“Things Fall Apart”

Elbow in his “Inviting the Mother tongue” is clearly proposing his strategies for the learners whose mother tongue is a dialect of English and not a different language. However he does mention at a point that “Yet even “translating” may not be so bad. For even though I am not suggesting that we should invite speakers of Japanese or Turkish to write early drafts in their home language, perhaps it’s not such a wild idea” (654). So like an expert (or inexpert?) rhetor, Elbow is getting across his idea while denying it and he even goes on to give example of how the researchers have shown that translating from home language to English yielded better results. Elbow also shows his awareness of the debate surrounding language being linked with “thinking, culture and identity” (655) but consoles the reader by the rhetorical question: “Does mainstream English or SWE “own” certain discourse?” While leading the reader to believe that one can produce a sophisticated discourse in one’s own dialect or language and later translate it into SWE, Elbow achieves his agenda of proposing the use of the mother tongue while still being able to produce publishable texts in SWE.

Let us relate Elbow’s proposal to what some of the postcolonial critics have been concerned with. No amount of sarcasm or cynicism can deny the status and prestige of English as international language and the language of the academe. Ngugi Thiong’o and Liyong, African postcolonial critics, in their “On the Abolition of the English Department” admit that English language is a political need while still rejecting “the primacy of English language and culture” (Leitch 1996). They also agree that English language, along with other prominent languages of the world should be taught in the university. Elbow’s case is different in the sense that he is talking about teaching SWE in a setting that already approves of the primacy of English language. What Thiong’o and Liyong are suggesting is different because in their case, English language is to be taught only as a medium in which most of the work in the world is produced. The common factor in both cases however is the acknowledgement that a language can be used as a tool/medium.

I have already mentioned Elbow’s stance in this regard that language does not “own” a discourse. This resonates with some of the postcolonial critics’ views that writing about their own culture in English would not take away anything from the culture. For the empires to “write back,” they need to use a medium that can reach the “center.” (Bill Ashcroft) In order for the postcolonial writers to assert their identities, they need to write in a language that is universally accessible. Some of the postcolonial critics have even suggested that the writers first write in their own National languages and then translate the work into English so that the essence of the culture and the experience remains intact.

Through this argument, I am not trying to show that Elbow’s claim verifies what postcolonial writers are doing. I am simply interested in the idea that whether language can really be used as a mere medium/tool? Chinwa Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Ahmed Ali’s Twilight in Delhi are examples of the texts that portray a culture as it is, from the native’s viewpoint, using English language as a medium/tool. When Elbow talks about writing, he is talking about academic discourse, what Achebe and Ali has done is portraying “memory” (“Memoria” Villanueva). Villanueva claims: “Memory simply cannot be adequately portrayed in the conventional discourse of the academy” because academic discourse is “weak in ethos” (570). So can we conclude that language is a very fluid phenomenon and it is not confined in a discourse and that a discourse however creates its own “register” that might not be as fluid as a language? If we say “yes” on this, it will shatter the previous connection that I made between what Elbow was suggesting and what postcolonial writers are doing. Elbow says that SWE does not “own” a discourse, by discourse, in this context; he means (if I am not wrong) an academic discourse. So the students can write in their mother tongue and later simply translate it into SWE without worrying about the discourse, because the discourse they wrote in was already academic. So is he implying conversely that the discourse does not have a language of its own? Going back to Villanueva’s point, writing about memory and academic discourse are two different and incompatible things. So when postcolonial writers create an academic discourse, in English language, they might not be able to achieve the goals—maintaining the distance from the master and resisting “assimilation.”

Questions:

  1. Can language be used merely as a tool/medium?
  2. Can one discourse (academic discourse, for example) share multiple languages? Or does it become a discourse only when it has one shared language?
  3. How much one loses when one writes in a foreign language?
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