Nigeria harnesses Pidgin English power

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Work has started to study and standardise a language spoken by millions but denied official status, raising hopes for education and communication across West Africa

The traffic gridlock of Nigeria‘s main city Lagos means that Albanus Olekaibe, a 44-year-old contract driver, spends more of his day listening to radio presenters than to anyone else.

He has been following reports of the latest bribery scandal to beset the World Cup football authorities and he can speak knowledgeably on the midterm elections in the US. But the commentary on current affairs that spills from this big, cheerful man would be incomprehensible to the average English speaker. Olekaibe uses familiar English words but strings them together in a unique way, interspersed with phrases from Nigeria’s 500 other languages. Like some 50 million Nigerians he speaks Nigerian Pidgin English.

His source of news is Wazobia FM, the first radio station in Nigeria to broadcast in Pidgin and registering huge audiences as a result. The station’s newsreaders report on the impending monsoon in south-east Asia: “Dem dey run comot for dem house” (People are fleeing their homes).

Long considered the language of the uneducated, Nigerian Pidgin English, with its oscillating tones and playful imagery, is now spoken by Nigerians of every age, social class and regional origin.

In a country with wide disparity in education provision, Pidgin operates as a de facto lingua franca, a bridge between social classes, ethnicities and educational levels. Public announcements and information campaigns are often made in Pidgin, which has a wider reach than standard English, the official language of this former British colony.

But while Nigerian Pidgin first emerged nearly 60 years ago and is now estimated to be used by 50 million people, and with variants spoken in Ghana, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the language still has no standard rules for spelling, grammar or an official dictionary.

As a Nigerian linguist once put it, “Na like pikin we no get papa, we no get mama” (It is like a child without a father or mother). Everyone uses Pidgin to serve their purpose, but no one looks out for it.

That is what the Naija Languej Akademi is seeking to change by creating the first reference guide for Pidgin English,

which will include an alphabet, a comprehensive dictionary, a standard guide to orthography and an authoritative history of the language.

“The fact that it is a very recent development makes the language very interesting from an intellectual point of view,” said Bernard Caron, a French linguist and secretary of the Akademi, a project set up last year with French government funding to promote research in the social sciences and the humanities, and enhance collaborative work between scholars in France and west Africa.

Caron and his mostly Nigerian colleagues prefer to call the language Naija Languej, arguing that the term Pidgin or the alternative “broken English” are either inaccurate or derogatory.

Pidgin is a definition applied to simplistic languages that are prone to die out. If, however, they evolve and acquire native speakers, they are categorised as creole languages.

The Naija Languej Akademi argues that Nigerian Pidgin has acquired native speakers in the southern Niger Delta, from where it developed as a means of communication between local people and European traders.

The interest in Pidgin is not only intellectual but also political. Because similar forms of Pidgin are shared across west Africa’s English-speaking countries, many believe it could evolve from a national lingua franca into a regional one.

The value of Pidgin has also been brought into focus by falling attainment in standard English. This year’s NECO exam, one of two tests used to administer secondary school leaving certificates, revealed that only 20% of the 1.1 million candidates passed the English-language paper, fuelling a national debate over the dire state of education standards.

“We even have 14-year-old children in our programme who cannot read,” said Patrick Oragwu, co-ordinator of Oasis, a not-for profit project establishing libraries in government funded schools to encourage reading.

“The main problem is that the Nigerian education system has failed. All the languages students are exposed to [have an impact on] their ability to read and understand properly. Not just Pidgin, but all languages affect them.”

Urban Nigerians are used to switching from one language to the next, but without good grounding in basic grammar and orthography of either English or their mother tongue, code switching becomes more difficult.

Addressing the needs of multilingual societies was first highlighted 40 years ago when Unesco published a study showing that primary-school-aged children learn better when taught in their mother tongue. Mother-tongue education was championed in Nigeria in the 1970s by the pioneering education minister Babs Fafunwa, who died aged 87 last month, but the policy was never implemented.

Dr Christine Ofulue, a linguist and member of the Akademi, explains that teaching mother tongues in schools, including Pidgin, will improve students’ English. “We call it contrastive linguistics,” she said. “It’s the opposite to saying: ‘Let’s not teach so we don’t confuse them.’ When you do that you do confuse them and you can use the same argument for other languages.”

But before any strong case can be made for teaching Pidgin as a language in schools, spelling first needs to be standardised. And so members of the Naija Languej Akademi have tasked themselves with answering questions such as where to put accents to indicate vowel sounds: far-reaching decisions that few 21st-century linguists get to make.

Outside the world of academics and policymakers, Nigerian Pidgin English is simply the way millions of Nigerians communicate.

Olekaibe’s dial is permanently turned to Wazobia FM, overlooking about 20 other stations on offer. Lately though he has been missing the familiar voices that make Lagos traffic more bearable because his stereo is broken. “My radio don bad, a just de wait make dem fix am!

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