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Think Tank The queen would quaver at our bad English

Umaru Fofana

Umaru Fofana

At a recent press conference, Minister of Information, Alhaji Ibrahim Ben Kargbo lamented thus: His uncle, a Standard Five graduate, a junior class in those days, had written a letter to him regarding some family matter. The minister was full of praise for the standard of English contained in his uncle’s letter. An orator in his own right, Mr Kargbo threw cold water on the quality of English, written or spoken, among school-goers of today.
The Minister, a former high school principal, was visibly testy over the apparent drop in standards. So also was education minister, Dr Minkailu Bah who lamented over the bad state of affairs. How true! I dare say even among high school and university graduates the Queen’s English is being butchered, given a new meaning and a new structure; something that would be bad enough to make the Queen quaver if she heard that from a Sierra Leonean.
I think there is more emphasis in schools on the teaching of English Literature than on English language. What this means is that even some teachers of English lack knowledge in the basics of the language because they were not taught them. The rationale behind the emphasis on literature is probably to bring out the reading ability in the student. But nay! The culture if reading as a habit is dying. If you want to hide something from many of today’s Sierra Leoneans just put it in writing. Students and their teachers hardly read outside their notes. It is a waste of time to them. It is all football and Nigerian movies.
The speaking of the language is in a coma. In offices, people do not speak English. In school, they do not. On college campuses, it is Krio, Krio and Krio. Do we need telling that the best way of learning a language is by speaking it every day, and the easiest way not to, is by not speaking it. It dies in you.
Some people say it is the krio language that undermines our ability to speak English. Even though I believe that there is some truth in that, in that it makes us think in krio to speak in English, I don’t entirely agree because the speaking of krio is not new. But the speaking of bad English is. Besides, I think the Creoles themselves speak very good English grammar. So krio cannot be the reason.
What is even particularly strange is that Sierra Leoneans still see ourselves as the best English language speakers in Africa. How wrong! Listen to market women speak in Ghana, Kenya or South Africa. Listen to some of our government ministers, teachers, university students, our senior police officers, et al, and hear the howler. Yes we all have our L1 (first language), but that is not reason to speak or write terrible English. I have been to the offices of many senior civil servant and ministers who speak in krio or Temne or Mende to their secretaries or other junior colleagues. Recently I went to a minister’s office and decided to speak to his secretary in English. She later accused me of pretending to have just returned from England or America on knowing that I am a Sierra Leonean who has never lived in the West. This is the mentality.
Go to our Parliament and listen to some of our MPs speak. And it is not new. If you cannot speak well, you are not widely-read to be able to study bills, what are you doing in Parliament? Some-one please tell me.
Another art that is dying is reading as in reading out. Listen to our radio stations and hear how the news or public notices are cast. Many people do not only fake their accent, they do so at the expense of correctness in grammar. I blame them, YES! But I also blame the fact that READING is not taught in many school these days. So together with grammar, reading is another casualty of the hogwash taught in schools. And this is a problem even in some of the so-called Grade A schools.
Attend a poetry-reading evening at the British Council, the hall is empty. Go to the stadium for a music album launch, full to the brim. Go to our libraries, almost all those who go there are students. Where are the bookshops? But even if we had bookshops who would buy the books? The reason is not money, or the lack of it. Not at all!! Some homes spend a fortune to buy or rent Nigerian movies. The reason is misplacement of priority.
The downward spiral is alarming. So much so, that speaking English, to some, is perceived as a show off. We should have mandatory speaking of English in offices and on school and college campuses.
We don’t write. Where are the intellectuals in our midst? They should be writing books or even syndicated articles in newspapers. And I must single out Dr Sama Banya whose views you may disagree with, but he articulates them very well. May be he is obviously too partisan, but how about our intellectuals writing balanced articles to let us the not-too-educated and young folks learn from? In some other countries, the views of former public officials and intellectuals are read regularly in newspapers. Not here! The other day I was looking for an academic to contribute to the BBC Focus on Africa, magazine, I tried a few who would not. Or maybe could not.
I think the English language school curriculum should be reviewed. Yes we want a study of our local languages. But we need emphasis on the teaching and study of English. Things are terribly bad already. And I think the emphasis should be on secondary school but also tertiary level education. English language being referred to as a core subject should go beyond just referring to it as such. It must be reflected. An engineer, a rocket scientist an agriculturalist or whatever you are, communication is in English not in Mandingo or Susu.
A repeat is needed her. The English language syllabus should be reviewed. What has happened to ESPN (English Sentence Pattern and Structure) in primary schools? Lecturers should pay more attention to the teaching of Use of English at the university. It is shocking the terrible English spoken by some university graduates who say they majored in English language. Reduce the number of literature books and teach grammar. Otherwise the mouths laughing at the way some of us read and write English, can only open wider. 
By Umaru Fofana

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