When I was asked to write the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) exams in order to gain admission to the University of Bath in 2008, I felt bad because I had indicated in my forms that English was my first language. I bet they did not want to take me too seriously and did not want to stand the risk of finding out late that my knowledge of English did not go beyond the basics. So here I was in a class with other foreigners whose first language was not English, writing the TOEFL and snarling at my pencil all through the exams – kindly take note that I am not in the least a xenophobe – it was just the frustration of it all. This was the same story for a Japanese school of architecture that presented an opportunity at about the same period: I had to write the entrance exams in Japanese if the schools’ board would consider my application. At least that would have been Test of Japanese as a Second Language (TOJaSeL), not as a first. Though I did not write the Japanese exam eventually, I did not feel as bad as when I had to sit through that TOEFL, wondering how I came to be the one having to learn English and Japanese while languages local to my country is considered ‘inappropriate’ even by my country folk.
However, I will say that in fairness to the arrangers of the TOEFL thing, the level of English, as in across board (as in both for students and teachers) is small. That is why you will see students carrying last and still not doing assignments because the questions are too hard. (If you laughed at the italicised paragraph, you obviously got the joke. If not, never mind)
As an aside, I will say that the problem with the development of English from an African’s point of view is that many of us still think in our local dialects and scuttle the semantics when we try a parallel translation of our local thoughts into English. In addition, not many people take the extra effort to try to find out how the proper English language is written or spoken by reading books and consulting dictionaries: if only we looked up meanings of words in dictionaries as much as we read our bibles. That said, I will like to draw the line here and proceed to look at English as spoken by the English themselves.
As one will assume, who else will be able to speak the English language if not the English people, since it is their local language? Notwithstanding the many English accents spread across the UK, the issue of proper English as spoken by the English themselves is not so straightforward. As the BBC reported a while back, the UK government has noticed (using the GCSEs as a benchmark) that the standard of English across the country seems to be falling gradually and that the younger generation are showing less interest for literary leanings. I remember discussing with a group of white boys from school; when I dropped the word ‘ludicrous’ it felt like I had dropped a bomb – not one of them understood what it meant and that to me was ‘ludicrous’. Another experience was going to the bank and wondering why everyone was calling H.S.B.C, “Heysh eS Bee Cee”.
While our lack of a reading culture coupled with thinking in our local dialects constitute our biggest encumbrance as African speakers of the English language; pop-culture seems to be the undoing of the younger generation of English speakers of the English language. It is not uncommon to find UK teenagers inserting ‘Basically’ into every sentence – or starting every sentence with ‘You know what I am saying?’ The impact of pop culture on the English language cannot be underestimated and New media (e.g. instant messaging) has worsened the situation as written English is morphing into unprecedented forms. ‘Ur’ is fast replacing ‘Your’ even in proper essays, and acronyms are taking prominence over the real phrases they represent. OMG!
This pop-culture bug is an all pervading phenomenon which not only affects English speakers of the English language but English speakers the world over. My perspective on pop culture is not so much about the bastardization that it brings to language with its numerous slangs and fancy abbreviations but how it defines a fundamental flaw in the moral structure of our societies both home and abroad.
The moral flaw
In the not so distant past, young people learnt to speak in English by learning from teachers, dictionaries, encyclopaedias and the many literary role models of those times. Erudite leaning was collectively celebrated and the mundane was not favoured. As time went on, celebration of the arts and the love of learning started to wane in favour of celebrating ‘stars’ and pop idols who became role models and authorities even on the use of the English language. Slangs likebasically, as in, you know what I am saying, as you will agree, are colloquial phrases that have emerged from (or being reinforced by) new age Urban role models like rap artists, footballers, actors and other entertainers – some of whom never went to any proper school or have any pedigree in the context of being authorities on the English language. Yet thanks to new media and popular culture they are the new age teachers and promoters of English for this current generation. The BBC expressed its fears indicating that proper English may be threatened as older people and aristocrats appear to be the last ramparts in the war against extinction.
While the TOEFL and other means of examination still provide the standards against which we can benchmark the English language, I fear that as more and more people end on the wrong side of the exam divide, such exams may be tempered to the collective room temperature hence losing its acid-test ability. Also, an argument for the evolution of the English language is that what if the current seeming bastardization is indeed evolution? What if we are feeling the way scholars of the Shakespearean era would have felt when ‘Spake’ started to evolve to ‘Speak’ and most verbs started to lose their ‘eth’ suffixes. At that time, it may have seemed like bastardization too very much like is being debated now.
From a personal point of view, having never had any formal literary training, I deeply admire language and the myriads of ways in which it can be applied to convey human thoughts. I will say my only worry in the current evolution of English language is the underlying misplaced priorities of this generation that is inimical to intellectual development, which the arts have always represented. Even though this age boasts of the most information ever transacted by humans in the history of mankind, the junk of worthless information of past epochs does not measure up to a speck in the seashore of junk that this generation produces. And unfortunately, day in day out, via social media, T.V and sleazy 24 hour barrage of information, we all silently absorb this junk rather than the intellectual trappings; making us “Garbage in” (through our bodily orifices) and “Garbage out” through our mouths.