Nollywood, pidgin English & a British actress


It might well be the week of the Cannes Film Festival, but from a sociolinguistic perspective, more interesting is the revelation this week is the landing of a major Nollywood film role by a white-British former air steward from Basingstoke. The primary interest of the story is not that Claire Edun is white – which she undeniably is – or that she is working in a film industry in Nigeria, but rather that she has taught herself Nigerian English, referred to widely in the press as ‘pidgin English’.

Various UK media outlets, such as The Guardian, The Daily Mail and BBC Radio 4’s PM programme, presented this as a human interest story, with the BBC categorising it in their Entertainment News section. As with most news items posted on-line, a range of responses from readers was uploaded to various sites, with emphases on different issues including the labelling of Nigeria as “fantastically corrupt” by Prime Minister David Cameron, cultural appropriation, and the predictable smattering of racist trolling. Very little space has been devoted to the issues around the acquisition and use of Nigerian English – and I will explain why I refer to it that way shortly – by someone who is not Nigerian.

First, the question of terminology. A pidgin is widely considered to be a variety of a language that has been simplified in some grammatical way (usually by the loss of exceptions such as irregular verb endings or plural markers) and that is heavily influenced by a second language. Normally, pidgins emerge in circumstances when two or more groups of people, inhabiting a particular territory, do not share a language but accommodate to each other to communicate. As time progresses, if this pidgin is taught to new generations as a first language, it becomes a creole. For this reason, as well as the sense in which pidgins are often dismissed as inferior to ‘languages’, I prefer to talk of Nigerian English, although that itself is not perfect, not least because it suggests a single, codified language.

Second, and more interestingly, are the ideologies that are betrayed in the discussions around Claire Edun’s acquisition of Nigerian English, and her use of the language in both stand-up comedy and in the forthcoming Nollywood film. Here, a number of issues coalesce and are worth exploring. One key question seems to be why would anyone learn Nigerian English? Implicit in this question is the value attributed to Nigerian English, especially in relation to British English, which Edun already spoke. Western dominance of thinking about languages, dating back to the nineteenth-century and notions of nation-building, contribute to the negative perceptions – or the lower value – of languages such as the pidgins and creoles, on the basis that these are sub-standard forms of more prestigious languages. By this reasoning, Nigerian English is less important than British English, so why would anyone learn it? This was articulated in particular by the director of Erdun’s film, Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen, who told the BBC that “most people here [in Nigeria] don’t feel proud to say that they can speak pidgin English”. This linguistic resource, namely the ability to communicate effectively with large numbers of Nigerians, is undervalued.

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One reader’s comment on the website of The Guardian newspaper

Ethnicity is clearly a factor here, hence the discussions of cultural appropriation and even ‘verbal blacking up’ on some comments pages. Not only is it seen as unusual for someone who is not Nigerian to learn Nigerian English, but it is even more striking when that language-learner is white. Edun talked about her experiences of using Nigerian English out and about in Lagos, where one woman she encountered burst into tears, crying “amazing” to hear Edun speak the language. This acquisition of Nigerian English by a white British woman challenges some of the entrenched perceptions about the value of Nigerian English; in Edun’s case, mastery of Nigerian English in part landed her a role in a Nollywood film.

The other issue worth considering is how Edun learnt Nigerian English. Whilst she is married to a Nigerian, she put her acquisition down first to Nollywood and her enjoyment of the films. She highlighted how there is no dictionary of Nigerian English – I don’t know whether this is the case, but I would be surprised if no-one has got to some lengths to record the details of the language. However, this throwaway line does point to one belief about language learning, namely that it requires textbooks and formal processes rather than the less traditional method of picking up a language from films.

Overall, what is exciting here is the challenging of preconceptions – both in Nigeria and in the UK – about languages, their values and importance, and how you might start to learn something that for many is seen as unusual as Nigerian English.