “English is the linguistic glue that holds our disparate, unnaturally evolved nation together. Although Nigeria has three dominant languages, it also has over 400 mutually unintelligible languages. And given the perpetual battles of supremacy between the three major languages in Nigeria—indeed among all the languages in the country—it is practically impossible to impose any native language as a national language. So, in more ways than one, English is crucial to Nigeria's survival as a nation. Without it, it will disintegrate!”
The second reason is that English is the lingua franca of global scholarship, and we would be shutting ourselves off from the global scholarly community if we shut out English. This is how I captured it in my 2015 book titled “Glocal English: The Changing Face and Forms of Nigerian English in aGlobal World”:
“Most importantly, [English] is the language of scholarship and learning. The Science Citation Index, for instance, revealed in a 1997 report that 95 percent of scholarly articles in its corpus were written in English, even though only half of these scientific articles came from authors whose first language is English (Garfield, 1998). Scores of universities in Europe, Africa, and Asia are switching to English as the preferred language of instruction.
“As Germany’s Technical University president Wolfgang Hermann said when his university ditched German and switched to English as the language of instruction for most of the school’s master’s degree programs, ‘English is the lingua franca [of the] academia and of the economy’ (The Local, 2014). His assertion has support in the findings of a study in Germany that discovered that publishing in English is ‘often the only way to be noticed by the international scientific community’ (The Local, 2014).
“So most academics in the world either have to publish in English or perish in their native tongues. In addition, it has been noted in many places that between 70 and 80 percent of information stored in the world's computers is in English, leading a technology writer to describe the English language as ‘the lingua franca of the wired world’ (Bowen, 2001).”
English has moved beyond being imperialistic; it's now hegemonic. That is, its dominance isn’t a consequence of forceful imposition; it’s now entirely voluntary. When German, Italian, Israeli, Asian etc. universities switched to English as their medium of instruction, they didn't do so because they were conquered by Britain or the US.
When millions of Chinese people spend time and resources to learn English, they do so because they want to be competitive in the global market. When South Koreans go to the ridiculous extremes of spending thousands of dollars to perform surgery on their tongues so they can speak English with native-like proficiency, they do it of their own volition. (In South Korea, professors can’t be tenured, i.e., granted permanent employment status, if they don’t demonstrate sufficient proficiency in English).
When poor, struggling Indians spend scarce resources to acquire proficiency in English and to “dilute” their accents so they can approximate native-speaker oral fluency preparatory to call-center jobs, they do so because they think it offers a passport to a better life.
Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek once argued that people who are targets of hegemonic cooptation only voluntarily agree to this process if they believe that, in accepting it, they are giving expression to their free subjectivity. That's effective hegemony.
If English ceases to be the receptacle of vast systems of knowledge that it is now and goes the way of Latin, everyone would drop it like it's hot. This isn't about "race," "inferiority," "superiority," or such other piteous vocabulary of the weak. It's plain pragmatism.
This isn't about English as a language of culture, or as a symbol of colonial domination; it's about the fact that it is the depository of contemporary epistemic production and circulation. You shut it out at your own expense. It is hard-nosed pragmatism to embrace its epistemic resources both for development and for subversion.
Of course, English won't always be the language of scholarship. Like Latin, Arabic, Greek, etc., it would wane at some point, especially when America ceases to be the main character in the movie of world politics and economy, which Trump's emerging fascism is helping to hasten faster than anyone had imagined. It could be succeeded by Mandarin. Should that happen, it would be counterproductive for any country in the world to, in the name of nativist linguistic self-ghettoization ignore Mandarin.
As I argued two weeks ago, there is no truth to the oft-quoted claim that no society develops on the basis of a foreign language. On the contrary, it is misguided nativist linguistic self-isolationism that actually hurts development.
India as Model for Nigeria?
India often features prominently in every conversation about language policy in Nigeria. There is much that I like about India’s language policy and much that I wouldn’t recommend to Nigeria.
Although India has as many as 880 languages, it has two national official languages: Hindi and English. It also recognizes 31 regional languages in its constitution, and allows states to determine their own official languages—even if the languages are not among the 31 constitutionally recognized languages. In addition, people whose mother tongues are not recognized as state languages may choose to speak in their native languages in official communication, including in state parliaments—of course, with the permission of the Speaker. But all laws at both state and federal levels must be written in English.
It’s relatively easy to make Hindi the national language because 45 percent of Indians speak Hindi or its dialectal variations. No Nigerian language is spoken by up to 45 percent of the national population, and any attempt to impose a domestic language on others in Nigeria will be resisted. The only time people willingly accept formal linguistic imposition without conquest is if the language serves a personal social need—if it’s a vehicle for upward social mobility. There is absolutely nothing to be gained in getting one's education in a domestic foreign language with limited utility outside the country.
But linguistic minorities in India didn’t simply accept Hindi with listless resignation. The proposal to derecognize English as an official language and impose Hindi as the sole official language of the country was met with violent protests, especially in the south where Hindi isn’t widely spoken. This compelled the government to reverse the policy (see Robert Hardgrave’s interesting 1965 essay titled, "The Riots in Tamilnadu: Problems and Prospects of India's Language Crisis" in the Asian Survey.) Nor is Hindi's dominance in India unchallenged (See "Hindi Not a National Language: Court" in The Hindu of January 25, 2010).
Most importantly, though, there is a class dimension to the language policy in India that many people seem to ignore. First, although Hindi-language media are the most popular in the country (the Hindi-language Dainik Jagran, for example, is India’s largest circulation newspaper), the English-language media set the national agenda and are more influential in shaping national discourses than the indigenous language ones.
Second, the upper crust of the Indian society educate their children in English (and, of course, Hindi) and condemn others at the lower end of the society to Hindi or other indigenous language education. This entrenches intergenerational perpetuation of social and economic inequalities because Hindi-only educated Indians often have limited social and economic mobility. They are not part of the great Indian revival. They are shut out of the country's exploding ICT revolution.
Children of wealthy people attend English-language schools, climb the social ladder, travel the world, become citizens of the world, partake in all the thrills that the English-dominated global world offers, etc. while children of the poor are educated in indigenous languages, vegetate in epistemic insularity, limited social mobility, and perpetual servitude to the children of the English-educated, privileged class. That is not the Nigeria I want for my people.