Chinua Achebe, on Engaging with the Culture of the Coloniser (Bite-Sized Study Guide)

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Chinua Achebe, on Engaging with the Culture of the Coloniser

Achebe’s attitude towards cultural exchange is quite balanced. While he acknowledges the disruption caused by the colonisation of Africa, he credits it with the creation of larger, more secure ‘political units’ (i.e. nations) and the enablement of their unification through a shared linguistic system. Achebe believes that inherent value of inheriting English language is often overlooked or underestimated. He challenges Wali’s assertion that native Africans cannot express themselves fully without their native tongue, pointing out the pliability of English and its usage.

He observes that it is not necessary to use English like an Englishman: instead, the African voice is free to express itself creatively whilst still understood worldwide. Achebe argues that ‘the real question is not whether Africans could write in English but whether they ought to …but for [him] there is no other choice’. Achebe argues that ‘[he has] been given this language and [he] intends to use it’. African writers face multiple challenges when deciding which language their work should be composed in: that is, whether to embrace the language of their colonisers, or sustain the use of their native dialects. By exercising racial exclusivity and choosing to write in solely indigenous languages, the African writer limits their audience to native speakers and those willing to learn their language. They pose a resistance to the imposition of the colonial tongue, but lose the ability to communicate with the colonisers through their national literature – a form of vocal opposition proven to possess cultural/political power.

The abolishment of the colonial language also severs the ‘facility for mutual communication’ between Africans grouped together in newly-formed nations. Because English intervention led to the initial ‘arbitrary creation’ of these nations, English became the language used within them to communicate. This leads Achebe to argue that African writers choosing to write in English, far from being unpatriotic, are ‘by-products’ of this same process, and just as their geographic and ethnic position is different to ours, so is their use of the language. He describes an English language forced to submit to the creativity of the African mind and accept the diversification of its use, which I view as a positive and liberating interpretation.

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4 thoughts on “Chinua Achebe, on Engaging with the Culture of the Coloniser (Bite-Sized Study Guide)

  1. A language is only what you put into it. English, like any language, is constantly changing. Therefore, it isn’t the language of anyone but the person speaking it since they can choose what to say, how to say it, what to add and what to leave out.
    To suppose (as many do) that a language is intrinsically “incapable” of expression ANY thought that a person can have is ludicrous. Simply create an analog or a new word entirely. Or, even more simply… ADD a word from ANOTHER language with an existing meaning.

    How many languages simply have “Computer” in them or “Internet”, rather than create a new term? We didn’t create a new term for “Taco” when introduced to American palates.

    That’s how English developed. That’s how EVERY language develops. Africans (or any other people) can choose to pick and choose what they want out of it.

    The alternative… dozens of separate languages… is unduly ethnocentric to the point of impracticality.

    Nice post.

    Like

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