Friday, 13 June 2014

Where did the English standard fall?

 Posted  Friday, June 13, 2014 |  by- Austin Bukenya
Anyang' Nyong'o. Prof Austin Bukenya says Nyong'o's
Anyang' Nyong'o. Prof Austin Bukenya says Nyong'o's "beautiful and rich speaking voice" has always played a significant role in the politician's distinguished career. PHOTO/FILE
There may be problems with the quality of our English but there is nothing to support the blanket
I recently stumbled upon an old-fashioned audio-cassette in one of my drawers. Tentatively running it through my antiquated radio cassette player, I discovered, to my amazement, that it was a literature teaching programme that Peter Anyang' Nyong’o and I had recorded, with Margaret Ojuando, for the Education Media Services of the Kenya Institute of Education (as it was called then), some time in 1979.
The content of the programme was striking — something to do with British colonists in India and Burma. But what startled me most and raced me back through the years to the early 1970s, when I had first met him at Makerere, was what we always called Mheshimiwa’s "beautiful and rich speaking voice."
Anyang' Nyong’o was only an undergraduate freshman then, but he was soon to emerge as president of the Makerere Students’ Guild, one of a line of brilliant Kenyans who have through the years headed that formidable institution.
Now, anyone vaguely familiar with Makerere will know that you couldn’t even remotely hope to win the Guild presidency if you didn’t "sound right" and possess outstanding oratorical skills.
So, "that beautiful and rich speaking voice" has always played a significant role in Mheshimiwa’s distinguished career.
But the Kisumu County senator is only one in a long and continuing line of excellent Kenyan English speakers. Maybe I should have said "Kenyan speakers of English."
But Kenyan English is rapidly becoming a brand. If you listen carefully to the voices in most of the call and service centres in East Africa, you will notice that they are distinctly Kenyan, and they are quite proficient and efficient.
Incidentally, have you noticed that most of the eminent international broadcasters from East Africa in recent times, like Kathleen Openda, Jeff Koinange and Sophie Ikenye, are from Kenya? Even those with other nationalities, like Ugandan Allan Kasujja of the BBC, confess to having been raised in Kenya. Do I know about the Kenyan brand? Ask me where I brought up my children!
Anyway, the point is that I have known and admired, and still admire, lots of Kenyans who speak beautiful English. A few examples leap to mind from areas like politics, broadcasting and theatre.
Of the older generation, names that remain memorable include the late Wamalwa Kijana and Norbert Okare, the newscaster, who also starred as the Chief Justice in The Rise and Fall of Idi Amin (alongside the late Joseph Olita, so recently lost, so dearly missed) and the late Anne Wanjugu, that exceptionally talented actress opposite whom I was often honoured to perform.
But my choice for the best standard Kenyan English speaker is the theatre guru, David Mulwa of Kenyatta University. Maybe I should start by admitting that Mwalimu Mulwa is a very close and intimate comrade, with whom I share heaps of ‘escapades’, about which we shall chat another day.
My closeness to Mulwa has, however, given me a unique opportunity to observe in minute detail what he does when he speaks, and how he does it, in order to achieve his characteristic bell-clear delivery.
What good speakers do, I think, is to concentrate on a few essentials of good delivery, especially pronunciation, intonation, pace, projection, phrasing and relaxation.
The most important of these, I think, is relaxation. Whenever you have to speak in public, remain "natural." Do not strain for effect. The best exponent of this vital quality of good speech in Kenyan broadcasting is probably the evergreen Catherine Kasavuli.
And maybe therein also lies the secret of eternal youth!
For the rest, aim at producing the right sounds, modulating your voice meaningfully, giving yourself time to utter and your listener time to take in your utterance.
Most good speech is actually mastered through careful listening to and imitating competent speakers. With English, there are standard varieties of educated speech to which every user of the language should aspire.
Incidentally, standard speech doesn’t mean "speaking like an Englishman (or Englishwoman)." In fact, many native speakers of English fall so far short of the standard varieties that the formidable Professor Higgins of My Fair Lady was left wondering: "Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?"
Mention of "standard" reminds one of the hue and cry that has for several years been raging, especially in educational circles, about the "falling standards" of English in the country. One cannot help wondering which standards those are and where they have been falling.
There may be problems with the quality of our English, but I don’t fully subscribe to this blanket hypothesis of falling standards.
Bringing in Lupita here may sound a little abstruse. But she is Kenyan and she is one of the most prized English-speaking voices in the world today. What’s more is that there are many other Kenyans, especially of Lupita’s generation and background, whose standard of speech is plausibly comparable to hers. So, maybe the situation is not catastrophic.
What must be admitted, however, is that while we have a sizeable squad of excellent speakers of English, there also is a worrying and growing body of users whose speech is problematic. We are all familiar with those "shrubs" and "aggacends" (accents) that we love to lampoon and parody. These are the symptoms of three main developments.
The first is simply that, more than ever before, there are more people trying to communicate in English, with varying degrees of success.
The second development, related to the first, is that many would-be speakers of English are exposed to very poor models or to no models at all.
The third development — and this is the main problem — is that we teachers of English are often either unwilling or too shy to offer articulate and specific speech guidance to our students.
Basically, many teachers prefer to take the cautious line of "people who live in glass houses…" Since many of us are not particularly confident or comfortable with our own speech, we either avoid trying to teach our students about effective standard speech or keep such teaching to a bare and often theoretical minimum.
If we ourselves cannot tell the difference between "pack" and "bag," or between "aloud" and "around," how are we going to make our students discern them, let alone execute them in their speech?
How we found ourselves in this sorry state is a curious tale of history and ideology. We know that we acquired our variety of English from our British colonisers.
As the colonists, including teachers, departed after independence, our base of educated native speakers dwindled, to such an extent that today it’s quite possible for one to graduate from university without ever coming face to face with a standard English speaker.
But there was also something more sinister. English, and especially British English, is woefully class-riddled. The way people speak automatically identifies them as aristocratic, middle class, working class or simply "common."
In colonial Kenyan society, rigidly segregated along racial and social lines, English accents were inevitably misused to discriminate against the less privileged, mostly the colonised, deprived, ill-educated Africans.
In the immediate post-independence backlash against everything reminiscent of colonialism, Standard English speech, which is simply an agreed form of expression among users of the language from different backgrounds, was vilified as colonial or neo-colonial, or at best elitist, bourgeois and "high cost."
The ideologues of the new order deliberately oppose standard English speech, suggesting that it was not politically correct to speak with a standard accent.
The result was a generation of speakers who spoke and still speak English with curiously improvised accents.
They even ridiculed those who tried to approximate their speech to any internationally recognizable model. I remember cases of students from supposedly upmarket schools being booed and heckled off the stage during the Schools Drama Festival in the mid-1970s, because of their accents.
I was amused some time ago to read on the Internet about a professor friend of mine, a brilliant literary scholar, being described by his American students as a "guy with the craziest African accent you ever heard."
This friend is a product of that generation that was urged to "liberate themselves from colonial accents." He may be taken as a point for both sides of the argument.
Some may say that it doesn’t really matter how we speak, since this "guy" was able to get himself a post at an American university. On the other hand, wouldn’t it be better if this scholar was able to go about his work without his "crazy" accent attracting undue attention from his students?
In any case, not all of us are geniuses like this professor, and we might find it easier to get along with a standard educated form of speech that doesn’t stick out like a sore finger.
Perhaps what matters in the end is that we communicate clearly and unambiguously to as wide an audience of users of English as possible. This demands that we approximate our speech to some widely accepted standard model, whether British, American or Kenyan.
Prof Bukenya is one of the leading African scholars of English and literature in East Africa. Mwalimu Bukenya taught for many years in Kenya.

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