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Menings | Opinion > Briewe | Letters > SpeakEasy > Speaking Igbo, writing English: Chika responds to Suzy

Speaking Igbo, writing English: Chika responds to Suzy

Chika Unigwe - 2007-04-18

Dear Suzy

Thanks for your response. I am finding it really difficult to imagine that I said that I do not speak much Igbo, as I do speak excellent Igbo. Perhaps the Centre for Creative Arts could provide the video of the panel, if need be. Monica Rorvick filmed it. I speak Igbo with family members (not with my children, as they do not speak any Igbo), and not with my husband, as he is Belgian and speaks zilch Igbo. With those I do speak Igbo with, I speak perfect Igbo. So yes, I would like that clarified, please.

In Nigeria, as in most ex-colonies, the local languages were subjugated to the language of the "Empire". In "good" schools, English was/is the medium of instruction. In my school, for instance, one was punished for speaking Igbo at school. In some schools, local languages were not even taught (and I am fairly certain it's still the case today). In my secondary school it was compulsory to study one of the three major Nigerian languages in the first three years of school, but what one was taught was so rudimentary as to be ridiculous. We learnt much more in-depth French than we did Hausa or Yoruba or Igbo. And not a single student in my set went on to choose any of the languages as an elective in the higher forms.

The Igbo language is very sensitive to tone and its alphabets are punctuation-sensitive. One muddles it up if one has not learnt it properly. The legacy colonisation has left us with in Nigeria – one of the most tragic, certainly – is that while English is the official language, the language of authority, of seriousness, of administration, the local languages are "house" languages.

Re writing in English as opposed to Igbo (etc): For many of us it is much bigger than an issue of personal choice. We simply do not even have the choice, being handicapped by the education that we get. This is the biggest challenge of all. And for those who can write in Igbo, there is no readership (and here I am talking of Igbo specifically). If your society produces a community of people who can speak, but cannot read, Igbo without difficulties, then who are you writing for? Besides, if you are literate enough to read Igbo, it is also because you have been to school (and therefore literate enough to read English).

Re other indigenous African languages and publication: not many publishers are willing to publish books that do not have a mass attraction. I heard that Ngugi's Gikuyu version of Wizard of the Crow sold 1 500 copies. Compare that with how many copies of the same book (in English) Ngugi is likely to sell. And I can assure you that the Gikuyu version sold because of Ngugi's name. I would buy a copy (but I am never likely to read it, not knowing any Gikuyu at all!).

I think that rather than asking African writers to write in their languages, we should be encouraging governments to reassess the issue of local language teaching in schools. Literature in our local languages will arise naturally from that.

So, things being the way they are, it is much more realistic (and sensible) to reappropriate English as ours. The language power balance being what it is, we can/should manipulate it, claim it as ours. That way we remain in dialogue with the world, and yet do not lose our sense of identity. When I write, I create Africa with my words, use English in an African way. When I write in Dutch, I do the same too.

I wish you a beautiful day. We have been quite lucky with the weather here (and I am trying very hard not to think that we have global warming to "thank" for it).


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