I’m sitting in my French class lost in my thoughts about the high rate at which adoption of the French language is growing in Nigeria. A few days ago, the French opened their new cultural centre in Abuja to be able to propagate the French way of life and also give language lessons to the people of the federal capital territory.
Suddenly, I’m revived out of my slumber and midday trance by my ever smiling and always-already-to-explain lecturer Mademoiselle Adefolalu. I flush with embarrassment as I realize that I was lost in my thoughts for a while and wasn’t following the lovely class. What was I thinking of? Trying to go back over my thoughts I found I had just had a two-minute trance in which I saw myself 20 yrs from now sitting in my living room with my wife and the kids playing PlayStation 3 or 4(?) while chattering in French?(), and my relatives from the village asking for assistance from me.
All of a sudden, wanting to speak to my wife and not wanting my relatives to understand, I open my mouth and to my utter amazement, I’m speaking the language of the Gauls, and I’m speaking it like a first language.
My relatives, led by the less than desirable old man who has succeeded in perpetuating himself as the family head all start acknowledging the fact that they can’t understand us while, I’m feeling cool with myself.
What made me amazed or rather angry at myself was not the fact that I was dozing during class, as I like to think that one of the sweetest times to sleep is to catch a nap while waiting in a queue, but the fact that I was daydreaming in French. Yes, absolutely unnerving as I can’t even seem to grasp what my teacher says in class always coming up with the excuse “Parlez plus lentement, s’il vous plait” (speak more slowly, please) as if I want her to start sounding like an overplayed cassette tape.
I couldn’t fathom it. Speaking French to my wife to sound well-offish? I still can’t get a grasp of it. Is French going to be my language of communication in 20yrs? I just wonder.
Well, since then I’ve been coming to terms with my dream. If French is going to be the medium of communication in my family, what will my less fortunate relatives from the village do? Will they be lost in time? I remember how it all started now.
From time, language has been a measure of status in society a la the why you talk says a lot about you. In early England, language stratified the society into three outstanding parts. There were three languages and each spoken by individuals showed their standing in society. There was French, which was spoken by the Royals and courtiers in the courts of the King; Latin, which was used by the church in its worship and in writing legal statutes and lastly was English, which was very well the least because only the commoners spoke it.
Coming closer home, I can relate to the fact that while growing up, I was coming to terms with Yoruba-Eko, which was developed by the emerging elite of post-independence Yoruba land. At that time, my age mates in elite families were being brought up with the English language leaving behind the Yoruba-Eko which their parents helped birth. When their parents were birthing Yoruba-Eko, which was elitist, my own dear father was speaking Yoruba-Ekiti as I would want to call it.
Yoruba-Eko was meant for the elites but with time, it slowly got eroded as it is wont to do, and came into the public domain. That is why my generation speaks nothing but Yoruba-Eko, having abandoned its various roots of Oyo, Ijesha, Ondo, Owo, Ekiti, Egba, Ijebu, etc., for those living in the villages.
Trust our elites, always ingenious being true to type likes their ilk the world over, quickly devised a new method to get rid of the encroaching masses by adopting English as their familingua (medium of communication at home). This trend actually began among academics and became very much enthroned during and immediately after our own egg-head Wole never-seems- to- write- for- the- masses Soyinka won the Noble prize in literature. This event more than anything else added fillip to the encroachment of English into our families, as everybody wanted their children to become like him.
We, the never satisfied, always wanting to feel among middle class families were caught off guard. Savouring our victory at finally being able to speak in the tongue of the elites, we felt short-changed. Heretofore, we now had to compete in school during English class with children of the elite who were fast acquiring English as their first language. It was a battle well fought.
With time, we fashioned out our own way after them by even teaching our children English from the womb. Quickly, they too were abandoning the Yoruba-Eko, which was the high point of language of our time as we had done to the dialects of those before us. Society as we all know is dynamic, always evolving and the upper class will always want to have an edge over the middle class while it too always wants to distance itself from the lower class. Inadvertently, this sets up a war in society with every class evolving at every opportunity, a weapon to assert itself in order not to be trampled under foot.
This has led to the emergence of the other European languages as the next barrier to be conquered by the elite in Nigerian society. Speaking a European language means that either one has worked, travelled to or lived in the region; is a diplomat or attended a school run as an international establishment by the embassy of the county in Nigeria.
Coupled with the high amount being paid to attend such schools, it remains largely the domain of the rich and affluent. For this one time, I must admit the elite have beaten us to it. Before you start wondering, I realize that I’m a part of them now so I can say better that we’ve beaten you to it. In this situation, what is the use of speaking all the languages if I cannot communicate with my relations from the village in the local dialect that has existed for generations? I think this was what mostly unsettled me after the dream. Why did I neglect my roots? I remember reading about a scholar saying take away a people’s language and they are as good as rootless because language is the carrier of culture. A people’s language is a chronicle of their history and way of life.
Finding this very un-encouraging, I decide to go back to sleep as my people always say that if one has a bad dream, one should go back to sleep and fight whatever it was in the dream so that on can have victory before waking up again to face the world.
I’m back in my dream and once again, my kind teacher brings me out of it. This time around, I find myself soaked in sweat and I realize that I just had a terribly bad dream. In my dream, there had just been atomic war. Nothing seemed to work. There wasn’t electricity, no cars, no books to be read and my family and I are trekking through the jungle heartland with our remaining luggage.
We get to my village and find out that things seem to be going on normally there. They are at peace, not war and we stop at a house to ask for water, an old woman comes to the door and damn, to my uttermost surprise, she cannot hear us, neither can I understand a word of what she is saying.
I end up walking away heading downhill looking dejected as I try to retrace my step looking for where I took the wrong turn. And like the freed slaves coming back to Africa, I am learning anew the civilization of my people, which out of greed for another man’s culture, I left to rot away unattended to.
I pick up my crude implements and make my way to the nearest forest where I clear a portion with my family and painfully but slowly, we begin afresh to rediscover our humanity
That was when Mlle., who smiling said “Monsieur, la classe a fini”, woke me up.