I resumed the first class today at about 11am. The boys looked as curious as did those in my class of Yoruba more than two years before. I introduced myself, this time more firmly as I did earlier university students who at least had a disciplined look of adult learners. This time, teaching fourteen to sixteen year old Nigerian secondary school students will not turn out as easy as teaching seventeen to twenty-two year old American undergraduates. It was the first of three classes I would be teaching on the first day of term.
I wrote my name on the board, along with a few exercises in spelling that was on the syllabus for the day. “I will be your teacher of English for the rest of the term.” I told them a few rules of the class, and stressed the importance of seriousness, then launched into a mini tirade that I had swirled in my head a few seconds before I walked in.
“Now, to begin, let’s understand why, although already speakers of this language, you might need to pay very good attention to a class meant to teach you the basics of the rules that govern the language. If you think that because your parents have spoken it to you all your life you now know enough to be competent, please check that arrogance out the door right away. I have met a few Americans who had the same erroneous impression of their own speaking abilities. It ended in disaster…”
After a few minutes, and after I finally arrested their attention in the details of a new course that is being sold nearly as the cure for all that ailed them, we went into the spelling exercises. One of the words on the board was “gaol”.
“Who can pronounce this?”
Nearly everyone screamed: “gaaaaooll”.
“Wrong! You have just learned your first lesson in English. Words in this language are not always pronounced the way they are written. This word is pronounced the same as “jail”. It was an old way of writing it, before the Americans simplified it to “jail”. It also means the same thing.
We went down a list of a few other words: risqué, sachet, beret, tomb, bomb, pomade, breakfast, prayer, steak, and corps. Everyone knew how “steak” was pronounced, but very few knew about “corps” or “pomade”, or risqué.
“We will all need to get a dictionary.” I said.
Then I told them the story of a popular American president who had pronounced Navy Corpsmen as Navy Corpse-men several times in a televised speech. He was pilloried on cable television for days on end.
“Who was that president?” One student asked.
“Barack Obama,” I replied.
Whether that signified disappointment, or enlightenment, I am yet to find out, but the term is still very long, and it is still the first day of class.