When I heard that the BBC was launching a service in Pidgin, I sat down and had a really good laugh. Like many, I still have memories of dire 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? On the other hand, I hate 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 systems 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 standard English. Nevertheless, I do not think those problems have ever been effectively been addressed by banning pidgin from our institutions. That idea is incredibly unimaginative and 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. Let’s stop kidding ourselves: the ‘either (English) or (pidgin)’ argument is a losing one and has been for a very long time. The point of English in countries like Ghana, Nigeria et al should be to unite us across our vast ethnic diversity. But if more of us speak Pidgin than we 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. As such, rather than banning pidgin, we need to make sure more people get stronger foundations in English much earlier in life; there’s ample research that shows that babies are able to learn more than one language at the same time – so, English – and its champions – need to sit down and be a bit more humble. Pidgin is not going to die. And neither should it have to.
This is a lightly adapted version of a post first published on www.kobygraham.com