Argument

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Who Speaks English?

The world is long overdue for the abandonment of the unstated but powerful hegemony that exists around the great imperial languages of centuries past.

Howard French
Howard French
Howard W. French
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy.
Students sit at desks in a classroom.
Students sit at desks in a classroom.
Students attend Lagos University in Lagos, Nigeria, on March 10, 2016. Frédéric Soltan/Getty Images

Early this year, a bug seemed to have bitten Olumuyiwa Igbalajobi, a postdoctoral fellow in mycology at Canada’s University of British Columbia. As a native of Nigeria, he often found himself fielding questions from young people from his country about how to further their studies in the West.

Among the many barriers they reported facing, from absurdly difficult to obtain visas to the scarcity of financial assistance, one seemed especially irksome: Students from Nigerian universities were commonly being told that they had to pass an English language test as part of their application just for the mere honor of being considered. Since then, with some success, Igbalajobi has led a social media campaign to prod universities in Canada and the United States with such requirements to lift them for Nigerian students.

“I didn’t want to jump to the conclusion that this was a case of racism, but right from the start I felt that this is not right,” he said in an interview. “When I was young and in school, we were penalized for speaking what was called the ‘vernacular,’” meaning any of Nigeria’s many Indigenous languages. “To get into any Nigerian university you must have passing grades in English. And here we are being asked once again to prove our worth. It’s insulting.”

Early this year, a bug seemed to have bitten Olumuyiwa Igbalajobi, a postdoctoral fellow in mycology at Canada’s University of British Columbia. As a native of Nigeria, he often found himself fielding questions from young people from his country about how to further their studies in the West.

Among the many barriers they reported facing, from absurdly difficult to obtain visas to the scarcity of financial assistance, one seemed especially irksome: Students from Nigerian universities were commonly being told that they had to pass an English language test as part of their application just for the mere honor of being considered. Since then, with some success, Igbalajobi has led a social media campaign to prod universities in Canada and the United States with such requirements to lift them for Nigerian students.

“I didn’t want to jump to the conclusion that this was a case of racism, but right from the start I felt that this is not right,” he said in an interview. “When I was young and in school, we were penalized for speaking what was called the ‘vernacular,’” meaning any of Nigeria’s many Indigenous languages. “To get into any Nigerian university you must have passing grades in English. And here we are being asked once again to prove our worth. It’s insulting.”

English is the official language of Nigeria, and both in the country’s colonial era and since independence from Britain in 1960, it has been the country’s standard language of instruction. To be a Nigerian college student typically means to have been studying in English at least since the start of elementary school. And although many U.S. and Canadian universities do exempt students from Nigeria and other Anglophone countries from such tests, not all do.

Igbalajobi has thus waged a one-man letter campaign petitioning various U.S. and Canadian higher education institutions to change the restrictive and costly language tests that many international students are required to take. For now, this has resulted in the University of Alberta striking down the requirement. In the case of Nigerian students, he said, the roughly $200 cost of the standard test amounts to more than twice the monthly minimum wage.

This, however, is just a keyhole view of a much larger set of issues, starting with the fact that Nigeria, home to roughly 1 out of 6 Africans, is no ordinary Anglophone nation. Today, it is home to approximately 216 million people, but even that doesn’t give a sense of its pending importance to the future of the English language.

According to the Population Division of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the most widely referenced source of demographic projections, Nigeria is on track to have roughly as many people as the United States in just 28 years—in other words, by the middle of this century—and that’s just for starters. Producing accurate long-term population projections at the national level is a notoriously difficult enterprise, but according to the median estimate among its three projections for Nigeria, meaning what the Population Division concludes is the most likely outcome, by 2100, the country will have well over 500 million people. Unless this projection is radically off, that means that by the end of this century, this single West African nation will boast roughly as many English speakers as the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand combined.

When one considers that English is also an official language in Uganda, Kenya, Ghana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, among other similarly fast-growing African countries once colonized by Britain, one begins to understand that the future of the English language itself is profoundly bound up with the future of the African continent. (The same, by the way, is true of the French language.)

The world, in other words, is long overdue for the abandonment of the unstated but powerful hegemony that exists around the great imperial languages of centuries past. This has always sought to enforce the idea that to “properly” speak English, French, Spanish, or, perhaps to a slightly lesser degree, Portuguese (because of the size of Brazil) means to express oneself in ways that model whiteness. Down to the present, this hegemony has been so all-encompassing that for many people its hold goes unnoticed.

There are many barometers of this. A favorite for me has always been the television news network CNN, whose international offerings have long favored a mixture of American and British presenters and correspondents, with a smattering of Australian and other white-coded accents from places like South Africa or Canada. Intended or not, the idea this reinforces is that this is what it means to sound like a legitimate native English speaker. Nonwhite journalists still seem badly underrepresented in these roles, but even among those who make it on air, conventional “Anglo” accents from the nations mentioned above prevail.

One can find the same rules in effect elsewhere in U.S. television and cinema. In the former, African speech is routinely accompanied by subtitles, which signals that there is something inherently wrong with it and the viewer can be excused from any effort to understand what is being said straight from the speaker’s mouth. In film, meanwhile, African speech is often presented in an invented mishmash of imagined accents that bear no correspondence with the way real people talk anywhere on the continent but are deemed palatable to Western audiences while fulfilling stereotypes.

If the problem of old-fashioned—and nearly frozen—broadcasting and Hollywood conventions is mostly a matter of cultural inertia, though, the imposition of English-language test requirements on students from English-speaking African countries is of a piece with a much more systematic, albeit unacknowledged, economic quarantining of the African continent.

In the last decade or two, Europe’s policies regarding Africa have steadily drifted toward an emphasis on minimizing immigration from the continent. During this time, Western governments and media have often groused about China’s deepening economic engagement with Africa. This has sometimes veered toward the paternalistic suggestion that Africa, more or less by rights, belongs in the Western sphere and thus treats China as a naturally suspect interloper.

However, this alarmed attitude has been adopted without any concomitant signals of deepening Western economic engagement with Africa. There are, of course, no ready-made, foolproof strategies gathering dust on Western policymakers’ shelves for helping accelerate and broaden economic development in Africa, and even if there were growth programs that African and Western governments could theoretically agree upon, it is far from certain that Western funding, which has recently lagged far behind Chinese financial commitments on the continent, could be generated on an adequate scale.

In this light, much greater Western openness to overseas higher education for Africans, like increased Western investment in education in Africa itself, is, or should be, a no-brainer. This would address a series of major interlinked problems. Whatever economic path African countries choose, the countries of the continent share a common dilemma of insufficient numbers of people who have been highly trained in a variety of key areas, from business- and development-related areas such as management and economics to knowledge production in the so-called hard sciences. By training many more African students, the West could make a powerful contribution to overcoming these shortfalls.

For all of the potential good that could be achieved in this way, it’s best to be frank that in doing so, Western countries would also clearly be helping themselves. Contributing to African growth and development, even in a way that appears as indirect as this, is also a means of helping modulate African emigration—the all-but-declared goal of much Western policy toward the continent.

At the same time, Europe and the West in general would be benefiting from something else that is necessary but that they are loath to acknowledge. As much as Western countries dream of limiting African immigration, rapidly aging populations and shrinking demographics on both sides of the North Atlantic will mean that Western countries will become increasingly dependent on Africa for workers. As anyone who visits Paris today, for example, knows, this is already evident among workers in lower-wage jobs, from hospital orderlies to construction workers to bus drivers.

It is a self-destructive delusion for Europeans or North Americans to believe that their need for African labor can be confined to relatively menial work, though. Over the coming decades, Africa will be the overwhelmingly dominant source of new working-aged people in the human population, and the sooner Western countries understand that this will fuel a contest for cultivated brainpower, the better off they will be.

In his book Youthquake: Why African Demography Should Matter to the World, author Edward Paice makes clear why. He notes that by the mid-21st century, Europe’s share of the global population will have decreased from 20 percent in 1950 to a mere 7 percent, with the median age of its population more than 20 years older than that of Africans overall. By 2050, one-third of the world’s population between 15 and 24 years old will be African. And by 2030, “There will be about the same number of African primary-school children as the combined populations of Germany, France, the UK and Spain.”

Some readers will inevitably object about brain drain. But it has always been the case that a certain number of people leaving Africa for Western countries or other higher-income destinations never returned to their countries of origin, or at least not during their working years. Increasing the numbers of Africans in Western universities would merely increase the numbers overall, both of those who remained in their countries of adoption and those who returned home.

And making it easier to come to Europe, Canada, or the United States to study would increase the likelihood that more Africans decide to return home, while making periodic visits to Western countries for further education and work stints. Education is in crisis in Nigeria, with the country’s universities suffering from prolonged labor strikes and chronic underfunding. But the high performance of Nigerian students overseas is a proven fact. As the economists Ran Abramitzky and Leah Boustan write in their 2022 book, Streets of Gold: America’s Untold Story of Immigrant Success, “Nigerian immigrants are the most educated population in the United States, with 81 percent holding at least a college degree.”

“I want to believe this is just a matter of oversight,” Igbalajobi said of the language test requirements, as well as other barriers to entry African students who seek to study in the West face. “We know that Africans do very good work in higher education. It’s time for these schools to treat the continent’s students right.”

Howard W. French is a columnist at Foreign Policy, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a longtime foreign correspondent. His latest book is Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War. Twitter: @hofrench

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