Reuben Abati: Do you Speak French?

Reuben Abati - Bella NaijaI was on my way back from Botswana, after attending a conference organized by the Africa Leadership Forum (ALF). This was sometime in the 90s, on that same trip was Professor Tekena Tamuno, the eminent historian of blessed memory. We boarded an Air Afrique flight from Johannesburg to Abidjan, where we were scheduled to join another flight to Lagos. But Air Afrique at the time had started having problems. Its flights were always delayed, services were poor, and the airline had become so notorious it eventually earned the sobriquet: peut-etre Afrique. Peut-etre in French meaning “perhaps or maybe.” On this particular trip, the airline lived up to its poor reputation.

       The flight from Jo’burg to Abidjan was delayed, and we missed our connecting flight to Lagos. Our first instinct was to go to the Nigerian Embassy in Abidjan, after the airline had given us hotel accommodation for the night.  When Professor Tamuno and I arrived at the embassy, the Ambassador had closed for the day. We left a message. And lo and behold, the following morning, somebody came from the Embassy to look for us. The Ambassador, a gentleman to the core, had received our message and he would like us to stop by at the Embassy before our flight back to Lagos, later in the day.  A good diplomat on foreign posting will always look out for the interest of his or her country’s citizens under whatever circumstances. We were impressed. But this is not the point of this article. It is as the title suggests, about French language and the need for Nigeria to take the teaching and the learning of the language more seriously and actively promote this in our educational institutions.

    When the emissary from the Embassy arrived at our hotel, he reportedly searched everywhere for us. We were having breakfast in the restaurant when I suddenly heard the announcement on the Public Address system that two Nigerians in the hotel had a visitor from the Nigerian Embassy. I informed Professor Tamuno, and he wondered whether I could speak French. My French was still good in those days, but French is such a precise and poetic language that does not allow any form of stammering. And if you don’t use it regularly, you could lose it or become so rusty that you dare not speak it again. Persons who speak French fluently cannot tolerate any form of incoherence; one funny look at you, you’d have no option but to shut up. So, I willingly lost my spoken French. But when I listen, I understand what is being said.

 I have had many more memorable encounters about the importance of French as a second language while attending international conferences and in the course of my work, at a time, as a government official. Virtually every international event has French as a major language of communication. More people in the world speak Mandarin, Spanish and may be Russian.  But French is not just the ninth most widely spoken language; by more than 200 million people; it is a language of international relations, and it is the second official language. At international meetings, there are translators who help non-speakers of the main language to follow discussions, but French vocabulary and syntax are imbued with such special cadence that is not fully conveyed in translation. Oftentimes, the translators can be annoying. It is not just the same thing.

 For many countries, teaching and learning another language is a matter of strategic policy.  Countries seek to connect with their neighbours and strategic partners through language. It is instructive that in the United States, Spanish and Mandarin are the two other most popular languages, the learning and teaching of which is deliberately encouraged. The United States has a large Spanish speaking population; its neighbours in Latin America also speak Spanish; the promotion of Spanish as a language in the United States builds many cultural bridges.  Mandarin is also popular because of the increasing population of Chinese-Americans.

 Is there in Nigeria any active policy to strategically promote language as a vehicle of integration and development? Nigeria is surrounded by Francophone countries: how many Nigerians speak or understand French?  When you travel to any of these Francophone countries, or even to the Portuguese speaking ones, you can’t fail to notice the large number of French-speaking persons who can also speak English. While our neighbours make an effort to learn English, making it easy to relate with them, we practically don’t make any effort to understand their own language. And as a country, we are short-changing ourselves. It is often so embarrassing to see many of our Foreign Affairs Ministry officials not being able to speak any other language apart from English, or not being proficient enough, even when they can.  When Nigerians attend international conferences within the region, they rely on translators during formal sessions and thereafter they just stand around playing deaf and dumb.  Almost all the Presidents in our neighbouring Francophone countries speak English. The day we have a Nigerian President who can have a decent conversation in French, we should slaughter a cow! We need to take a second look at the policy on the teaching of languages in our school system.

     In 1996, the General Sani Abacha administration introduced a language policy declaring French as Nigeria’s second official language. The objective as stated in the National Policy on Education (2004) was mainly to “smoothen interaction with our neighbours” by promoting the French language at the primary and secondary school level. But since then, that policy has been only on paper.  The teaching of French language was first introduced at the secondary school level in Nigeria, around 1956, at King’s College, Lagos and Government College, Ibadan.

      Later, it became a subject of study at the Universities of Ibadan, Ife, UNN, and Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria and over the years, other Nigerian universities established Departments of French or Modern Languages.  Colleges of Education also later started offering French, but only as a subject to be combined with a Nigerian language. At the secondary school level, it was however treated as an optional subject, and it was not taught at all at the primary school level. If there had been a determined effort to promote French as a second official language, by now so much progress would have been made.

      There are over 2 million Nigerians reportedly living in Cote D’Ivoire alone and more in the other Francophone countries in West Africa, particularly Niger, Chad, Togo, Cameroun, Mali and Burkina Faso. Nigeria may be the biggest market in Africa, but access to other West African markets makes that market even bigger.  There are millions of Nigerians travelling all over West Africa, engaged in profitable commerce on a daily basis. Some of them pick up the French language out of necessity but a properly executed language policy can fast-track Nigeria’s integration with the sub-region, encourage regional commerce and promote co-operation and understanding.  We need that integration if indeed Africa is the centre-piece of our foreign policy, beginning with our immediate neighbours. Other West African countries and even French-speaking African countries like Gabon and Burundi are consciously promoting the learning of English. Their stated reason: Pragmatism!

       Language connects people. Language defines and strengthens. I have seen situations whereby in the absence of French or English as a connecting language, Nigerians who speak Fulfude, Hausa and Yoruba connect so instantly with their West African brothers and sisters who speak the same languages.  Nigeria cannot effectively perform its leadership role in the sub-region if its people do not speak or understand the language of their neighbours. General Sani Abacha was certainly right on this point of making French, Nigeria’s default second language. ECOWAS by the way, is working on a West African Highway Project, from Lagos to Nouackchott. Is that meant to be a highway of the deaf and the dumb, trapped in cultural spaces?

       The greatest beneficiaries of linguistic integration will probably be ordinary people. Multi-lingual Nigerians do better than their mono-lingual compatriots, relatively speaking. To get certain international appointments, you need that extra language. A friend told me that Akinwunmi Adesina, former Minister of Agriculture, stole the show at the preliminary screenings for his current job as AfDB President, when he switched to French and spoke with such power of articulation and insight. There are thousands more. We need to produce more Nigerians like that. And we need those other Nigerians too, who can sell whatever from Cotonou to Lome to Niger, Chad, Abidjan and Cameroun, undeterred by language barriers, switching linguistic codes with ease.

      And it is better to catch them young.  Children learn and absorb language almost by osmosis. We need to start preparing our children for international life, within the region and beyond, by teaching them French and for those who have the capacity, Nigerian languages and other languages as well.  We must begin to prepare our future Presidents of international corporations, and Nigerians who will also, in future become Secretary Generals of the United Nations and other multilateral institutions. The obsession with wealth and the transient is making us lose focus as a country. Our greatest asset remains our children, the young, untainted ones, who need to be captured and built up, before they get sucked into the prevalent, abnormal normative value system in the country.

      By now, it should be clear that this is not just about the teaching of French as a second official language but more about the gaps and the chaos in Nigeria’s education system.  Our disruptive governance process, the forever-begin-again culture of governance, truncates so many things, and the education process gets poorly served. I have dealt with aspects of this in earlier writings and I just want to repeat the point that the education of the Nigerian child and the re-schooling of society are so tied to all matters of progress and development that we just cannot stop talking about them.  In the same manner in which we promote regional integration, we should also use language to bind the country together. Nigerian languages should be taught in schools as compulsory subjects. Where language barriers do not exist, people are always willing to listen, and in a world where the wisdom of the tribe prevails, we should encourage people to talk and listen, and remove barriers.

    There are many young Nigerians studying abroad whose parents are spending a fortune to get them to plug into this global trend but even if those children speak all the languages of the world, they may be lost to the country forever. They have little or no attachment to Nigeria’s education system and their parents may not be keen about linking them to a natal origin where electricity remains a problem, infrastructure deficit continues to grow and the future is permanently uncertain. This is why in simple terms, in this matter, the change process must begin at home at all levels.  In the end (you see?), everything is linked, but we are optimistic that all will be well, because after all, we are Nigerians: we manage to be happy in every situation.  Meilleurs voeux.

28 Comments on Reuben Abati: Do you Speak French?
  • Lade Nita January 10, 2016 at 7:50 am

    Well said Mr. Abati. Wish you had written this earlier, especially when you were close to the corridors of power but that said I think it’s better late than never. I’m sure it’s easy for you to see things critically now. I appreciate this as I’ve had personal experiences in some countries which I think would have been sweeter and easier if I could speak a little of their languages. Well done and keep this kind of constructive criticisms coming. Perhaps, you could win my heart back lol.

    • Seriously January 10, 2016 at 4:16 pm

      Nigeria already has 250 tribes and different languages. English is the language that binds Nigerians together. I noticed, Yoruba is the most learned and easy to learn out of the three main languages. If Nigerians can start first by learning each other language, that’s a first step. My dad is not Yoruba, but speaks it fluently than his native language. Then most of my Igbo friends don’t speak their language. I’m learning some few Yoruba words from friends. I have an aunt who speaks Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa fluently, it’s pretty awesome.

  • Uju January 10, 2016 at 8:17 am

    Oga, have we finished learning English here? How many Nigerians speak fluent English let alone French. The most common spoken language in Nigeria is pidgin. Have we successfully educated our masses in English?

  • ATL’s finest January 10, 2016 at 8:29 am

    Well the article states that “Do your speak French”? and my answer is “Qui” 🙂 Jokes aside. Personally, it’s great to learn how to speak another Language. OFrench, French! French!! French!!!. I took this course back in high school for four years and when I look back now, it was a great thing I did. Although I never took it so serious, let’s be honest ( alot of us didn’t) but when I left Nigeria, it became handy. For the most part, my Parents kinda enforced it on my siblings and I that we learn more than English. Oh boy U don’t even wanna know what we all speak. It wasn’t easy all way at first ( esp for my siblings) but at some point, it wasn’t a big deal anymore.
    I know I’m very great at learning languages because I pick it up so FAST. My only crappy (not so great language) is Spanish & it’s a second Language in the States so let’s see what happens this Summer ; for I’d be a champion speaking it by this time next year :). ???? The BEST part for me speaking a different language is when someone choose to talk trash about U without knowing that U understood every bit of mess that just flew out from their mouth. The look on their face whenever I reply, #PRICELESS#.

    Great job writer & hopefully my kids can pick up the same habit of speaking more than one language ( both Foreign & Local ).

    • U.E January 10, 2016 at 4:43 pm

      You refer to those words in your first lines as jokes?? Wow. You must be so ‘funny’..

  • ATL’s finest January 10, 2016 at 8:37 am

    Oui *correction*

  • Ochokwu January 10, 2016 at 8:51 am

    Oga you try shaa. But i disagree with you a bit. I think promoting of our indigenous language should be top priority. How many french people bother to learn IgBo ofozie hausa ma o bu efik? Can your child speak your native language fluently?
    charity begins at home broda reuben

    • aurora January 10, 2016 at 2:45 pm

      this faux jingoism is why Nigeria will not be great anytime soon. what percentage of the world speak igbo*? (by Igbo, i mean any Nigerian indigenous language) what is igbo? how will igbo benefit NIgeria?
      in england, the students are made to learn french or spanish or italian. the average european can speak at least 3 languages. you think those people dont have indigenous languages al a welsh and scots? do you see them trying to enforce it on people outside that geographical area?
      or you think Nigerians should only do businesses with Nigerians? where we have over 200 languages? are you aware that the devaluation of our naira is simply because we import everything and pay dollars and have nothing to export?
      please, relieve yourself of this archaic thinking and make sure your children learn french or another foreign language or better still teach yourself french.

      • marves January 10, 2016 at 5:05 pm

        @Aurora. Its offensive for you to use ‘igbo’ to describe all indigenous nigerian languages. Unforgivable.

  • xoxox January 10, 2016 at 9:07 am

    Being multilingual is really a good thing. I come from a country where we have three official languages . Spanish, French and Portuguese.. And its freaking awesome cos it makes communication easy when I travel for work.
    Am not too good with English yet but with the nature of my job am learning pretty fast.
    In this 2016 the next language am adding to my to do list is mandarin?.challenging but I have to give it a trial .
    Bottom line…. Is always good to know two languages aside ur official language so u don’t get lost in the crowd ??

  • Somebody January 10, 2016 at 11:39 am

    Well said, I find myself looking forward to his aricles, really loved french but had to drop it in JSS 3 and it faded like that but ill enrol my kids for french classes, children do very well with languages as I learnt Ibo from my Mum, Hausa from my Dad, and Yoruba from the environment I lived. Now my main wahala is birthing in the US. It’s a big dilemma for me, if I can afford it is it important?, How does it help the kids and the parents? Is it something I should invest in also? Guys please help with responses. Thank you.

    • o January 10, 2016 at 4:49 pm

      The major advantage is that the child automatically becomes a US citizen. If you do decide to relocate the child in future, it will be very easy and the child’s school fees if the child schools (private school/uni) in the US will be very low compared to those of international students. Also such a child has access to travel visa free/visa on arrival to over 100 countries ( not sure of exact number). I say if one can afford it, go for it.

    • ATL’s finest January 10, 2016 at 9:51 pm

      @ Somebody wow U know how to speak the three ethic languages? I’m so JEALOUS of U right now #BNbeefers#.. And to answer you questions, I wouldn’t preach about it bcuz I can go on and on, on the other hand, I have a lot of BN commentators that think I like to rub it in when I’m just speaking the honest truth. Listen up Ma’am if u can invest & afford it, PLS DO IT. It will be one of the BEST decision U’ve ever made for your child. Even our Nigerians celebs are having their kids outside the Country. A lot of our politician’s, top folks ( names with held) are doing it ; just they way most of their kids don’t school in Nigeria anymore let alone U. Pls take the advantage & U will not regret it. Like I said earlier I won’t elaborate on it. Do ur research & U’ll not regret it sweetie. Like @ O said, that’s just one of the benefits not to mention the rest.. Good luck & have a safe delivery ??????.

      • Linda January 11, 2016 at 10:33 am

        An important reason is that should your child ever decides to school in that country, they’ll pay fees just as the citizens which makes it more affordable than you’ll pay if you’re an international student. A common example is our fellow west African country, Ghana. If you’re intending on schooling in Ghana as a Nigerian, where others ghanians are paying cedis, you’ll be asked to pay in dollar, which is even way more than the cedis.

        Hope this was helpful.

    • Linda January 11, 2016 at 10:35 am

      An important reason is that should your child ever decides to school in that country, they’ll pay fees just as the citizens which makes it more affordable than you’ll pay if you’re an international student. A common example is our fellow west African country, Ghana. If you’re intending on schooling in Ghana, where others are paying cedis, you’ll be asked to pay in dollar, which is even way more than the cedis.

      Hope this is helpful.

  • Nefertiti January 10, 2016 at 1:05 pm

    I beg go and get busy Ruben. Two-Three years ago, you were busy chopping money. Now you’re idle, you’re using us to kill boredom. Dasuki go soon mention your name. French ko, Spanish ni……

  • Adaisy January 10, 2016 at 2:18 pm

    Wonderful article. I am currently learning French , I must say it is a beautiful, precise sophisticated language and I can’t wait to be fluent in it. English language is fluid which is great but also its fluidity has been abused and the average English speaker makes a lot of English grammatical errors. But French being so precise because of the rules that guide the language is really something I admire. Really I am in support of the notion that French should be taken more seriously.

  • fixnigeriaseries January 10, 2016 at 2:45 pm

    I find this epistle an insult to the collective intelligence of Nigerians. It’s nauseating the new trend these people take these days – act deaf, mute and sycophantic when in power and then turn activist saints once they are out. Did he make even one reference in this write-up to any attempt he made while in the seat of leadership to address the issue this piece is about? And BN, if Reuben Abati has become one of your resident writers, kindly publicise the day of the week his write-ups are posted so I know what day to avoid visiting your site.

  • E.A January 10, 2016 at 2:45 pm

    yes being multilingual is great but the problem with Nigeria, is that we have too many people unwilling to even teach their mother-tongue to their children. Smh I was watching a youtube tag by a Nigerian girl, (love her videos) but she was unable to speak her native language. Her excuse was that she did not grow up in her state,and did not want to learn her language from an early age 🙁 . What the hell people parents move countries and they can speak their language perfectly. Yes learn another language, but what is the point of learning another man’s language when you don’t find yours valuable

  • fleur January 10, 2016 at 3:40 pm

    Bro Rubes! Interesting article. You had me thinking. Since you are back to writing, can you provide us with insights into your position description when you worked as special assistant for Uncle Jonah? Some of us are just very curious about what special assistants do and accomplish. Please talk about what you did alongside the accomplishments or wins. Also, please educate us about the “mares” of the job.

    Second, you had me thinking. Nigeria with its undercounted number of citizens and residents can on its own, without interacting with other nations outside its boundaries host a very vibrant and successful diverse economy. If we just retained nurtured and supported trading/comerce between the geo-political zones of the country, we wont need French or spanish or Chinese to make money. We have the numbers and the need and the brains and the resources. We be swimming in money if we were fluent in Urhobo, Itsekiri, Ijaw, Ibo, Hausa, Yoruba, Igbira, Tiv, Efik, Fulani, etc languages. In fact, the Chinese, Spanish and French will start teaching their business school students how to speak these languages if we got our sh*t together. While its nice to learn all these “romance languages,” na only person wey get money to reach airport need to learn that one. Most people who will need this acculturation with these external languages based on underutilization of our resources and gross disregard for our ethnic heritage are the 5% of the population wey don find garri to chop for today and can actually comprehend going to airport, not as the taxi drivers for arriving guests or baggage handlers but as business men who want to trade. I’d like to hear your thoughts on this one since you worked with Uncle Jonah. please tell me what kinda work you did around this type of thinking since we the masses never receive updates that are beyond defensiveness from the capital, Abuja.

  • nwa nna January 10, 2016 at 4:54 pm

    The gift of language is one of the best things one can do for one’s self… I am learning Spanish at the moment and once I’ve become fluent in it, my next language to master will be French.. I wouldn’t mind becoming a polyglot in my lifetime ☺

  • Naomi January 10, 2016 at 6:07 pm

    You still dont get the point do you?
    Try and learn a foreign language, your neighbours language in addition to your local dialects.
    Nigerian languages are not sought after during global job applications (global world we live in) but where they are needed u speak it. If not you then let your children learn.
    We need to stop acting like english is the only language in the world. At least make an effort to learn phrases for travel or for greetings.
    Learning another language doesnt subdue your native language.

  • Author Unknown January 10, 2016 at 8:21 pm

    D’accord Monsieur Abati. I however can’t help but wonder if this is yet another colonial legacy. While the French were teaching English as a second language in their West-African colonies, my understanding is that the Brits were teaching Latin (an almost dead language at the time). It’s Anglo arrogance. The same that causes the average Brit to be unilingual, even though France is right across the Channel from them.

    Historically, West-Africans have long traded with each other without the use of any of the European languages. Yoruba and Hausa for example both transcend Nigeria’s boundaries, with Yoruba even taking root in The Americas, though now only used in the socio-cultural cum historical setting. Having said that, the world has since changed greatly. At the time English and French were adopted as the languages of the UN, the French and Brits were the most influential in international affairs. Commerce was a European stronghold. Today, we have several new, and at least one major player – China. Mandarin and Cantonese may very well, along with English, be the new languages of commerce. In any event, from a regional perspective, French remains the more relevant to Nigerians.

    After all this talk, the younger generation will probably tell you that there’s Google Translate, or an App, so why learn another language. I could go on and on about this topic, but I think that there should be more conversations on Nigerians who were raised in Nigeria, can’t speak any of the local languages, and are proud of it.

  • Ibi January 10, 2016 at 9:14 pm

    He should have written this a year ago but he was busy with yam things I guess

  • JustPassingBye January 10, 2016 at 10:06 pm

    Reuben Abati a raison. Les Nigérians ne se soucient d’aucune langue qui n’est pas l’Anglais. C’est épouvantable!

    Taking French in college after taking it for over eight years in the Nigerian educational system, but it seems like I am learning a lot of things for the first time. Nigerians will say ”no be my konsain” Lol. Very valid points from Mr. Reuben Abati.

  • ElessarisElendil January 11, 2016 at 2:44 am

    All this is utter crap. How many Americans speak French? How many Chinese?, When you have a powerful passport other countries will bend over to speak YOUR language. Let’s make Nigeria great………well not exactly again.

    The most powerful countries on the continent speak English the Francophones have to get with the times.

    With the chauvinism out of the way, if you want to learn another language because you find such things fun, go ahead. However as a matter of national policy only weak nations do that.

  • leoLeo January 11, 2016 at 2:26 pm

    what happened to being able to speak the 3 major languages in Nigeria or at least 2, incorporating it into school curriculums, Won’t that have a more positive effect on the country as a whole?

  • AO January 29, 2016 at 9:10 am

    Mr. Reuben,
    Thanks for this article. I am currently writing my dissertation on the need to integrate technology in our French language classrooms in Nigeria. Looking at many critics here, you will think that Nigeria does not have four French speaking countries as neighbors, to say the least.
    I know from experience that learning French language involves expensive year abroad programs in France, Togo or Badagry. That is why technology that has turned the world to schools without walls will help solve the problem of “Parlez vou français?”

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