Really? Good pidgin speakers don’t fail exams!

Let me first establish my bona fides (or perhaps my mala fides — bad faith — as pidgin is generally considered a language for deviants) for making this claim. I spent two years investigating the phenomenon of Pidgin English/School Pidgin at the university and proceeded to write a dissertation on the gender issues in pidgin for a degree in English.

I lived in Commonwealth Hall for five years through undergraduate and graduate degree programmes at  the University of Ghana. While the official business of the hall was done in proper English, Pidgin English was the lingua franca in the hall.

It was possible to conduct unofficial student meetings in pidgin alone, or where proper English was a strict rule, speak your mind in pidgin if you so please. It was smarter to use pidgin than to make a slave of the Queen’s language by saying “misunderestimate” or misspelling “pore” for “pour”. You were not deemed incapable of speaking proper English when you spoke flawless pidgin.

Secondly, I am an incurable Pidgin English speaker, and have been speaking it since secondary school. I was a reference case whenever our English teachers warned students about the dangers of the deviant language. There were concerns that students would write (I bore plus you) for I am angry at you, (Na I dey fear) for I was afraid and (I dey shy you) for I am shy of you.

There were some unproven instances of some addicts who had sunk so deep into the pidgin habit that they had lost the linguistic capacity to swap tongues when they found themselves in official communication domains, where correct English was mandatory.

The Scripture Union(SU) students usually didn’t want to be associated with such a deviant mode of communication. They would rather speak in tongues and sound incomprehensible than risk becoming incorrigible by corrupting their tongue with the broken rules of broken English. university_grad_thumb_medium343_229

The pidgin community lived well with the SU students with no suspicions at all. What remained suspicious was the real intention of the English masters when they needlessly expressed fears about the potential of pidgin corrupting our formal English application, or indeed, affecting our performance in examinations.

The Akatsi-North DCE’s recent comments on pidgin (see Pidgin English accounting for poor results — MCE,, June 10, 2013), sits well with popular official position on the matter.

The setting was very appropriate for the intervention, even though he did not say exactly how Pidgin English ‘dey make students bomb for exams’.

The average pidgin speaker would find the DCE’s remarks ‘some way’ or ‘confing.’  They might also question why people ‘dey dey dema top so’. In the end, they would decide not to ‘beez dem (ignore them) or lef dem (let them be/desert)’.

As a sociolect, I see pidgin speakers share linguistic traits that set them apart from non-speakers. That means the language is not for everybody except where it is the lingua franca. The speakers see themselves as a community, so they know their folks and will not do business with anybody outside the community in a language that is unintelligible to them.

They know how to code-switch (change language for setting and context) to identify with the  situation or occasion. After all, pidgin is made up of a substrate that is familiar to many in a language community, and a superstrate that is also common. We get a pidgin language when we borrow from the two ‘strates’ (pidginisation) to form a medium of communication. Our pidgin (what we speak in our schools as School Pidgin) is a harmless mixture of English and our vernacular.

In my research and from my experience as a speaker, I found that the average pidgin speaker (if he knew his pidgin well enough not to say ‘you dey resemble your father’, instead of ‘you dey gyee your poppee’) was an accomplished language user who was usually fluent in English. Indeed, you need good English to speak Pidgin English. Pidgin is a bit like pregnancy: You cannot be a little bit pregnant.

You are either pregnant or not. You cannot pretend to be a pidgin speaker. You join the community armed with the vocabulary items necessary for effective communication.

You would pick up a few more on the way, but you are not a pre-intermediate or intermediate speaker because you joined today. Those who fail in exams because of Pidgin English are not pidgin speakers.

They would have failed anyway. When you listen to their pidgin, you will realise their discomfort with official English. It is that discomfort that betrays them in exams, not pidgin. The good pidgin speaker is on top of his game. He will pass the exam.

So, why would girls not speak pidgin in our schools? Well, I found out that ladies are usually conformists; they would not sidestep or overstep known boundaries (not only in the case of language). They would not mind saying a few words in pidgin if they identified you as a pidgin speaker.

They also did not find anything wrong with dating a pidgin addict. A certain Mrs Tawiah-Benjamin has learnt to answer ‘I dey peace’ and ‘I dey tap you’. Power corrupts. Pidgin corrupts absolutely.

There is no proof that School Pidgin affects the linguistic/academic competencies of the speakers. If you will not say your wedding vows in pidgin (not even in Nigeria), why write pidgin items in WAEC exams? Ghanaian educationists should ask why in Nigeria, where everybody speaks pidgin (even the unlettered), they have not found it to be affecting their exam results. Our DCE may have a point, but the big point about our education cannot be explained away on pidgin.

By Kwesi Tawiah-Benjamin

The writer lives in Ottawa, Canada

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