That debate on English Language as a measure of intelligence

I have been seeing lots of posts on a bizarre debate on social media about the English Language as a measure of intelligence. I confess I don’t know the origin of the debate or why it is generating so much energy. It just reminded me of something that happened in first year in secondary school. Like all juicy school stories, this one too involved a fight.

Something ticked off Rayyanu and Obinna, two JS one students in their swanky school shorts, and they had a go at each other, punching away like demented things. Right in the middle of the fight, their form teacher walked in to take attendance and was greeted by the commotion.

The two pugilists were apprehended and led to the dreaded staff room for judgement and punishment. Already, it wasn’t looking good for Rayyanu who was the truant the teacher had been looking for. She smacked her lips with relish because poor Rayyanu has fallen into her hands at last.

“What happened?” she asked.

In very broken English, Obinna narrated his side of the story. It wasn’t eloquent and it was disjointed but he communicated something. The teacher turned to Rayyanu with the same question and he looked down. She asked him again, and he said nothing. She threatened and demanded his side of the story but nothing came forth. So she railed and concluded that from the mere look of his bleary eyes, he was as guilty as a rat trapped in a soup pot. Plus he had also been a wanted truant.

“Just wait let me finish. I will deal with you today,” she whipped her finger in the air and bent her head to finish working on some document before her.

This wait was Rayyanu’s saving grace. The Hausa Language teacher, who knew Rayyanu very well walked in then and was surprised to find him in a pickle. He asked what the problem was.

Rayyanu took a breath and sighed. “Yauwa!” he said, “Yanzu za a yi bayani.” (Now there will be an explanation).

When he was done with his bayani, it turned out that he was not at fault for the fight, just that he was not skilled enough to explain it in English, broken or otherwise. He got off the hook that day because someone who understood the language he spoke walked in at the right time.

You see, Rayyanu wasn’t dumb. He would go on to work at a hospital until his death a few years ago. (God rest his gentle soul). For a 12-year-old at the time, his Hausa was deep and eloquent where his English language was almost non-existent. He had boasted even then that in terms of Hausa, he could debate anyone all the way to London. You have no idea how intelligent Rayyanu was in Hausa.

Before colonial languages were imposed on Africa, Africa had, and was developing, various systems of writing. We were also building a body of knowledge and a system of knowledge dissemination. In the 9th century, arguably the first university in the world, The University of Al Qarawiynn, was established in Morocco, nearly 150 years before the first university in Europe, the University of Bologna in Italy. By the 12th century, The University of Timbuktu was a thriving centre of knowledge.

Once on a panel discussion in India, I had cause to talk about the Timbuktu manuscripts as evidence of a vast body of scholarship on the continent that predated colonialism and thrived as well as the ajami script in which scholarship and day-to-day communication was practised in northern Nigeria, not to talk of the Nsibidi script in the South.

Colonisation happened and suddenly, centuries of knowledge gathered in books and written in languages and scripts the colonisers did not speak were demoted and the scholars were branded illiterates because they could not read or write in the imposed languages of the colonisers. The irony was that the colonisers were also illiterate in the languages of the colonised.

There was unfortunately hardly any coordinated attempt to transfer this knowledge into this new language, system and culture.

However, people who have been through schools for years, schools in which they are educated in English, or are supposed to have been educated in English, should not make the argument that one’s ability to speak the English Language is not a measure of intelligence as an excuse for their poor grasp of the language. In making this argument we should also recognise that some people do not have language learning skills, but it doesn’t mean they are not competent or intelligent in other things. But most importantly, many students have had the misfortune of having bad language teachers and are victims of a woeful education system.

For those who are deficient in the English language, I suppose instead of making convoluted arguments about its value, or lack thereof, as a measure of intelligence, it would be more useful to devote that time, energy and data to self-learning the language using the millions of resources that the internet affords like online language classes, videos, websites and free PDFs.

That someone started a journey before you, doesn’t mean you can’t set out now and eventually reach your destination at your own time and pace. Bayanin kenan.

  • Ibrahim is an award winning Nigerian writer and journalist. His new novel ‘When We Were Fireflies’ was released recently.

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