Sunday, February 26, 2012

Cutting the Native Tongue According to the Imagined Limits of Its Powers: Resistance to the Use of Igbo in Written Formal Communications

By

Obododimma Oha

I was once invited to teach a course in Igbo Stylistics on a temporary basis in a Nigerian university. All the students offering the course, I realized, were all Igbo-speaking and had Igbo as their first language. This was supposed to be an advantage and I felt that using Igbo as a language of instruction or as a language in which students would write their notes, assignments, and examination was not something that would meet any resistance. But I was wrong. My students complained bitterly when I insisted that they write their notes in Igbo, just I was teaching them in Igbo. I pointed out to them the absurdity of using a different language to teach another, as well as the fact that it would not assist them in developing their writing skills in the language they were studying. Their excuse was that they had all along been receiving instructions in their Igbo courses in English, same for the assignments and examinations and had also been permitted to write assignments and examinations in English. I was puzzled but really sad that it was so. Ah well, they just had to make a change, for my own ideology of language teaching spoke against their own orientation.

One of the excuses offered for not using Igbo to teach Igbo was that a metalanguage for such communication was lacking, or was still in infancy. That was false, terribly false, for a metalanguage for Igbo linguistics teaching had been made available very long ago and was already in use in the teaching of Igbo in primary schools since the early seventies. So why this resistance to its use? Is it the desire or tendency to treat English as being more prestigious than local Nigerian languages, or sheer laziness and lack of readiness to consolidate the gains already made by the fathers of Igbo linguistics? 

As a pupil in French language class, I was told that I would make greater progress in the language if I was taught the language in French and not English or any other language. It was also forbidden for any student in the French class to speak English while the lecture was in progress. The same regulation was sometimes maintained in the English language classes. This direct immersion approach helps learners to adjust faster  and begin to imagine themselves located as speakers in the very context of the use of the target language. Mediations of language learning through other languages that are competitors could slow down progress in the learning of the target language. 

How else could the target language and its learning be better promoted than in committing it to use in various written communications? It is in this regard that one is worried about the reluctance on the part of some native speakers to use their indigenous  Nigerian languages in official written business communications such as minutes of meetings, reports, memos, and notices. One is not ignorant of the fact that Nigeria is a multilingual country, or that many organizations and workplaces in the country are plural in their membership/staffing and therefore need a language of convenience like English in their interactions. But I am specifically concerned with those organizations in which all the members have a Nigerian language  as their native language, for instance town unions and village meetings. Why would such organizations prefer to have their internal written communications in English and not their native language? In addressing this question, I focus on my personal experience with resistance to the use of Igbo in such written communications in organizations and groups that have Igbo-speaking individuals entirely in their membership (but, for ethical reasons, I will not mention the specific names of these organizations in this essay).

I have served as secretary in several Igbo cultural organizations such as age-group, town unions, etc. My experiences in these cases show that English is either specified as the language in which the organization's written communications have to be made, or it is treated as a given that English would be used. Perhaps this attitude has resulted from the inherited colonial assumption that English and not the local language is the only suitable language for serious social or organizational written communication. This colonial mentality invests English with prestige and authority. Anyone seeking to write an ordinary letter in Igbo is viewed as being out to make people laugh. Since English is considered the norm in written communication, Igbo written communication, especially in an official context, is treated as some deviation that could have no other purpose than merely to entertain people. 

I once tried to change this attitude to written Igbo communication in one Igbo cultural group I belonged by daring to write minutes of meetings in Igbo. I must confess that the courage to attempt this use of Igbo in writing minutes of meetings derived mainly from the realization that:
(a) All the members were Igbo speakers;
(b) The members supposedly shared a strong feeling about promoting Igbo language and culture as a way of protecting their cultural identity;
(c) All the members had higher education;
(d) Igbo language being in danger of dying had often been discussed at the meetings of the group, and members were encouraged to teach their children Igbo at home;
(e) As secretary, I was in a good position to demonstrate that using Igbo in official writing was possible. 
Perhaps it was the last point above, which probably revealed what might appear to some as overzealousness, that pushed me on to dare to write, circulate, and read the minutes in Igbo.
But, to my surprise and regret, my experiment with Igbo in writing the minutes and notice of meetings received a stiff resistance. A member complained about the writing minutes of meetings in Igbo and so it became an item on the agenda at one of the meetings. The debate on the issue clearly showed that many members were against the use of Igbo writing minutes of meetings and notices. The following were the excuses given (or indirectly suggested) in the submissions during the debate:
(1) (Some) members cannot read written Igbo
(2) (Some) members cannot write Igbo
(3) There are still (dialectal) controversies in the writing of Igbo
(4) The use of Igbo for such written communication is more tasking/slows down proceedings
(5) Igbo language does not represent learnedness and modernity
(6) Igbo language is too local and does not confer integrity on its users.
And so the group, an Igbo cultural organization with highly educated members and which had been talking about the promotion of Igbo language and culture, as well as the protection of their ethnic identity, shelved the use of their language in their internal official written communication. It also enshrined it in its constitution, only allowing the use of Igbo in spoken interactions among members. That was the end of my being secretary, and, of course, my overzealousness in the group. 

Isn't it an irony that a group that is seeking to promote Igbo language and identity cannot allow the use of Igbo in its internal written communications, even for experimental purposes? Isn't it an irony that the very task of using the language in serious communication is assigned to others and not "us"? And isn't this how some "learned" Igbo people destroy their language, and one way they hope to erase their Igbo identity finally? I leave these questions to my readers, especially the Igbo (and other Nigerian groups that similarly resist the use of their own native languages in official communication) to think about.

Some common scenarios one finds in Igbo cultural organizations with regard to minutes writing are as follows:
(1) Having proceedings in Igbo and writing the minutes in English (ie as translations) -- listening to Igbo, writing notes in English
(2) Having the proceedings in a combination of English and Igbo and writing the minutes in English
(3) Having the proceedings in English and writing the minutes in same.
(4) Having the proceedings in a combination of English, Igbo, and other languages, and writing the minutes in English.

The first scenario mentioned above, of course, reveals the cultural hybridity of the members and the mentality of relegating Igbo in a kind of diglossic framework to the Low language status and English to the High. In this case, Igbo is considered only appropriate for informal exchanges but when it comes to serious formal written communication, English takes the stage. Perhaps this is caused not only by the colonial mentality that denigrates the "native" and the "native language" but also the poor knowledge of written Igbo among the members. But how can both challenges be addressed if the status quo is maintained? How can members defer or exclude the use of Igbo in their organization's written communication and expect to continue learning and improving the powers of their native language? 

Moreover, the writing of the minutes in English (as translations) definitely creates additional semantic and grammatical problems which often surface when the minutes are read and debated afterwards. A lot of precious time may be wasted in determining whether what Okeke and Okafo said in Igbo had been appropriated reported in the English version of the minutes. Of course, one cannot rule out (mis)interpretations of motives behind translations of what a member had originally said in Igbo, which would generate conflicts in the group. 

Scenario Two, which involves having deliberations in a combination of English and Igbo (what has been referred to in Igbo cultural discourse as "Engligbo") and writing the minutes in English, shares outlook and repercussions with the first. But, in addition, it promotes an emergence of hybrid spoken Igbo, the code-mixing raising further stylistic problems for the minute-taker/writer who has to resolve the structural problems that affect meaning in the bilingual grammar of each speaker in trying to grasp the meaning of what has been said.

The third scenario that involves having the spoken interaction in English and writing the minutes or other written communication in same is not very common; it is to be found among Igbo elite that, by virtue of their professional engagement and training, have English as the language of serious business communication. The context of their meeting perhaps have little or nothing to do with ethnolinguistic feelings. It is simply business that has brought them together. Moreover, their competence in written Igbo may be very low. Whereas the non-use of Igbo in such a situation is excusable, nothing prevents the group from attempting to bring Igbo into their business information practice, the same way that a Chinese or Korean group working together would commit their own languages to business practice, even when English remains a language of global business communications. 

The fourth scenario, which involves using Igbo and other languages (including French and other Nigerian languages) in deliberations and having the minutes in English, often manifests in Igbo cultural gatherings outside the Igbo homeland. Clearly, the multilingual nature of the language of deliberations is not just a consequence of not being purely Igbo again (given the experience of living away from the homeland and mixing with the non-Igbo). It could also be related to the much-talked-about tendency of the modern Igbo to neutralize cultural identity in wanting to be a citizen of the world, and demonstrating this neutrality as something to be celebrated, or as an indication of the fact that the self has greater cultural adaptation and exposure. One who tries to show that such an orientation is self-deception might be mistaken for drumming their cultural chauvinism too loud in a globalized world. 

When I attend some Igbo community meetings with predominant semi-literate membership, I find the Igbo members making strenuous and sometimes embarrassing efforts to communicate in English. The minutes of their meetings are written and read in very bad English, too, but they don't mind, for English, to them, is English, and a bad English at least allows them to belong to modernity. If one has to intervene to correct the errors in such use of English, then the meeting would have to deal with serious personality conflicts and probably take a whole day. So, the minutes and bye laws are packaged and stored in bad English. 

There are some serious reasons why an indigenous Nigerian language ought to be used in written organizational communication:
(1) Promoting the development of the language, creating opportunities for the creation of new terminology where some are lacking;
(2) Assisting members to use expressions that they fairly understand their meanings/implications
(3) Keeping the language alive: a language that is not written is on its way to dying
(4) Making the language truly functional and relevant in every context of discourse. 

If serious effort is not made to use Igbo in formal written communication, the language will likely revert to its precolonial status of being only a spoken language. Igbo scholars and leaders must exhibit more than mere rhetorical concern about the future of the language.

One must acknowledge some efforts made in recent times in Nigeria to rescue Igbo language from imminent death. The Government of Anambra State of Nigeria, for instance, realizing that the use of Igbo language, the indigenous language of the state, was in serious decline, came up with a campaign encouraging the speaking of Igbo language in the home and in public interactions in Igbo communities. It has enacted the following Igbo Language Usage Enforcement Law 2009, defined as " A Law to enforce the speaking and writing of, and wide-spread usage of Igbo Language among Ndigbo in Anambra State and Diaspora," to signify its seriousness in the campaign:

"The usage of Igbo language is hereby enforced by the following means with effect from 1st September, 2011:-
Igbo language as a subject in addition to English language and Mathematics must be passed by an Igbo student before he can be promoted from JSSII to SSS I in all secondary schools in the State;
Every State or privately owned tertiary institution in the State must establish an independent department of Igbo language bearing that name;
Every State or privately owned tertiary institution must make Igbo language a mandatory General studies course in the institution."

Also, a group called "Suwakwa Igbo" (Endeavour to Speak Igbo) was founded by Prof. Pita Ejiofor of Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, in 2006, with the mission "To restore vitality to the Igbo Language, make the entire Igbo people proud of it, speak it, write it, read it, teach it and carry out researches for its growth and development ." One is delighted that Suwakwa Igbo does not focus only on spoken Igbo. Indeed, we cannot have an effective Suwakwa Igbo without Debekwa Igbo (Endeavour to write Igbo) as its necessary complement. Speaking and writing are language production skills that are interdependent. Similarly, reading and listening, as reception skills, reinforce and are influenced by language production skills. Given this network of relationship among the language skills, how much of the use of Igbo in official written communication is actually going on in government circles and public life in the Igbo-speaking states in Nigeria, to reinforce the efforts of the "Suwakwa Igbo" group and Suwakwa Igbo as a cultural ideology? Where are the Igbo-language newspapers sponsored by the governments of these states? Suwakwa Igbo would have no meaning if it merely stops at the level of speaking the language. "Suwakwa" needs to be viewed, not just as an act of speaking (within oral communication) but as "speaking" through writing (i.e. within written communication). If the governments in these Igbo-speaking states are indeed serious Suwakwa Igbo governments, they ought to demonstrate this ideology by making Igbo a worthy language of their formal, written, administrative communications. 

It is one thing to speak passionately about saving a dying language; it is another thing to give life to such a language through permitting its use in those areas of official communication where it has to register its presence and create its future. 

2 comments:

Unknown said...

This is quite disturbing! How do we intend to survive the future of our dear heritage?
-Salam Adesina M.

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