The Deteriorating Use Of English In Nigeria

Culled From RemiRaji.Com

IntroductionLet me begin by congratulating the Dean of Arts and the members of the Faculty from the Department of English for this important initiative. Perhaps for too long we have looked on helplessly as the spoken and written English of recent products of Nigerian education at all tiers has become an embarrassment to the system and a source of frustration to would-be employers in the private and public sectors of the economy of our country. By embarking on this project, the Faculty is exhibiting a commendable measure of social responsibility. It is hoped that the ripples of these efforts will ultimately be felt even beyond the walls of this university.The twin question may be asked by skeptics as to why it should be important for Nigerians to have a good command of the English language, and why deterioration in performance should bother anyone. After all, as such people are quick to point out, English is not ‘our language’.English has been spoken in some form or other in this country since the sixteenth century. It began as a language of trade at the country’s ports, and since communication is a two-way process, some Nigerians of necessity began to attempt to replace Portuguese-based English Pidgin with an English-based one.

The missionaries came along in the middle of the nineteenth century and, because of the need for interpreters, began to teach the English language in schools. The third and final phase of the early contact of Nigeria with the English language came with the colonization of the country when basically, the colonial government gave support to the efforts of the missionaries in establishing a system of education in which English was a very important constituent.

For close to a century and a half, then, English has been taught formally in Nigerian schools, admittedly, to begin with, to only a small percentage of the population; but gradually, it became a language sought after not just by those engaged in commerce and missionary work but also one that ultimately acquired the status of official language: the language of government, of commerce, of the press, of the legislature, and not of least importance, of communication among  Nigerians from different ethnic backgrounds and between them and the external world. As time went on, it became possible to observe the differences between acrolectal  English, spoken and written by those who had learnt the language direct from native speakers of the language, and mesolectal and basilectal English, spoken by those, much larger in numbers, who had learnt the language from fellow Nigerians who,  themselves, might have had little or no contact with native speakers.

The spread of primary education in the country from the 1950’s onwards greatly boosted the ranks of mesolectal and basilectal speakers of the language. Incidentally, there are those who regard Nigerian Pidgin as a variety of basilectal English, but the better informed opinion at present is that Nigerian Pidgin is, in fact, a language in its own right. We are therefore not concerned with it in this paper.

The title of this paper suggests that the standards of performance in English by Nigerians used to be higher than they are today; and indeed that those standards have been steadily declining. This judgment is no doubt made impressionistically by most people, who judge from the quality of the English language that they hear and read. As we shall see presently, the problems thrown up by the learning of spoken English are not of the same order as those posed by the learning of written English. In both cases, we are indeed concerned with intelligibility and conformity. And it may well be true that on the whole, Nigerian users of English attain better intelligibility and conformity with standard English world-wide in writing than in speaking.

Spoken English

Let us briefly examine the problems of spoken English, to begin with. The basic problem here is that the sound system of English is different from those of the indigenous languages of Nigeria, with the inevitable result that Nigerian learners of English tend – or are forced – to interpret the English system in terms of the systems on their own indigenous languages. This, for example, is the cause of the confusion of these pairs of words by various speakers:

Zoo : sue

Those : dose

Through : true

Faith : fate

Chip : ship

Curse : course

Cut : court

The list of examples is of course much longer, but I believe the examples listed above illustrate the point. There are 23 different vowel sounds in English, whereas there are not up to a dozen in Nigerian indigenous languages. Nigerian learners therefore tend to collapse the 23 difference sounds into their own six or seven. Similar substitutions are also made with the consonant sounds, though the problem here is not as serious as with the vowels.

Perhaps even more problematic are the problems posed by the so-called supra-segmental features of the English language. Stress is deployed in English both in individual words and in stretches of utterances. The stress comes at roughly regular intervals, and this is described technically as isochronicity of stress. In practically all Nigerian languages, on the other hand, where stress does not feature, what we have is the regular spacing of syllables, known as isochronicity of syllables. Thus the English utterance:

(i)                He has ‘been to the uni’versity

where there are only two syllables occurring, and at regular intervals, a Nigerian speaker may say:

(ii)              ‘He ‘has ‘been ‘to ‘the  ‘uni’ver’si’ty

where every syllable is given prominence and therefore seems to be stressed.

Stress is also used in English to indicate emphasis. This is the source of the difference in meaning, for example, between sentence (i) and sentences (iii) and iv):

(iii)            ‘He has been to the uni’versity;

(iv)            He ‘has been to the uni’versity.

Nigerian learners also tend to have problems with the English intonation system. Intonation is part of the resources used in English to convey nuances of attitudes, and therefore of meaning. In the grammatical use of intonation, a statement is uttered on a falling tone, whereas a question is expressed in a rising one. Over and above this, however, is a complex system of intonation. For example:

(v)              Open the window

said with a fall at the end, conveys a different import from, the same sentence said with a rising tone. The former conveys a brusque command, whereas the latter implies a polite request. A competent speaker of English needs to understand as well as use the complex system of intonation to convey fine shades of attitude.

The question now is: What can we do to improve the standard of spoken English in the country? The obvious answer is by ensuring adequate exposure, particularly at the early learning stages, to standard spoken English. The school system has a large part to play in this, and the adoption of the method which proved successful in the famous Ife Six Year Experiment, would help enormously. This is a method in which, while all other subjects are taught in the indigenous language, the English language is taught by a specialist who is a good model of spoken English. The double advantage of this method is that the pupils learn better by being taught in their mother tongue, and their performance in English is naturally superior to those who have not had a similar exposure to the language. The implication is that teachers of English, from the primary school upwards, need to be specially trained, and need to be good models of spoken English. It will be noticed that the Ife programme is in consonance with the National Policy on Language in Education, which prescribes that the medium of instruction in the first three years of primary school should be in the pupils’ mother tongue or language of the immediate environment, to make sure that the language skills in English are built on the sure foundation of the skills in the mother tongue. Unfortunately, this policy is honoured in the breach.

Additional exposure to spoken English could be through radio and television. When I was at school, we were enjoined to listen attentively to BBC broadcasts since the original model in Nigeria was the British model. It is however realized that things have changed considerably nowadays as other varieties and accents compete with the British one on the airwaves. To further complicate matters, the accent on the BBC itself is no longer homogeneous, as Received Pronunciation is giving way to Estuary English. Bearing this in mind, Nigerian linguists argue that since English is now a Second Language in the country, it should look inwards for its own standards of correctness, replacing the old exonormative model with an endonormative one. The advocated standard would satisfy the twin criteria of social acceptability and international intelligibility.

But a serious problem is that Oral English examination in the forms of listening comprehension and production tests is not compulsorily or even optionally examined by either of the two school certificate examining bodies in the country; and so there is no real motivation for paying attention to it on the school curriculum. There are problems here which need to be resolved within the nation’s educational system.

Written English

The problems which arise with written English are of three broad types. The first, and most basic one, is the problem which arises from the fact that the grammar of English is different from those of the indigenous Nigerian languages. This problem is common to both spoken and written English since performance in both cases is based on the grammar of English. Most of the difficulties arise with number, concord, gender and tense (particularly sequence of tenses), none of which is overtly expressed in most Nigerian languages.

Moreover, two very productive sentence types in English are the passive and the noun phrase complementation. Because learners are unfamiliar with these sentence types, they tend to stick monotonously to the only type they are familiar with, which is the active simple sentence. Thus, for example, where it would have been more appropriate to say:

(vi)            The robber has been caught

many  would say

(vii)          They have caught the robber

which reflects the structure of the equivalent in most Nigerian languages.

Idiomatic English, which is the type expected of Nigerian speakers and writers of English with secondary education, is a reliable marker of the mastery of the language .This involves familiarity with phrasal verbs, which constitute perhaps the last hurdle in the way of learners of English. Competence in this area comes usually from very wide reading.

The second problem in written English arises from the orthography of the language, which is perhaps justly notorious. There are, it is true, some reliable guidelines to English orthography, which are taught to early readers and writers of the language, but the exceptions would appear to the learner to be as numerous as the regular spellings. Sometimes, certain consonants which are written are not pronounced e.g. w in ‘write’ and ‘wrong’,   (notice, however that ‘write’ is even pronounced exactly the same as ‘right’). As for the sound f, this is variously represented in writing as ph as in ‘phase’,  f as in ‘face’, and gh as in ‘rough’. Similarly, the representation of many vowels in writing has to be learnt. Mastery of English orthography comes only through wide reading rather than by memorizing lists of words. And wide reading, unfortunately, would appear to be a disappearing feature of the culture in primary and secondary education.

Proper structuring is also important in written English. The writer must be aware of what constitutes a sentence, while paragraphing in a written discourse is also very important. Here again, wide reading aids good performance.


Possessing grammatical competence in English and being able to write acceptable sentences and paragraphs is one thing; writing for the best effect is another. This opens up a wide area of appropriate usage which we cannot go into fully here, but it is important to be able to match language use with every context of situation. There is, for example, a distinction between formal and informal use of the language, depending on the occasion of communication, a distinction that is not always made by writers or speakers of English as a second language. who tend to use formal language in an informal context.

Perhaps the most productive theory to date proposed in this area is that by Paul Grice (1975).  Adopting the ‘cooperative principles’ of the social sciences, Grice proposes four ‘maxims’ based on the ideal use of language between interlocutors. Expressed in deceptively prescriptive language, though Grice’s intention is descriptive, these maxims are as follows:

(a)  The Maxim of Quality, which emphasizes truthfulness. According to Grice:

  1.        i.      Do not say what you believe to be false;
  2.        ii.      Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.

(b) Maxim of Quantity, on which, Grice says,

  1.         i.      Make your information as informative as is required (for the current purpose of the exchange);
  2.         ii.      Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.

(c) Maxim of Relevance, which is self-explicit.

(d) Maxim of Manner, which emphasizes clarity, by avoiding obscurity of expression, ambiguity and unnecessary prolixity, and enjoins orderliness.

Although Grice seems to have conversation in mind, these maxims would equally apply to written communication. An examination of written English in the country would show how often these maxims are flouted, and not in a creative manner. A good example would be Nigerian journalistic writing. Some of it is, without doubt, of very high quality, but much, if not most of it, betrays weaknesses which can be traced to the absence of the observance of Grice’s maxims. Yet this is the kind of writing that most Nigerians are exposed to, and which they may try to imitate.

It is difficult to comment on our journalists’ observance of the maxim of quality, since stories in newspapers are constantly denied by those purportedly being reported, and newspapers themselves are sometimes obliged to offer apologies for publishing wrong information

On the maxim of quantity, I am sure we can all recall examples in which we search in vain for some vital information which is withheld perhaps for fear of litigation. The most glaring example is the habit of withholding the names of erring individuals if they are considered too important in society. Another is the habit of quoting people ‘on condition of anonymity’. If the writer cannot for any reason reveal full information, it is better for the story not to be written at all. Otherwise, how do we know that the story is not simply being made up?

Moreover, there is a lot of verbiage in Nigerian journalistic writing. The belief seems to be: the longer the story, the better. What seems to be a standard procedure is for the journalist to attempt to report what someone has said. Perhaps because he is aware he has made a bad job of it, he then proceeds to quote the speaker fully, in the process conveying the same information at least twice. There seems to be an inability to do a proper précis or summary of what is being reported, and the result is that a story which could have been presented in four concise paragraphs is spread over ten. It would appear that our schools of journalism need to train their students in the art of précis writing.

When we have allowed for the tendency towards prolixity, the maxim of relevance seems by and large to be honoured. But sometimes, in an attempt to provide the background to a story the maxim is breached through the introduction of unnecessary diversions.

Finally, the maxim of manner brings us essentially back to the necessity to observe the mechanics of standard spoken and written English, the breach of which often results in obscurity, ambiguity and prolixity.

Deterioration in Students’ Performance at School Certificate Level


Apart from journalistic writing, the other natural place to look for signs of deterioration is in the performance by candidates in English at the school certificate examinations. A great deal of worry has recently been expressed about this, and this is clearly justified by the performance of candidates in the National Examinations Council results in English over the past twelve years, during which time concern has been rising. Only in four of those twelve years did up to half of the candidates achieve Credit and above in English.

An interesting feature of the record is that, in the year 2008, an unprecedented 75% of the candidates obtained passes at Credit level and above. The next three high performances were as follows:

2001              52.19%

2002              52.19%

2007              52.08%

For most of the remaining years, the percentages ranged in the thirties and forties. But significantly, the performance for the last three years was as follows:

2009              23.39%

2010              22.02%

2011              22.92%

The picture revealed by the statistics is that over the past twelve years, the average percentage of passes at Credit and above was 41.44%; but from the figures shown above, the average for the past three years was 22.77%. Over the whole period, less than half of the candidates were qualified for university entrance, while in the past three years only about one-fifth were qualified for that purpose. This obviously constitutes a considerable wastage.

It should be remembered that the candidates taking these exams had been taught the English language for no less than twelve years and lived in an environment in which English is the Second Language . It is therefore not to the quantity but quality of exposure that we must look for an explanation for this unsatisfactory situation.

It is a well known fact that most of those who teach English to pupils at the primary level are very poor models of Spoken English. Yet this is the first formal encounter with the language for most of the pupils The wrong habits cultivated at this level are largely reinforced by the teaching of the language at the secondary level and by what the pupils hear being spoken around them inside and outside the school premises. The remedy is to professionalize the teaching of English at both of these crucial levels. Reference has already been made to the success of the Ife Six-Year Experiment. Moreover, the electronic media (radio and television) should be made aware of their roles as models for the country. Even in Britain, where English is the mother tongue, for many years at least, the BBC presented the model which educated Britons modelled their own speech on, and presumably still does, in spite of the liberalization that has taken place.

The examining bodies in the country should therefore consider not only reinstating the perception and production tests in Oral English but also make them an integral part of the English language paper. A good grounding in spoken English is the most secure foundation on which to build the skills of literacy in the language.

It has been found that in learning any language, motivation plays a very important part. It is therefore necessary to consider the motivation for learning English by Nigerians generally, and by pupils in schools in particular, and seek to reinforce such motivation. The two kinds of motivation identified are instrumental and integrative.

At this University in the past, post-graduate students from the Faculty of Science used to be sent to the Faculty of Arts to learn German so that they can have access to the work of German scholars in the originals. The course was usually a few months long, at the end of which the students had mastered enough of the essentials of the relevant registers of German to enable them to read German scientific texts. They of course would not be able to read the works of Goethe because that was not the aim. Those postgraduate students worked with instrumental  motivation. They were eager to acquire the, admittedly limited, range of German so that they could proceed to use the skills. When learners are interested in mastering specific areas of a language so that they can put them to use in their work, they are operating with instrumental motivation. The same would apply to those who undergo a course in French so that they can be effective foreign affairs officers.

On the other hand, when a person learns a language because he likes the language or its native speakers, his motivation is likely to be integrative. He wants, as it were, to integrate into the culture of the native speakers of the target language. An obvious example is immigrants who are eager to achieve full communicative competence in the language and so not sound different from the native speakers.

The intensity of motivation can be the same in both cases, but the obvious difference is that whereas instrumental motivation is directed at a specific area of a language without even aiming at native-speaker competence in such an area, integrative motivation is aimed at native-speaker competence in the totality of the language. The history of the English language in Nigeria suggests that when it was a foreign language, the motivation was instrumental: Nigerians wanted to trade with the sailors at the ports and tried to acquire enough of the language to make them do so. But once English became a second language in the country, and particularly when Nigeria became a British colony, instrumental motivation continued with many people, but integrative motivation also came into play with others.

One feature of the early colonial era is that a number of repatriates came to Nigeria from Sierra Leone and easily occupied the top echelons of the civil service. Some of them also established as lawyers and doctors. Such people had a good command of English and clearly sought to integrate into the British culture in their attitude. Many Nigerians aimed at integrating, not directly with the British culture but with this class of Nigerians. To the extent that Nigerians wished to compete with the repatriates for jobs in the civil service and the professions, their motivation can be considered instrumental, but because many of them clearly admired the life-style of the repatriates, their motivation was integrative, and as a result, their command of English was impeccable. Then came independence and the Nigerianization of all aspects of Nigerian life. Integrative motivation was understandably on the wane, though it did not die out altogether. But meanwhile, a class of Nigerians has arisen today, in creative writing and elsewhere, who have insisted on maintaining the former high standards.

When standard Nigerian English has become widespread – for example, through proper teaching in schools and with the availability of models in electronic and print media – it should be possible for the motivation in the majority of cases to be integrative, not by seeking to integrate with the British or American culture, but with the speakers and writers of what is unambiguously Nigerian English. Because such a variety is widely acceptable – because it gets the job done most efficiently – all Nigerians will identify with it, and because it is also internationally intelligible, it will, in addition, attract instrumental motivation. The responsibility of the schools is to generate integrative motivation among the pupils with the speakers and writers of Nigerian English through the exposure of pupils to this variety of the language. In that way, the general level of competence in the language will rise gradually, giving the learners a high surrender value.


Grice, Paul  (1975). Logic and Conversation. In Syntax and Semantics 3: Speech Acts,  ed. Cole, P. & J. Morgan. New York: Academic Press.

Ayo Banjo, Emeritus Professor, is of the Department of English, University of Ibadan, Ibadan, Nigeria.

This lecture was delivered on March 19, 2012 to inaugurate the University of Ibadan English Language Clinic Series, hosted by Prof. Kola Olu-Owolabi, Dean, Faculty of Arts. In attendance were principal officers of the University led by the Vice Chancellor, Prof. I. F. Adewole. The forum was convened by Dr. Adenike Akinjobi.


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Posted on May 9, 2012, in Essays. Bookmark the permalink. 24 Comments.

  1. Abalike Samuel

    Assignment was giving to me in English Lanuage. Disuss the use of English in Nigerian. In department of Accounting, school of business. In Benpoly ugbokolo.

  2. That is pretty good! I like it so much

  3. rufus dare julius

    this is wonderful,if all of us suport this doctrines and heed the warning that is in it,hw would it be?anyway,special thanks to the writer,more grease to your elbow…


    Am a potential writer who would like to write on line for you. How do I go about it?

  5. Nweake emmanuel

    Well-worded article.i wish to give my unalloyed support to what my highly esteemed don said,my take on the topic is that the oral aspect of english which is the spoken part shud be enshrined in our school curriculum because we pronouce sounds nt leta

  6. That is a very good work to observe, applying to Noam choamsky method on generative grammar.

  7. Anthony Melah

    I derive pleasure in spoken english and it actually engulfed me cuz my desire had always been to speak as the native speakers do. I’m currently a phonics teacher and trainer of spoken english with no paper qualification, just trained cuz I accented like a briton… its cool and if all nigerians develop similar motivation , its definitely gonna help… 08162360487; 08160180687… feel free to call if interested…

  8. Firima,Daniel-Nak

    Sir,i’m very much excited about the way you explained the spoken and witten English here in this work.But,i’m not cleared on the processes involved in mother tongue(L1)and the second language(L2).I would love you to throw more light on this area of study.This is because i have a big problem on this aspect of language,as a masters student inview,i need to know more about this.please tell me more of the processes in teaching English in Nigeria

  9. Blessing Usang

    This is logical!

  10. I need to be more enlighten in english language especially in concord

  11. Well our mothers tongue really affect the use of English

  12. This is quite informative to the general users and learners of English language as a second indigenous language. I quite agree with the problems you highlighted and the ways Nigerian English can be improved. Great wordings! Great you!

  13. I trust Prof Ayo Banjo always. He’s one of the greatest brains of the Nigerian soceity, a sound Nigerian linguist! I have always advocated in my own little way for a teaching-learning Oral English environment that makes for proficiency. That is the way to attain greatness in anything, seeking to do it the best way, even in our spiritual lives. Why will Nigerians prefer to relax the Standard English model? If it were for good reasons, one would understand but it baffles me because we are relaxing to laziness and we want to glory in it and buy everyone over to this. It is quite a pity. At least we have a few who would continue to encourage teachers on the right part until we see the fruits of the Ninglish advocates, not in the nearest future anyway but it will come when it will. God bless Nigeria!

  14. An interesting piece

  15. A well composed and rich lecture. It has answered a lot of lingering questions on my mind.

  16. Thanks for your contribution.

  17. Mariastella Umoren

    Prof. Banjo has spoken so much truth with humility. He needs to be a part of our Educational System overhauling team.

  18. Sir, enjoyed this site so much and I’ve learnt alot .sir i was given assignment on the topic :Briefly stress the history of English in Nigeria

  19. The major issue is training teachers specifically in this area. Jolly Phonics approach will help our pupils learn how to read and write faster.

    The material is very rich.

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