Her name is Yvonne, and it rolls beautifully off the tongue with its suggestive old world French aristocracy. This is the lady currently setting my heart on fire.
I thought I should tell you about her and ask you not to blame me for my never-ending romantic adventures. Yvonne is, after all, a teacher and I am permanently in love with teachers, both male and female.
But Yvonne is really special, and she seems to be noticed and courted by the rich and mighty of the world, including multibillionaire presidents.
The other day she received a letter from the White House, with the personal signature of the chief resident at that address. It set me wondering what I would do in the very unlikely event of my receiving such a letter from the President of the Republic, whichever republic.
Yvonne, however, knew exactly what to do and she did it. She read the letter, took out her purple pen, marked and corrected all the grammatical, usage and stylistic errors in the letter and sent it back to the sender. I would probably have shown my letter to everyone and then framed it and hung it up for all generations to see.
But Yvonne Mason, the woman with whom I am aspiring to fall in love, is a teacher of English, and an intensely passionate one at that. She was not going to take shoddy, slovenly and inaccurate English from anyone.
She might not have put it in those famous terms, but obviously she thought that the language of the letter she received was “the kind of English up with which she could not put”.
The phrase above is an allusion to what the famous British statesman, Winston Churchill, is said to have scribbled on a memorandum prepared by members of his staff. I will not comment elaborately on the language of the letter that Yvonne received or on the appropriateness of her response. But such incidents definitely challenge us to pause and think seriously about language and our use of it.
I, for example, noted that the exchange between the White House and Ms Mason, like the one between Churchill and his staff, was among first-language (“mother tongue) users of English. This leaves you wondering what “correct” English is and who is expected to use it. This inevitably brings the question to us “ESL” (English as a second language) users.
I shudder to imagine what would happen if any of our writings (letters, memos, articles or poems) should fall into the hands of Yvonne Mason. How many purple-ink corrections would there be on our documents if she were to find the time to read and mark them? In other words, how many of us feel absolutely confident with the kind of English (or Kiswahili) that we speak and write?
In the media houses, we have editors, sub-editors and copy editors, who do not only check the content of what we write and report but also act as language quality assurance officers. They severely and strictly check our language use and “correct” it to avoid or minimise the blunders that we make.
That quite a few of our publications still suffer from glaring linguistic and stylistic shortcomings reminds us, and especially me, of the old adage that those who live in glass houses should not throw stones. But it also points to the plain reality that every public user of language needs a well-trained language quality assurance professional.
Apparently, the top state institution from which the letter to Yvonne Mason originated lacks or is short of English language quality assurance professionals. If that is the case at the summit of a first-language English-speaking society, you can imagine what happens in the lower echelons and in contexts where English is an acquired language.
Anyway, we should connect all this to Yvonne Mason’s act, which made me feel irresistibly attracted to her. We should accept the fact that we are all in constant need of improving our language skills, and of committed and passionate language teachers and trainers to help us in this task. I have not been following closely the endless clamour about the “falling standards of English” in Kenya recently. But I hear a lot about “Uglish” (an ugly coinage for what I suggested should be called “Ugenglish), Ugandan English.
NEED FOR EXPERT LANGUAGE TEACHERS
My friends and colleagues in English and Language Education at Makerere seem to agree with sociolinguists elsewhere that the emergence of different “Englishes” across Africa and the globe is inevitable. That may be true.
But it only heightens the need for expert language teachers and policy-makers to ensure management of these varieties of English in such a way that their growth does not lead to catastrophic unintelligibility among them. Should Kenyans and Ugandans be divided by mutually unintelligible “Kenglish” and “Uglish”? That would, indeed, be ugly.
So long as we remain committed to the use of English in our countries, we will need competent, skilled and, above all, passionately committed language teachers, the likes of Yvonne Mason, to ensure the delivery of a quality product. In order to get and retain such teachers in our systems, we need to motivate and encourage them. Threatening to subject teachers of English to discriminatory salaries, in favour of science or technical teachers, would be, simply, the kind of policy up with which we should not put.
Fortunately, as I heard while I was writing this, the Ugandan lawmakers have persuaded the policy-makers there to abandon the strange intention of discriminatory salaries between science and arts teachers serving at the same level. Let us hope that disastrous approach is dead and buried, and it will never resurface anywhere in East Africa.
Finally, please, advise me. I am thinking of writing a love-letter to Yvonne Mason. Do you think she might be satisfied with my English, or will I need some quality assurance services from you?
I wish you a happy Madaraka Day. But, please, mind your language.
Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and Literature. [email protected]