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The English Nigerian Children Speak (I)

By Farooq A. Kperogi My two-month summer vacation in Nigeria this year gave me a heightened awareness of the distinctive character...

By Farooq A. Kperogi

My two-month summer vacation in Nigeria this year gave me a heightened awareness of the distinctive character of the English that Nigerian children speak. My daughter, who has had the benefit of living and going to school in Nigeria before relocating to the United States, helped me to identify this distinctive usage of English among Nigerian children.

In what follows, I chronicle a sample of the errors and peculiar usage patterns that my daughter and I noticed among both Nigerian children for whom English is a “native second language” (refer to my last week’s write-up to know what that means) and those for whom it is a second language.

I have left out learners’ errors that children (including children in native-speaker environments) often make and overcome as they grow older. I have instead isolated only common, recurring errors that are the consequence of children copying their parents, teachers, and peers.

Fusion of Pidgin English and Standard English. In Nigeria, even highly educated speakers of the English language routinely—and deliberately— mix codes, that is, speak Standard English, Pidgin English, and Nigerian native languages all at once in one speech act. Look at this sentence, for instance: “Shebi the bobo wan show say he is the best thing that has happened to the world since sliced bread.” Shebi is a Yoruba word that appears to be an intensifier used at the beginning of interrogative sentences. Bobo is the Nigerian Pidgin English word for “man,” “wan show say” is the lexical equivalent of “wants to show that” in English, and the rest of the sentence is standard, idiomatic English. These kinds of constructions are usually intended to achieve comical effects and are confined to informal contexts.

However, Nigerian children are growing up speaking like this without any awareness that they aren’t speaking proper English. Popular intensifiers from our native languages that interfere with the English of our children are “shebi” (as in: “Shebi our teacher is from Jamaica?” instead “Isn’t our teacher from Jamaica?”), “ba” (as in: “You will give it to me ba?” instead of “You’ll give me to me, right?”), etc. Others Pidgin English and "mother tongue" terminal intensifiers that interfere with the spoken English of Nigerian children are  “ko,” “fa,” “sef,” “o,” “nau.” Like all intensifiers, these words have no meaning except to heighten the meaning of the sentences that precede them.

 “Chook.” This is the word Nigerian children use where their counterparts in America and Britain would use “poke” or “jab.” Where Nigerian children would say “I’ll chook you with this pencil,” their American counterparts would say “I’ll poke you with this pencil.”

When I looked up “chook” in the dictionary, I discovered that it is the alternative name for chicken in Australian and New Zealand English.

I also found that people in Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, The Bahamas, and other English-speaking Caribbean nations (most of whose inhabitants trace their ancestral roots to Nigeria, by the way) also use “chook” in their informal English the way Nigerian children use it. This leads me to guess that the word is probably derived from a Nigerian language. Or it could very well be of Portuguese origin, which has contributed a few words to Nigerian Pidgin English, such as “pikin” (which speakers of Jamaican Patois also use to mean “child”), sabi (know), palava (trouble), dash (gift), etc. 

“It is paining me.” Native English speakers hardly use the continuous tense of the verb “pain.” Where Nigerians would say “it is paining me,” British speakers would say “it is giving me pain.” American kids—and adults— tend to prefer “hurt” to “pain” when they talk about bodily discomfort. So where Nigerian kids would say “my leg is paining me” American kids would say “my leg hurts.”

“I will tell for you.” When I was a little kid in Nigeria, we “reported” our classmates to our teacher if we wanted to get them in trouble. Now Nigerian children “tell for” their classmates for the same reason. This is obviously an inept attempt to copy the English idiom “tell on someone.” So where British and American children would say “I’ll tell ON you to the teacher,” Nigerian children say “I’ll tell FOR you to the teacher.”

“Dress” as an all-purpose term for all kinds of clothing. In native-speaker environments, a “dress” is generally understood as a long, one-piece garment for girls and women. But Nigerian children routinely call boys’ clothes, school uniforms, and just about any kind of clothing “dress.” I noticed this because I overheard my daughter on many occasions protest to her friends and relatives in Nigeria that she wasn’t wearing a dress when they referred to her shirt and jeans as “dress.”

This tendency to use “dress” as a catch-all term for clothing apparently derives from the fact that dress can indeed refer to clothing in general, especially in an abstract sense, as in: “he is very careful about his dress.” When dress is not used in a general, abstract sense, however, it often refers to the long, beautiful clothes that women and girls wear on special occasions.

“I’m satisfied.” It is not only Nigerian children that use “satisfied” to mean they have had their fill of food; Nigerian adults do, too. But native speakers of the English language don’t say they are “satisfied” after a meal; they say they are “full”— or have "a full stomach.”

“I want to use myself.” That was a new one for me. This is clearly an incorrect mimicry of the Nigerian English expression “I want to ease myself,” which is a euphemism for using the toilet. No native English speaker I know has the faintest idea what “ease myself” means. 

“Pollute” or “mess.” This is the Nigerian English word for “fart.” Nigerian children don’t seem to have “fart” in their dictionaries. No other variety of English I know uses “pollute” or “mess” or “spoil the air” to mean fart.

Catarrh.” Nigerian children use this big word for “the common cold” as a synonym for mucus, which American kids like to call “snot.” Nigerian children also use “catarrh” when they mean “booger,” that is, dried mucus. 

The singular “they.” In Standard English, “they” is the plural of “he,” “she,” and “it.” In Nigerian English, however, “they” can refer to a single person or entity. For instance, if a parent sends a child to call another child, the child could say something like: “Abdul, they are calling you,” where “they” in the sentence refers to the parent. When the Power Holding Company of Nigeria seizes power, as it always does, children routinely say “they have taken light,” where “they” refers to the electricity company. 

This is evidently mother tongue interference. Most Nigerian languages I know have the singular “they,” which closely resembles the so-called royal plural in English. The irony, though, is that even Nigerian children whose only language is English “suffer” from this “mother tongue interference.”

To be continued

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