Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Voyage to English

By

Obododimma Oha

For many speakers of English as a second language, especially those encountering the language from the double margins of the rural context in Nigeria, learning to speak and write the language is a kind of voyage with its many experiences of bewilderment, strangeness, adventure, shock, and even pain. Many learners of the language indeed struggle to identify ways they can transfer meanings of expressions in their first languages to English and vice versa. Our teachers in their wisdom thought that it was best to compel us to speak English in class. If we were to make a successful trip to English, we needed to leave behind, at least temporarily, the luggage of the first language, identified as “vernacular.” Laws always have to reinforce impositions, and so our teachers decreed that anyone that spoke vernacular instead of English in class was to pay a fine. In some classes the punishment was manual labour: either removing the bucket of urine from the urinal and pouring it on the compost heap and turning the heap that gave out a pestilential odour, or cutting the grass on the lawns (which was always in generous supply for offenders at school). A voyage to English was, in my elementary school days, a divestment of one’s right to speak the language that one liked or was familiar with.

Our teachers took no chances and welcomed no excuses from us their captives. They knew our problems, our needs, our fears, more than we knew. They were determined to deal with these, to liberate us, or rather to liberate our tongues that were supposedly tied by Igbo our native language, for indeed our main horror was in being asked in class to stand up or come to the front of the class to speak English. Naturally, we considered it a great misfortune to be picked to speak English, especially while facing other members of the class. If one uttered the wrong thing, one was sure to get a terrible boo, even from those who equally couldn’t express themselves in acceptable English! What more, whatever wrong English one uttered was sure to be a source of an annoying nickname that members of the class would start using in addressing one. Good God, it was really a misfortune to be picked to utter what one didn’t have a clue how to utter!

One day, our teacher in Elementary Four took everyone by surprise by calling our names at random and asking us to stand up and say in English what was going on in each picture he displayed in front of the class. He brought out a picture of a man taking snuff and asked one of us what he saw in the picture. The fellow was visibly terrified beyond measure. He scratched his head. He bit his lips. He looked up, as if to find out if what he needed to say was written on the ceiling. Then he looked down on the floor, as if the right utterance eluded the ceiling and rested on the floor. Beads of sweat started running down his frustrated face. “Speak!” the teacher barked, reaching for his cane. With this jolt, the pupil simply said, “This man is kpoo otaba!” The class burst out laughing. Even the teacher could not help laughing too. Our colleague was really clever, having combined both the familiar and the unfamiliar, at the same time inserting the unwelcome vernacular into the authorized English expression. He didn’t know the word “snuff” or how to say “taking snuff” in English. Just like the rest of us, he was not really expressing what he saw in the picture but translating what he saw from Igbo to English. And somewhere along the way, the journey to the appropriate English expression ran into lexico-semantic trouble. Which escape route would have been better (in his thinking) than code-switching, which required making a convenient diversion from the route to English to that of the Igbo language? At once, I later realized, our fellow pupil eloquently expressed, beyond the semantic sense of the sentence, a meta-message about his cultural circumstances as a speaker of English as a second language. Of course, our teacher had no interest in this additional meaning of the pupil’s expression in English. What mattered to him, I could imagine, was the fact that the pupil’s utterance revealed a deficiency in the latter’s knowledge of the right English words to use in naming things or representing experiences. Surely, we the pupils lacked such knowledge, but we were also puzzled as to the relationship between the English we were forced to speak and the Igbo language we knew but were not allowed to speak in class.

The torture did not end with the English of snuff-taking! Our teacher called another pupil who was sitting next to me. You can be sure that I almost got a heart attack, for I was afraid that I was the one asked to disgrace self this time around! The teacher displayed a picture of a doctor examining patients and asked my neighbour to say in English what he saw in the picture. This time the fellow did not waste any time and thinking through his answer. Right away he answered: “The doctor crock. The doctor say. The doctor ….” Before he could say more, our teacher signaled him to stop, and as usual the class had a good laugh. In this second case, there was no mixture of English and Igbo. Perhaps our friend had concluded that the teacher’s objection in the previous case was the mixture of English and vernacular, which we naturally saw as being few inches away from the forbidden Igbo speech. Anyway, the greater fun, for us, was not as much in knowing the right thing the boy should have said as in providing some comic relief in a captive, tensed up class, and by extension, the source of a new nickname we would celebrate outside during the break period! Our friend became “The doctor crock” right from that day.

The voyage to English was a voyage to humour as much as it was a voyage in fear. Perhaps the fear was a necessary element for the realization of the humorous side of learning a second language.

Even if our classroom encounters with English did not produce enough effect about the importance of the language in our lives, our encounters with children who returned from the city for Christmas and Easter celebrations did. The returnees were very proud and haughty. They had fine clothes on and spoke English (or a variety of it), to our great dismay and shame. They deliberately spoke English to us, mostly using abusive words, to suggest to us that we were not the same with them. Language difference at the playground became a weapon for subduing the other, for excluding and decivilizing the other. We saw being picked to speak English in class as a misfortune, but here, staring us in the face at the playground, was a greater misfortune. There was nothing as painful as being denigrated by one’s peers. Some of us started avoiding the city children. Those that opted to stay sometimes offered to settle the question of language superiority through exchange of blows. Being able to speak English was not the measure of superiority, they argued. A good fight was the right way!

I didn’t want my voyage to English to end with a fight at the playground and so I devised what I considered a better way of liberating my tongue from its “villageness” and vernacular hold. Back home, I would retreat to the forest where no one would see or hear me and then start uttering anything that came into my head as English. I spoke and spoke and spoke my nonsense English until I became tired but happy that I had done it. I was the addresser and the addressee in these strange spoken English episodes. Gradually, I started gaining some measure of confidence and got ready to speak English to the city children whenever next we met. The opportunity came one day and I put a vigorous display of prowess in my strange glossolalia. The reaction that I received somehow encouraged me: instead of laughing at me, everyone listened and seemed to be making efforts to understand what I was saying.

I did not stop with such glossolalia, for I knew that I was talking nonsense and that one day I would receive a disgraceful treatment from my listeners. The next move was to turn to the junior dictionary by Michael West. This helped me in building my store of English vocabulary. I also asked people whose knowledge of English I trusted what particular objects or ideas were called in English. A turning point in the voyage came when my elder brother who had gained admission into the secondary school acquired a copy of Students’ Companion. Whenever he was not around, I would fish the book out of his bag and start reading it. The section that attracted me most was the one on synonyms. It contained simpler words that were matched with longish strange words. I was excited, greatly excited, for I realized that I could, as a substitute for my glossolalia, memorize these very long words and utter them whenever the need arose, to mesmerize my schoolmates. I did just that: I memorized “cantankerous” as a better word than “quarrelsome,” “cacophony” as a substitute for “noise,” and so on. The most treasured perhaps was the word “tintinnabulation.” I did not hesitate to try it out on my elder brother who owned the book from which I harvested it. He dismissed me as speaking nonsense, saying that it was not an English word. I did not have any proof to win my case, for I did not want to expose the fact that I had been searching his schoolbag in his absence. Elder brothers and elder sisters (who always had secrets in those days) would not tolerate that kind of violation of their privacies!

I continued the voyage, armed with “big” English, giving my schoolmates a false impression that I had reached the island of English and had returned with the hidden treasures of expression. Anyway, the important thing is that I gradually lost my dread for English and my tongue became loose. I found, to my surprise, that I could express myself in English, even if it was a bad one. What is a voyage after all, if not a deliberate attempt to befriend fear, learn from errors, and recognize the difference between compulsion and the discovery of necessity!

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