Pidgin Won’t Die (& You Need to Get Over It)

I have already spelled out my thoughts on Pidgin. Predictably, I have taken flack for those thoughts, so the first time I heard that the BBC is launching a service in Pidgin, I had a really good laugh. Like many, I still have memories of all the warnings from my Ghanaian teachers that Pidgin ruins one’s English. To hear that the British Broadcasting Corporation (of all the world’s English-exporting corporations) is launching a service in Pidgin…

Okay: I’m still laughing.

How do I feel about it though? Part of me thinks it is a great idea. It allows information about our world to reach more people, and for more people to potentially participate in sharing their information and experiences with the rest of the world. It also celebrates a language that has thanklessly served and entertained us for centuries. What’s not to like?

However, another part of me hates the idea that people will see it as some kind of validation of Pidgin. The thought that the language Fela once used to force people to think about their colonial mentality can somehow be validated by the very people he was railing against is galling. My inner cynic sees it less as a validation than a cashing-in, but the truth is that there is a beauty to it.

My teachers were not entirely wrong: research does suggest a link between Pidgin and problems with proficiency in mainstream English. Nevertheless, I do not think the solution to those problems is a ban.

The idea to ban Pidgin is incredibly unimaginative. For one, it simply doesn’t work: ask successive generations (upon generations upon generations upon generations) of educators –  from the colonial period to date – how successful they have been in banning Pidgin. Any success stories you find represent battles won in a war lost:

Pidgin prevails.

Students may not speak it when their teachers are nearby, but as soon as they are around other Pidgin speakers (as they inevitably will be, whether in school or outside), you had better believe that their Pidgin will flow like palm wine at a tapper’s convention. The audacity to think that you can halt pidgin in its tracks when centuries of educators have failed to do so is the kind of audacity we need to keep moving our societies forward, and I commend that. However, there is a word in English for doing so in the same failed way as all your predecessors.

A clue: it isn’t ‘audacious’.

The point of English in a country like Ghana should be to unite us across our vast ethnic diversity. But if more Ghanaians speak (and get the chance to shape) Pidgin than they do English, then maybe English is not pulling its weight. And that is not exclusively Pidgin’s fault.

In my personal opinion, Pidgin is blamed for many problems that far predate it. Anyone I know who was given a strong foundation in English before they were exposed to Pidgin is able to shift between English and Pidgin without any problems. This was certainly my own experience. It reminds me of research that shows how babies are able to learn more than one language at the same time. As such, rather than banning pidgin, it makes sense to make sure more people get stronger foundations in English much earlier in life. The fact that so few of my students raise their hands when I ask them who loves reading is a testament to things that we will need to dissect if we are ever going to improve English proficiency in this country, whether we speak pidgin or not.

Sadly, improving early education isn’t possible for everyone. But that’s another thing: we also need to start thinking about why English (or any other European language) is the main language of African white collar employment. There are countless tweets and videos laughing at Ghanaians who do not speak fluent English, but – while there may be some links between language and intelligence – there is no link between the English language in particular and intelligence. Our society would be a better one if we all remembered that. English is great for those who leave our shores, but less so for the vast majority of people who do not. Until it is, maybe English – and its champions – need to sit down and be a bit more humble. Let’s not kid ourselves: the ‘either (English) or (pidgin)’ argument is a losing one and has been for a very long time. Pidgin is not going to die.

And neither should it have to.

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