Nigerian English: Old School versus New School

In 2001, the first Nigerian professor of Linguistics, Ayo Bamgbose, wrote that he tuned in to a local radio station in Lagos, Nigeria, and he could hardly believe it was a Nigerian station because of the DJ’s American accent and Americanisms. It is therefore unsurprising that linguistic globalization and American influence in Nigerian English have garnered considerable attention in the last two decades. To examine ongoing changes in Nigerian English, a few researchers have employed corpus-based approaches. However, an interesting question that cannot be readily answered via corpora is ‘what are the beliefs and attitudes of Nigerians towards American accents and Americanisms?’ Answers to this question were sought from three generations of educated Nigerians via semi-structured interviews on a recent field trip to Southwest Nigeria.

”You see they have two species of people now… So old schools are old schools, and there is a class gap among the old schools and you of the new schools.” (Age 84, former headmaster)

In Present-Day Nigeria, English has become a second language for most educated Nigerians. It is fast becoming a first language for many Nigerians growing up in urban areas, and it continues to be a foreign language for some Nigerians in remote areas or those who have had little or no formal education. In December 2022, the Nigerian government approved a new language policy which mandates the use of the child’s mother tongue throughout their primary education. However, this policy is yet to be implemented. Presently, the child’s mother tongue is employed in the first three years of primary education in government schools, especially in rural areas, whereas English is typically the default medium of instruction in all fee-paying private schools across Nigeria. During school hours, students in such schools are often castigated or punished for speaking their indigenous languages, typically called ’vernacular’ in a pejorative sense. These types of linguistic practices further emphasize the diglossic situation in Nigeria vis a vis English and the numerous indigenous languages in terms of prestige.

Nigerian English is typically used as a cover term for the heterogenous varieties of English used by Nigerians. Features from various Nigerian indigenous languages are often transferred to English, and such features are widely acknowledged as phonological shibboleths or markers of certain ethnicities. For example, there are stereotypical jokes about the Igbo man who eats flied lice (/l/, /r/ alternation), the Yoruba man who is hat (H factor) home eating shicken (/ʃ/, /tʃ/ alternation), and the Hausa man who only has pipty dollars (/p/, /f/ alternation). One can therefore argue that the average Nigerian is quite aware of the coexistence of multiple dialects and accents of Nigerian English from an early age. Can the same be said about the two globally dominant varieties of English: American and British? Are certain stereotypes associated with American English too? It is likely that many Nigerians are unable to distinguish between American and British accents, but most can easily identify both varieties as foreign in the Nigerian environment. When it comes to language beliefs and attitudes, however, there are considerable differences between two groups of Nigerians: the new school and the old school.

”That’s why we have radio stations that cater to different audience… you see the FM where they try to funkify how they talk and sound very foreign. They know who they’re targeting, and they’re targeting the young, the Gen Zs who have been exposed to a lot of foreign stuff.”  (Mid-30s, radio presenter)

The youngest group of interviewees consists of teenagers and young adults below the age of 24. Participants in this group mostly belong to the new school – known for being active on social media and knowledgeable about new technology, slangs and trends. Many in this group self-identify as simultaneous bilinguals who have acquired English and other indigenous languages in their home environment, while others self-identify as monolingual English speakers who have passive knowledge of Nigerian Pidgin or an indigenous language. In contrast, the oldest group of interviewees which consists of retirees above the age of 65 is largely categorised as old school. None in this group is monolingual; fluency in one or more indigenous language(s) alongside English is the norm.

It is unsurprising that Americanisms and American accents index different things to these two groups. The interviews with the new school reveal mixed attitudes towards American accents. For many, it is positive. When you speak with an American accent genuinely, you are perceived as a well‑exposed Nigerian, classy, competent, upwardly mobile. In contrast, a fake American accent generates animosity. If it is perceived as fake, the speaker is mocked for trying to sound different and failing at it. Such a speaker is accused of ‘trying to belong’, ‘forming woke’, ‘faking it’, ‘pretending’, ‘speaking phoney’. For others, an American accent is just a tool for doing stuff – nothing special. It has certainly been commodified as the hiring process in several urban radio stations and international schools continues to favour Nigerians who possess a foreign accent – American or British. But having a foreign accent also has far-reaching consequences in Nigeria, you are expected to be rich, for example. And often, you end up paying more in the open-air markets, or you are asked to pay for basic services that the average Nigerian would typically get for free.

As for the old school, a complaint tradition about the deteriorating standard of English in Nigeria and a disapproval of Americanisms and American accents seem to go hand in hand. It was often repeated that British English is Queen’s English, and it is also the standard variety that Nigerians inherited from colonial times, unlike American English, which is colloquial, full of slangs and should be avoided in formal settings.

Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that the new school and the old school appear to agree that navigating the murky waters of multilingual Nigeria involves a high degree of linguistic flexibility. That is, mobile linguistic resources are essential, and the ability to switch between languages, language varieties or accents is a useful skill to have. As an interviewee puts it, “it’s good to know how to deactivate and activate accents so you know how to blend in where you need to blend in”.

Temitayo Olatoye
The author is a doctoral researcher at the University of Eastern Finland