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(48): Pidgin English: A Bridge for our Cleavage

Muhammad Muhsin Ibrahim

Wait, the pidgin I know? That’s for the uneducated folks only. Did you just say that? Then you are wrong. The importance of this debased language is far beyond what you think. This is not a new discovery. It’s a fact. That’s why many people campaigned for the pidgin (or, better, the creole) spoken in their countries to be formalised, standardised and even officialised. But that was barely achieved in a few nations like Papua New Guinea, the Philippines and Sierra Leon.

Although India is far more diverse than Nigeria, many Indians are often amazed that we speak English among ourselves, and not ‘Nigerian’. They think there is a popular language used in the country by that name the same way Hindi is in India. We only have Nigerian Pidgin English (NPE) spoken by a healthy minority, I would say, and scores of other languages. A detour: India’s other names are Hindustan (the root word of Hindi, a popular language, and Hinduism, a dominant religion) and Bharat.

Some time ago, a Nigerian student from Edo state came hunting for an apartment in our neighbourhoods. While bargaining for the rent, she and her friends requested my intercession as I have a good rapport with the landlady. I couldn’t speak the Pidgin, or “broken” English they wanted us to use for discretion. Thus, while the Indians spoke Hindi, an incomprehensible language to us, among themselves, we couldn’t communicate in a similar coded way as a people from the same country. We had to speak English. This incident drew me into thinking why can’t I speak Pidgin, apparently, a single language that would have uniquely identified me as their fellow Nigerians? 

I envy many Africans here the majority of whom from the East. They have their language of unity: Kiswahili. Other students from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, etc. also have their own distinct languages. And we, Nigerians have only English for inter-ethnic communication. The southerners, however, use Pidgin/broken English and only fewer other from the north can speak it fluently. 

There have been calls by linguists, scholars and other conservative cum nationalists in Nigeria to kick English out as a national language, or to, at least, ebb its hegemony. All that failed, and more efforts will ultimately, inevitably fail. Thus, I am not advocating for the same failure-prone cause. But there’s every need for more Nigerians to learn NPE (and learn the Standard English the more). It’s the only language that can assist in bridging our ever-widening cleavage. It also belongs to none. So, nobody will feel superior that his or her language is being learned; nobody will also feel inferior that he’s learning other’s language.

I love my language, Hausa a lot. I similarly admire the linguistic heterogeneity of Nigeria. But our overdependence on and overvaluing of English is way too much. We often idiotically align positivity with the comprehension of the language such as intellect, education, prospects in job or marriage, and so on. For instance, no doubt the utterances of the outgoing President’s wife, Patience, are mostly silly, or worse, but the downright condescending remarks trailing them are too much. Ditto, the way some detractors poke fun at the English of the president-elect, Gen. Buhari. The latter is all the more uncalled for, I have to admit.

Nigeria’s indigenous languages equally suffer a lot from the tsunamic onslaught of English and other major languages like Hausa (in the North, for instance). Hence many are slowly dying including Igbo, one of its largest three. Some have already died and others extinct. Sociolinguists, anthropologists and others concerned should come for a rescue mission, please.

Being my wife was raised in a non-Hausa dominated area of Brigade in Kano, she acquired NPE since her childhood. She’s able to integrate more with our southern counterparts here than I. I wish it were the other way. I really envy her. She’ll soon start teaching me this awesome language. Would you join the class? Apply now for admission while there are still available slots.


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