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The English Nigerian children speak (I)

Many native English speakers have asked me if there are native speakers of the English language in Nigeria. My answer is always that there are native English speakers in Nigeria—depending, of course, on what one means by “native speakers.” I will explain what I mean shortly.

Increasingly, thousands of Nigerian children in urban areas—and especially in southern Nigeria—are growing up monolingual; the only language they speak is English. They don’t even speak Nigerian Pidgin English self-consciously. That technically makes English their “mother tongue” (although their biological mothers may not speak English as a native tongue) and them “native speakers” of the English language (although they are geographically located in a part of the world where“traditional” native speakers—Brits, Americans, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, etc.—don’t live). So what kind of “native” English speakers are Nigeria’s English-speaking urban children?

Before I answer that question, I will like to briefly discuss the categories of English speakers that scholars have identified over the years. The first is“English-as-a-native-language” speakers who live mostly in the West—and in white southern Africa—and who acquire the language effortlessly because it is the language of their parents and of their immediate surroundings. But “nativeness” in language isn’t solely about ethnic identity or culture. It can also be determined by the sequentiality of language acquisition, that is, by determining which language one spoke from birth even if that language isn’t the native language of one’s parents. A child born to Chinese immigrants in the USA or Britain who speaks only English, for instance, is a native English speaker.

Then you have “English-as-a-second-language” speakers. Speakers of English as a second language come from countries where people have a first—and sometimes a second, even third— language before they learn English, but where English is not only a school subject but also the language of instruction for all subjects at all or most levels of education. In these mostly linguistically plural countries, English often functions as the lingua franca and as the language of the media, government, the courts, elite social interaction, etc. Nigeria, Ghana, India, Kenya, Bangladesh, etc. are examples of countries with English-as-a-second language speakers. English-as-a-second-language speakers can, and often do, achieve near-native proficiency in the language if they work hard at it.

People in this category are, as I’ve pointed out, at least bilingual, that is, speak two languages, and at most multilingual, that is, speak more than two languages. But because they are disproportionately exposed to English in schools, work places, the media, etc., they are liable to either additive bilingualism (where proficiency in English can strengthen proficiency in the mother tongue and vice versa) and subtractive bilingualism (where proficiency in English can detract from proficiency in the mother tongue or vice versa).

Another category of English speakers is“English-as-a-foreign-language” speakers. People in this category come from non-English-speaking countries and learn English either only as a school subject or as adult learners seeking to get sufficient proficiency in English to be able to study in English-speaking countries, or to just perform basic communicative tasks in the language. Examples are people from China, Japan, Saudi Arabia, France, Spain, etc.

Nigerians who are confronted with their bad English grammar often protest that people in economically successful countries like Japan, China, and some “Asian Tigers” don’t speak English and that that somehow mitigates their poor grasp of a language they have been learning from age 5 to adulthood. But that’s a bad contrast of contexts. People in those countries aren’t English-as-a-second-language speakers, although English may chronologically be the second language they have learned after their native languages.

This is so because English isn’t the language of instruction at all levels of their education; it is just a subject in their educational curriculum—the same way that French, for instance, is in ours. English isn’t the language of government in their countries. Nor is English the language of their media. So it is unreasonable to expect the same degree of proficiency in the language between English-as-a-foreign-language speakers and English-as-a-second-language speakers.

The last category of English speakers in the scholarly literature is speakers of “English as an alternate language.” These are people who live in countries where English is a native language but who have a native language that isn’t English. Examples are French Canadians, Native Americans, the Aborigines of Australia, the Maoris of New Zealand, and recent immigrant communities in native-speaker countries who still retain their native languages. These people have access to the native varieties of the English language if they so choose, but they are not technically native speakers because they first acquired a mother tongue before encountering English.

Now, where do urban-dwelling, monolingual, English-speaking Nigerian children fit in these categories? They are not considered “native speakers” of the English language because they don’t live in the traditional linguistic habitat of native speakers of the language—UK, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc. But they are not, technically speaking, English-as-a-second-language speakers because English is chronologically their first—and, for that matter, only—language. Plus, it is the only language their parents speak to them. And they are certainly not “English-as-an-alternate-language” speakers because they live in an English-as-a-second-language linguistic clime.

However, the English that monolingual Nigerian children speak has all the quintessential characteristics of Nigerian English, an English-as-a-second-language variety. So who are they? I propose that they be classified as speakers of “English as a native second language.”

This is obviously clumsy phraseology, but it captures the uniqueness—and, yes, clumsiness—of the situation of urban, English-only, Nigerian children. They speak a variety of English that will mostly certainly lead native speakers of the language in the UK, the US, Canada, etc. to think that the children speak another language before— or in addition to— English. But they don’t. Their English has all the “mother-tongue interferences” that their parents’ and teachers’ English has. Yet they do not speak any native Nigerian language and therefore don’t have the linguistic cognitive structures that lead to “mother tongue interference” in English. It seems to me fitting to describe them as “native speakers” of an “English-as-a-second language” variety.

The problem with this category of English speakers is that their “native” status isn’t a guarantee of effective communication in the language. As one linguist beautifully put it, “The mother tongue is an indispensable instrument for the development of the intellectual, moral and physical aspects of education. It is a subject thought and by which other subjects can be tackled, understood and communicated. Clarity of thought and expression is only possible when one has a certain command over the mother tongue. Weakness in any other subject means weakness in that particular subject only, but weakness in the mother tongue means the paralysis of all thought and the power of expression. Deep insight, fresh discoveries, appreciation and expansion of ideas are only possible when one understands the subject through being able to assimilate and be stimulated by the ideas of the subject.”

Replace “mother tongue” in the above quotation with “English” and you will appreciate the peculiar situation of monolingual, English-speaking Nigerian children. Next week I will highlight the peculiar English expressions typical of Nigerian children and compare them with known native-speaker varieties. Keep a date.


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