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Thursday, January 05, 2006

Internet has elevated English language– Prof. McIntyre

Inteview:

Prof. Joseph McIntyre, lecturer at the department of Afrikanistik and Athiopistik languages, University of Hamburg-Germany, who majored also in Hausa language and has been teaching this for the past 27 years. He told REMMY NWEKE in an interview recently in Hamburg that Internet has made English language more important than any other language in the world.
Excerpts:


AS an Englishman, how did you take interest in teaching Hausa language in an European university, especially when it is realised that it is spoken largely in northern Nigeria?
Yes, I am an English man and now teach Hausa at the University of Hamburg, Germany, which I have been doing for 27 years now. I came here in 1978, between 1974 and 1978 I lived in Nigeria. In Kano within the old city walls. Before going to Nigeria I had learnt Hausa in School of Orient African Studies in London, so that is where I learnt Hausa.
Why did you learn Hausa?
People often ask me the same question, why did you learn Hausa? Well, it is a bit long story, although I was interested in Africa when I went to the university, so I decided to learn African language and social anthropology. So I did my first degree and went to Nigeria in 1974, lived in Kano and did research for one year and then I taught in Bayero University for three years, afterwards, I taught Sociology of Education and African Social System, then I was offered a job in Hamburg to teach Hausa language and I have been here since 1978. I learnt how to speak Hausa in Kano and I learnt Hausa as a student but in Kano I had to speak Hausa. If I had stayed in England, I may have never spoken Hausa.
You have been in Germany for about 27 years now teaching Hausa, how have you been coping?
Let me say one thing about myself, I have continued to speak Hausa because I have always maintained contacts with my friends and neighbours in Gwagwalada and Kurumaya in Kano and also at the university in Kano. Sometimes I telephone and sometimes a friend calls. I also worked at the German radio in the Hausa service because they have some Hausa speaking residents here in Germany.
In 1982, I started to interpret German and Hausa in court in Germany and I did that for about 10 years, after which an Hausa speaker took over the interpretation. Mainly for people seeking political asylum and in early 90s I handed over to an Hausa speaker from Ghana. Since I stopped the interpretation in Hausa, I have some Hausa friends in Hamburg mainly from Ghana, sometimes from Burkina Faso and sometimes from Togo. No Hausa people here from Nigeria or Niger, but mostly Ghana, Togo and Burkina Faso.
Between the time you started teaching Hausa here in the university and now, how many students have passed through this department?
When I started, I inherited 200 persons, these people are taught the same languages all over the university and later you would get, may be 150 or 152 who also would later major on some specific languages, English or French and so on. So after one year it would drop to about 24 and afterwards may be 20 or 12.
What really causes the non-reliability of the number of students in the languages?
I think many students usually start from almost all the courses, because we teach English, Amharic, Hausa and several other languages. Amharic is Ethiopia official language but midway some of the students would go to do something else. We have a good number that have done their Masters and PhD here on languages. Here also we do Hausa and Swahili languages because usually people have to study at least three major languages. So many people would like to study two, Hausa and Swahili, then do their Masters, PhD and leave. If it is possible they leave the languages one side and do Masters in Linguistics or both.
What we basically teach here are African languages, which are the main thrust of our department. Out of the three main languages, for instance, they can learn two.
We also have former students teaching some of the languages, like Voloh, Senegalise language and Nadiga in Gambia. So they have those options even though they don’t study them longer. But the main focus of ours is linguistics.
Most of the times, when they are studying here, some would say I want to write my masters on this subject, this is because at the same time they are studying African languages they are studying Sociology and even Mathematics. Somebody may be studying specialised courses like chronology, that is, sounds of language and comes along to say that he wants to study one African language.
There are many, who come with very different reasons why they come to study, so it is not necessarily that they come to learn Hausa and then decided to do Masters in Hausa or PhD in Hausa. In this case, they would have Hausa as part of their studies, they would also have Swahili as part of their studies, but there are many reasons why they come.
All this while teaching in Hamburg, do you see Nigerians coming to study Hausa language?
I have some African students coming to study, I think from Zaire, Togolese, Benin and yes I had an Igbo girl who came to study Hausa but she did her thesis on Igbo language and since she was a student here, she has to learn a bit of Hausa, a bit of Swahili but she did her doctorate on Igbo.
What is the scale used in determining the choice of languages taught in an institution like University of Hamburg?
Basically it is the size of the language. Swahili in East Africa and Hausa in West Africa are spoken by many people. Swahili for instance is spoken by people at the coast of East Africa from Kenya to Tanzania down to Zanzibar. Swahili was used by the German and British colonialists respectively and it spread in these areas very quickly. It spread from the East African coast and is now being spoken in Zaire as a second language.
Hausa is spoken of course in northern Nigeria. Many of them have been traders across many centuries and most part of Africa about 300 years ago was criss-crossed by trade routes. The Hausa was very predominant in West and North Africa and even maybe across the east Africa, at least, they have contact with East Africa. There is contact between the East Africa and Hausa. Hausa was active in coastal trade and of course when you trade you take your language with you.
Another thing for the Hausa was that about 400 years ago, the first set of traders became Muslims and this has increased dramatically. This is why you have well over 99 per cent of Hausa speakers in Nigeria as Muslims.
Is it possible to have some other major languages like the Igbo and Yoruba spoken in Nigeria as courses here?
There was a Nigerian professor of Yoruba language, who was here for a year, in fact, he is a foremost linguist in Africa, but we have not had any other from Nigeria apart from the student that did her thesis in Igbo language. We had a number of students who write on their own languages. We have German former student, she worked her PhD in Gonia, it is a language related to the Hausa and spoken in some parts of Jos, Plateau State in Nigeria. She wrote her PhD on this language and is now writing on the grammar of the language.
Hausa, Swahili and Ethiopian Amheric were the main widely spoken languages in Africa. I think if the university has more money we would have languages like Yoruba, Igbo, Tiv, Efik, Wolof and so many languages in East Africa. We have other languages too, but Hausa, Swahili and Amheric are the main languages for now.
Do you see your students going beyond the class rooms when it comes to speaking of these languages?
No. The language itself is learnt by students at a certain level. When I started Hausa, precisely on October 24, we would start again. The first semester would be four hours of Hausa each week, second semester would be the beginning of the second year, they would have two hours per week. That means that three hours in the first year, afterwards one and half hours. They would also be doing ethnography, sociology or even politics. So they have to learn a lot but they learn very small amount of these languages to enable them write small sentences, may be letters.
What we do every second year is to organise an intensive course in the various main languages and the best 15 students would go to where their languages are well spoken to live for two months with an indigenous family, to learn how to speak these languages.
Is it for just speaking the languages?
No, they would go for an intensive course and research on how to speak these languages. One student with one family. So if it is in Hausa, an Hausa family with one student and they are expected to speak in the local languages, like Hausa and after two months the language is pretty good.
How do you rate the African languages in that most people on the continent are trying to migrate into speaking foreign languages like English and French and you’re here teaching African languages. Does this mean that these languages are facing extinction locally with less people speaking their own languages?
Educationally there have been a lot of works in African languages; a lot of works in Hausa, Kanuri, down to Ibadan and Igbo and also in Port Harcourt area. These were done by several universities.
Well, to my knowledge, I think the Yorubas are quite active in publishing materials in local languages. They write a lot and publishing in international magazines. Igbos, well used to have a magazine that comes out here twice a year and we get a lot of them. Not so much about the Hausa but we have about Hausa and other related languages, which are what we call chartered languages that are related to Hausa languages.
What could boost the learning and speaking of local languages especially beyond their own domain, like the Igbo Community in Hamburg speaking Igbo here?
Very hard in Europe, but I think in Africa, people are more into other languages. In Europe it would be very difficult, say for the Igbo community in Hamburg to spread the Igbo language here.
But like you said, Hausa is spoken in Germany, is there no way Yoruba could also be of major interest and spoken here too just like the Hausa?
You see, the Hausa is spoken here in Germany by other people. I don’t know the Nigerian community here in Hamburg for instance. The people I know are the Hausa community from Ghana, Burkina Faso and Togo. I don’t know the Nigerian community speaking Hausa in Hamburg. So I couldn’t say if the Igbo, Yoruba are more here that they could do something for the language. So to my knowledge, there is no Hausa speaker from Nigeria.
What of in Berlin?
I think I know one Kanuri speaking man in Berlin.
But what would you say should be a way of promoting local languages?
I can’t really say because we tried to promote it but it was in Hausa, Swahili and Amheric, occasionally we have Yoruba, and Wolof. I think it would be possible if we have more money. There are lots of important languages to teach but it is a question of money. You know, here in our institute, we are smaller group compared to the larger institute. The Japanese and Asian are much bigger than the African studies because they get outside help. I don’t think we can get a lot from Africa, because Germany trades a lot with Japan. China is becoming a major economic power, so there is an economic interest and in Africa this kind of economic interest is not the same. Although there are German companies in Nigeria, there are also German schools in Lagos, but it may be political.
For example, the Europeans, and Americans, they make the money in Africa and take the money out of the reach of Africa. Africa, for instance is rich. Nigeria is an oil-rich country, good quality oil and Angola as well. In Zaire you have gold, Ghana is gold all over. Liberia has diamonds and also in the republic of Congo, that is Zaire again you have cooper and they used to have good mineral that is only used in mobile telephone.
You know, Africa is rich in minerals, is rich in resources, but somehow, it is not Africans that control these resources. African leaders are myopic because African is being milked. Africa is still being exploited by the Europeans, Americans and maybe, the Chinese are coming in now. The flow of money from Africa is quite important to Europe and the flow of goods, raw materials from Africa to Europe and America is quite important, but Africa is still considered poor.
Your country’s president, (Olusegun) Obasanjo, I have heard him say often when journalists ask questions about Nigeria and corruption in Nigeria; corruption all over Africa, we know and why is corruption in Nigeria. Obasanjo after listening to these journalists would always ask, who pays the corrupt politician, who pays the corrupt businessman in Nigeria. And people know they are from Europe and America. So when you talk about corruption being a massive problem in Africa, yes, it is, but not always an African problem because the other people who are helping to cause corruption are in Europe and America; the monies are coming to Europe and going to America.
Rich Nigerians who have lots of money, where do they invest, they don’t invest in Nigeria, they buy houses outside Africa, they send their children to school outside. So the money they have made corruptly does not circulate in Nigeria but circulates in here. Some of them have Swiss bank accounts, German bank accounts, British, America bank accounts.
The money corrupt people have in Nigeria and Africa at large circulates here in Europe and America. Now if all the corrupt people left their monies in Nigeria, for instance, corruption would not be such a problem. It would be a problem but not as big as it is. Because every now and again we hear about corruption here; in German, in England, in France and we are talking about corrupt politicians, and corrupt bank managers.
Corruption is much problem here in Europe and America simply because the corrupt money stays here, and circulates here, so we all benefit from corrupt money.
But for Africa, the corruption doesn’t stay in Africa. So it is only an American or European that can go to bank and say I want to build a house, I want to invest in your industry. Of course the bank manager would agree because he has the money. Why and where do you think the money has come from? If the corrupt money stays in Nigeria and corrupt Nigerians invested in Nigeria and Nigerians have work etcetera, corruption would not be much of a big problem in Nigeria then.
Do you foresee language playing a role in a globalised world in the near future towards reducing corruption?
No. My feeling is that if you put language into the political context, it would be nice if Europe learns more of Africa.
You mean it would be nice?
Yes, it would be a good thing. Europeans on the whole are very, very ignorant of Africa. They know all books, but nothing. They don’t know much of African languages to be honest. If you talk with ordinary German or Englishman and I think it is the same in France. They would say oh yes, African dialect. They use the word dialect. Now any big language has dialect. I come from northern England, we have our dialect. I could say a couple of words to you in my dialect and you would not understand and we all have dialect. Hausa has dialect, but Hausa is a language. Also there is Kano dialect, Sokoto dialect, Ghana dialect. All big languages have dialects. The Igbo language too, sometimes you don’t understand one another because you come from different dialects.
Sometimes, when I speak to some of the top European officials, they would ask, if these African languages have a grammar. Yes, by definition, every language has a grammar; how it is constructed but Chinese is very different from English. And when an intelligent person asks you if these languages have grammar … you must realise that every language has rules. The way it is showing if it is a noun, there is a way it would show if it is pronoun, singular or plural. Some German words have masculine, feminine nouns and neutral. So languages have the same thing and changes both ways too.
But how do you think the role of language in globalisation would help in combating corruption?
Well, in trying to answer your question if language could play a role in reducing corruption. I don’t think so, but I think that learning a language would help or learning about a language would help to reduce ignorance. When people are so ignorant they don’t think they know that. In Africa, there is at least, 1,500 languages and all the major languages have dialects and most cases several dialects. Like in Ghana, there is Ghanaian dialect in Hausa.
If Igbo learn Yoruba and Hausa in schools and Yoruba learn Igbo and Hausa and all Hausas learn Igbo and Yoruba, then people can communicate with each other, but there is need for money to finance this system in schools.
You know, African governments and Nigeria is a very, very good example, having lots of problems; there is a financial problem, there is a political problem. They have advantage now many people speak English and we also have computers, but what do they do with international trade. At least, they know that going to the Internet is no problem, because it is in English.
In other words, would you say that the coming of Information age based on Internet has also added in ‘killing’ local languages?
Well, it made English more important than local languages, more important than it was without the Internet. Internet has given English more power than it has before. It has power before because it is a major international language, probably the biggest language, followed by Spanish and French. The Internet has given English more power which made it harder to solve the problem. Take for instance, if a Nigerian government comes out to say that we want to support our own languages and we choose, Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo because these are the three biggest languages in the country and support these languages, they would still have problems because the financial problems are taught in English language. I once met a Nigerian professor here in Germany, from I think, it was Port Harcourt, who was helping to organise a Nigerian typewriter, which was the best that was before the Internet ….
But with the typewriter keyboards you can still type well on the computer?
That is if you want to type faster and when using a German keyboard, for instance, the vowel letter ‘a’ is at a different place and if you’re using this on a typewriter or computer you would think letter ‘a’ is at the left or right hand.
What do you think is the solution of language with modern technologies?.
I think learning the language is good because you have to learn the culture too. If you learn different languages, you would discover that they have completely very different culture. I am not in favour that everybody should speak English and I would support the development of local languages.
I think the best thing is for everybody in the world to learn a language from completely different culture. It opens secret minds – to realise that people are different and that people see and feel things differently and can express it through the languages. And if we could learn, you would be surprised what you would see. Ah that is why they see it that way and this is what they mean. Very often I still learn, for example in Hausa they say ‘ruwa kudi’ meaning water for money, but now if you understand that, you would know it when they say ‘ruwa’ or ‘kudi’ and how they do say it. And in English, we have the word liquidity or simply liquid meaning cash flow. In other words, there are all kinds of words in our languages and once you see it you would realise it. Like in French they said ‘liquide’. And now if you look at the relationship, in English you said cash flow, what flows, water.
We are all using what we call in linguistics, metaphor and for many years I did not realise that and we even have it in our local language and it means the same thing. So when you learn another language, it opens your mind, especially language from another country.
As at now, the Internet has made English very important and it would be very difficult to promote another language like English on the Internet. Apart from emails, which I like emails in Hausa and people can email in Igbo or Yoruba, it is alright. But to establish website in Hausa, Igbo or Yoruba for the rest of the world to read, I think it would be difficult.
I am totally in support of people learning another language, but as an Igbo, you may wish to consolidate on Igbo language so that people would know and say okay the Igbo they are good at that and they are bad at that. Good at that and not too good at the other thing. If a German knows Igbo, he would definitely know of the Biafran war … laughs.
In Africa, learning of languages is normal but in Europe and America it is not the same.

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