English language crisis and Bayo Oguntunse’s legacy

Martins Oloja

The wind of time has blown me away again from hot town talks to a weightier matter of governance: education policy. The context, official language crisis is considered more significant than our daily pursuit of prominent political stories that diminish us daily.

It would have been more interesting to analyse the current storm in a teacup in the nation’s capital: the Aisha Alhassan’s revolt in PMB’s cabinet. That analysis could have been garnished with the suspected trigger of the rebellion against project 2019 inside Abuja, the never-say-die political fighter, Atiku Abubakar. The artful politician, Turakin Adamawawho may have to regard Chief Olusegun Obasanjo as a bogeyman in the circumstances, has challenged the ailing PMB in an ailing nation to a duel over 2019. Although some insiders have hinted at something more interesting: that there are more Aisha Alhassans in the cabinet and the colour of this boldness will be clearer sooner than later.

But this week, a short article by an angry journalist on a digital platform actually touched off the main issue here: dealing with worsening crisis of teaching English language in the country. This is not prominent but more significant. Ordinarily, why should we be concerned about declining standard in the use of English language when we should be more bothered about competence in STEM subjects that can trigger technological development in future? After all, the science and technology authorities in Abuja have advertised government’s intention to begin teaching of basic sciences and mathematics in indigenous languages. And so, why should poor teaching of grammar of English language be a discussion point at a time ASUU, NASU and NARD, etc have declared trade disputes with the federal government?

Crisis in English Language
I had wanted to draw attention to this embarrassing crisis within a crisis in education in May this year when we lost the most committed to the cause of poor management of English Grammar learning in the country, Mr. Bayo Oguntunase a few days to his 75th birthday. I could not write anything on the demise of the grand old masterwho began writing on this malaise through his remarkable column Mind Your Language inthe defunct National Concordthat young readers did not meet. He continued the column in The Sun till death did us part barely four months ago. It will be recalled that there was a time Pa Oguntunase changed the column title in Concord to English Language Crisis…The old teacher of the English grammar in its classical form focused his attention on the news media just as Mr. Lade Bonula (LadBone) did years before the advent of Oguntunase in the Sunday Times Cut Out: A Critical Look at the Nigerian Press.I could not express myself on this transition until last Thursday when a journalist who worked with me at the Abuja Bureau of The Guardian, Mr. Lemmy Ughegbe, a graduate of English language, when schools were schools, drew fresh attention to the national tragedy that economic crisis has somewhat relegated. This is the way Lemmy wrote on it in a brief but remarkable FaceBook posting he titled:

Such Poor Grammar on Facebook.
I have fainted twice reading through some threads here. Go develop yourself. NOOOOOO! Everyone & anyone can improve. It is called Personal Development (PD). They won’t. Yet, they are so brazenly critical of people and government whereas their grammar is in crisis. Before you say English no be your language, let me point out that 1. English is Nigeria’s No. 1 official language. 2. You are NOT under any obligation to write in English on Facebook. 3. If you must write Oyibo, please improve yourself. Humble yourself & go to an “English language clinic”. After all, the real pride is in becoming the best form of you. I wish you all a great day. Your Friend, Lemmy Ughegbe.

It was in the course of responding to this Lemmy’s note that I decided to expand the frontiers of this discussion on the not-so-famous but big national malaise that the late Oguntunase fought ruthlessly to draw attention to. In some jurisdictions where teaching has been reformed, the Ekiti-born teacher who did not obtain a degree in English language anyway, would have been honoured and given a visiting Professor status for his significant research and writing on mechanics of the foreign language he learned from a native speaker he said he had served as a secondary school student. The former teacher at the Nigerian Institute of Journalism was never honored by any Department of English Studies in all our tertiary institutions in the country where you have to obtain a doctorate before you can be recognized as an Expert. This is one area that needs (cognitive) restructuring too. In developed economies, there are recognitions for special people who (though without doctorate degrees) have extraordinary knowledge of what they do such as Alex Ferguson of Manchester United’s fame, for instance.

The essence of today’s discussion points is that the place of English language in this country cannot be overemphasized. Therefore, the point being made by Lemmy is that it is still our No.1 official language and mastery of some essentials of its use remains relevant. That is why the assertion by S.M.O Aka, an old teacher of the language and WAEC examiner who wrote extensively to help students in those days remains evergreen. The famous June 12 election activist, Aka had said in a preface to one of his books that, “Although mastery of the English language may not be a passport to heaven, it is indeed a passport to some heavenly places such as the Universities and handsome pay packets…” But sadly today, apart from children of the elite who have had the privilege of attending good and expensive private schools where good teachers still exist, ‘the victims’ that the Lemmys are complaining about in the socialmedia are products of our derelict public schools that do not have proper teachers of many critical subjects including English language. I am a product of and a testifier to the essence of the old Teacher Training Colleges, there is a sense in which I can say that scrapping of the Teacher training Colleges and Schools of Arts and Sciences for Advanced Level GCE, has adversely affected quality of teaching in the country. Yes, only children of the elite and business class enjoy good education at home and abroad.

As I said to Lemmy whose observation set off this discussion here, English language crisis is part of the national malaise we hardly discuss even in the media. It is a tragedy. Before we read the lamentation book further, let’s ask a basic question: where are the English language teachers especially in public schools? Who would like to send his or her wards to colleges of education and even Faculties of Education in Universities to read English? So, where are the teachers of English? How many English graduates return for PG courses in English? Sorry, Lemmy, the crisis will continue because there is a lingering crisis in education generally. Read civil service memoranda and circulars. Study statements from the even state houses carefully these days: they are full of avoidable howlers. Newspaper articles, radio and television presentations are filled with common mistakes because reporters who are graduates of English language, Literaturein English, Political Science and Journalism are incredibly incompetent. One of our elders in the media, Sonala Olumhense, had to cry out recently about this challenge in his column. Should editors be proofreaders of all copies in this digital age? Poor grammar everywhere you go these days.

My heart is actually not troubled about serious grammar issues. I mean that there are some basic issues that should be settled. If senior civil servants, reporters, lawyers, ministers, legislators and even teachers who teach our children cannot master the organic “Parts of Speech” and they tell you that, “people doesn’t”, “He did not told me to do it”, “He has ran away”, “The Pastor casted out the demons”, etc then where will redemption come from? These are leaders of tomorrow. These things are common these days. And we gloss over and leave them to God and joke about such thereafter.
The conclusion of the whole matter is that education policy and attitude towards its funding requires restructuring and funding too. This is quite urgent even as we shout about political restructuring. There is an urgent need to pay attention to quality of education including teaching the English language.

As I observed here before, we need to pay teachers as if they were oil and gas industry workers. That is the only way the best scholars can embrace teaching…and learning can be meaningful…That is the way they got it right in the Scandinavian countries where the best scholars are teachers that are paid better than other category of public servants. Specifically, in Finland, it is not easy to get into teaching, their best paying job. Recruitment process is rigorous and it is only the best graduates that can even apply.

The point being made about Mr. Oguntuase is that he was not even a graduate in any specific subject, yet because benefited from a system that once worked at a post primary level, he was able to spot errors and could teach the mechanical aspects of the language. Most members of the power elite in Nigeria did not go to schools abroad. They are products of our education system that once worked even in a regional political setting. That is why we are calling on our political leaders at all levels that it is proper to pay attention to the STEM strategy in advancing technological development.

Yes, Nigeria needs a broader, more coordinated strategy for precollege education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Agreed, that strategy should include all the STEM disciplines and address the need for greater diversity in the STEM professions, for a workforce with deep technical and personal skills, and for a STEM-literate citizenry prepared to address the grand challenges of the 21st century.

But as long as English remains our official language, even products of STEM education policy: engineers, computer scientists, mathematicians, physicians, technocrats need to master the basic rules of English language use. Therefore, our globe-trotting governors and leaders at all levels should sit down at home and stop looking for foreign investors. There are issues to fix at home and one of the basic issues to address is how to get skilled teachers of Mathematics and English. Mathematics is the language of physical de elopement. They should seek knowledge on how to get them. This does not require trips to Abuja. They need just discipline of execution of a good policy on education including training of teachers of Mathematics and English. The crisis of teaching English in our primary and secondary schools should be addressed immediately before Mark Zukerberg bans some young Nigerians from his Face Book because of poor skills in English language use.



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