The diary of a Naija boy in the diaspora – Test of English as a Language

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.


19 thoughts on “The diary of a Naija boy in the diaspora – Test of English as a Language” by On a lot of things (@ifelanwa)

  1. Interesting read…i quite agree with you..its no surprise that the standard of English language seems be plummeting even among the English people themselves. Personally,i see the whole process as De-evolutionary rather than evolutionary.we seem to be moving towards a society where people favor monosyllabic words and colloquialisms more.very soon,English will be so bad we may have to grunt and growl at each other to communicate! Heaven forbid!

  2. this is a very nice piece. very insightful of you…
    I’ve seen many people trying to balance their local languages with English and they end up doing direct translations–>> grammatical blunders

    NOTE: i believe that the change in English and any language is inevitable and may seem wrong to older generations. you observed that here;

    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…………….

    but i dont believe its UNFORTUNATE, i welcome the change

    ………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.

  3. If you take statistics you will notice that a high population of Nigerians have been unable to pass English at Waec level which makes Toefl or Ielts necessary.. But I’m glad that Uk schools now recognize a credit in waec English.. I think other western schools should emulate this.. I once wrote the Ielts, and it wasn’t funny at all…

  4. @idoko, you are right about failing English,… i served as a teacher…Ibo was used to teach English,…in the West yoruba has been used and in the North, Hausa don swallow am pata pata….HOW DEM NO GO FAIL!!!

  5. Hehehehe. Quite a funny read, but real too. People don’t just know how to spell anymore. Soon, instead of people to laugh out loud, they’ll just say lol.

  6. @raymond, everywhere i see LMFAO, yet i never see persin wey im ass/arse don fall off… language is getting INFORMAL

    1. Seriously. And now so many people are substituting words, like ‘am’ for ‘I’m’, hbd for Happy Birthday, etc…They are all getting lazy, and I won’t be surprised if this finds its way into serious and official documents written by the culprits. Let’s see if their lecturers or managers will ‘lol’ with them.

  7. As usual, another brain candy from you, OALOT. I enjoyed this; however, be careful, young man. The Nazis spoke “perfect German.” Unfortunately they got (is that a hint of ebonics? My bad)tribal with it and embarked on a quest to wipe out folks that were “different.” Show me someone in good old England who speaks the “Queen’s English” and I’ll show you someone who looks down their nose at the rest of us (be careful, now, I didn’t say that they are racists).

    History lesson: When a nation or group refuses to accept or humanely assimilate new or different folk into its culture and midst, they forge their own. It’s only human: they have to survive and thrive. Where American slaves used music to communicate, Africans used drums. History is littered with folks finding ways to survive under descriminatory conditions.

    I do agree with you though: in the quest to forge new paths, the natural or historical order is always disturbed. But I believe that we can walk and chew gum at the same time. If you do not want your pretty little language coarsed, then welcome and ease in difference or change.

  8. Critical issues raised here, issues that need to be checked urgently. Good work Bro.

  9. Very spare writing but conveys the message clearly. I was also amused that a lot of the English themselves hardly knocked themselves as we did, as second languagers, when they threw bullets or gbagaun! LOL…

  10. Think nothing can be done about it. Most guys on NS do the same thing including @Jaywriter. The point is as long as we are communicating, no wahala. 100 years from now, maybe computers will be talking for people. Like you think of what you want to say and the robot inside you says it from inside you. Music went the same way. But most people still enjoy the music of today. And btw, it would be nice for the young ones then to read Yin No More or Undiscovered Discovery and wonder what kinda English is that. Like they’ll see it the way we see Shakespearean English today.

    Good write.

  11. Nice.

    The major essence of a language is to communicate. once the other party comprehends your message, it’s essence is met!

    @ brainypoet- I really see no reason why Ibo, Yoruba or Hausa language cannot be used in teaching English. I think it facilitates learning! It helps the students grab complexities faster and better.

    English is not our mother tongue – it’s our official language. It is expected to find mother tongue interferences and all other sorts. We call this The Nigerian English.

    It’d have been fun if the three major local languages could be made official- we’d even perform better and integrate the ‘world’ into our system.

  12. This is very true! I won’t be surprised if the writer studied Sociology…or Anthropology, or… ok, I’ll stop the guess now. I guess what I’m trying to say is that the issue was analyzed from a very Humanistic viewpoint. Impressive, and effective. Still surprised you had to take the TOEFL though, people I knew had similar experiences, but I never had to.

  13. This TOEFL thing….. I wonder why I’m having to take it even when thinking of going to an asian school, and having communicated to them that I have studied all my life in the English language! Abeg, how many Oyinbo Asian man hear sef?

    But that is the reality we are faced with now. I agree that communication is the essence, but at the same time rules are rules, without them we become language savavges.

    Very good write.

    Well done!!!

  14. I think the evolution taking place right now in English language is of global nature. English is evolving into international language. in due course there will be no Queen’s English or American English or Australian English etc. The influence of the internet and the cosmopolitan nature of most urban cities have been responsible for this beautiful trend. Take London for example, you will be embarassing yourself if you try to speak in Queen’s English when dealing with the ordinary man on the street. It’s life in the fast lane now! No time for making long colloqual sentences.
    This is a beautiful write up, but I don’t agree with “Garbage in” (through our bodily orifices) and “Garbage out” analogy.

    Donate Points ? the

  15. Intellectually sound. But we must accept that the world is changing and languages, to the best of my knowledge, are not from heaven. But then there should be mimimum standards; from all indications the Oyibo man does not determine them anymore. Who or what then? Pop culture is great but it may not work in all situations. Remember, though, what was pop, hip or even colloquial only forty years ago became standard, due to uasage and other factors. My take is let us take charge of the new flow. In all, basic, simple English is the best and, at the risk of being hounded by true naijans, what we speak and write as English in Nigeria is largely crap. Get it right; then evolve if you must.

  16. @raymond, as a lectures, if i see all these short-rape and murder of english in my students’ papers, dem go lol to carryover straight

  17. Language is a currency for communication. Fluency in a language requires a certain proficiency to speak both to the upper and lower echelons of society and still get the message across. Even when I as a Naija person speak I occasionally find myself mixing my idioms as a result of direct translation.
    I enjoyed the issues highlighted, though I do not necessarily agree with all your opinions. Thanks for highlighting the metamorphosis of the spoken English in out times.

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