In 2015, I was making a presentation for the first time before an international audience. For weeks, I prepared for this presentation as I was excited and nervous at the same time. I worried if I would stumble on my words or if my content was going to be captivating. On the day of the presentation, the audience was enthusiastic and asked lots of questions. As I got back to my seat feeling satisfied, the first thing the person, a Ghanaian, who sat next to me said was, “ah, your accent is really the typical Nigerian one” and he started laughing. Did I mix up my tenses? No? Was I articulate? Yes. So, what was wrong with my presentation according to him? My Nigerian accent! I asked him if he had a hard time understanding what I said and his response was in the negative. His reaction made me to ask myself, what is wrong with the Nigerian accent?
As I began to ponder on what he said, I started to take note of a trend in Nigeria. Something I had not realised: having an accent other than the British or American one was something to be ashamed of. I discovered that some Nigerians would rather speak with a British or American accent to come off as educated, elite or polished. Having a foreign accent also portrays affluence because it means your folks must have acquired a fortune to be able to send you to the United States of America or Great Britain to study where the accent is then developed. This means that you somehow belong to the crème de la crème of the society. In Lagos for example, if you tune in to popular radio and television stations, you might think you are no longer in Nigeria but in England or America.
Nigeria was colonised by Great Britain and naturally embraced the English language. It is Nigeria’s official language. All our important documents including the constitution are written in English. In a typical Nigerian school, English is used as a medium of instruction and also taught as a subject. English has become part and parcel of the Nigerian society and is spoken alongside other ethnic languages. If English is now part of the Nigerian society, it is only natural for there to be a transfer from one language to the other. For example, a non-Yoruba person speaking Yoruba will definitely have an accent especially if it is not the mother tongue or was learned at an adult age. The same can be likened to a typical Igbo, Edo or Hausa person speaking English. As long as the tenses are correct, no grammatical errors and words pronounced clearly, it is my opinion that there is nothing to be ashamed of.
One can speak clearly and pronounce words properly but still sound Nigerian. For example, Nigeria’s former Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Chimanda Adichie, a notable novelist and international feminist icon, and the revered Wole Soyinka, a Nobel Prize Winner in literature, all sound like the typical educated Nigerian without any trace of foreignness. Why then do some people think that having a Nigerian accent means one is not polished? Where is this inferiority complex coming from? There is a particular TV network in Nigeria where it seems all the presenters are foreigners. Sometimes, it is laughable when you hear them speak as it is so obvious that the accent is contrived. Ironically, this network is supposed to showcase Africa to the world. How beautiful!
I believe the Nigerian accent is our culture. It is how the average Nigerian sounds when speaking English. It is unique to us and can’t be heard anywhere else in the world. It is distinct. It might not be considered as the sexiest or might be looked down upon by the West especially the way it is portrayed in movies. But it is ours and we should be proud of it. As for the Ghanaian, I wanted to retort, “well the Ghanaians have their own” but that will be me doing the same thing I am now accusing him of. You want to know my response? I said, “I am a Nigerian and spent most of my years in Nigeria, how else should I sound?