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Published On: Mon, Dec 1st, 2014

The return of Babel (I)

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By Isa Ali Musa

The tools with which we communicate in English, or in any other language for that matter, are listening, speech, or writing. Through the ages these three mediums have undergone immense transformation, and continue to transform still, to keep abreast of the vicissitudes of human ways; ever-expanding predilections of culture; and, not to mention, the very real problem of how to rivet the increasingly tenuous attention-span of a detail-challenged generation.

Language has come a long way from the comic stereotype we hold of the ancients whereby a few grunting sounds, lots of gesticulation, and an occasional club to the head, was thought to convey meaning effectively. With the evolution of civilization, perhaps the most potent tool by which our species, Homo Sapiens, have been able to make quantum leaps – and bounds – beyond other creatures, is our gift of articulation.  Among brainiacs, this assertion is arguable (of course) as some of them might reason that the special tool in question is primarily our evolution of intelligence over instinct. This writer however, is of the opinion that the one emanates from the other, ergo, articulation is consequent to intelligence (given the right physiological equipment – ie the voice box), and attempting to make fine distinctions between the two positions would be a mere exercise in tedium. Modern times should have been the very celebration of articulation as language became employed in a kaleidoscope of ways ranging from the functional and the aesthetic, to even the vain and the profane.  Unfortunately, at this very epitome – at its moment of greatest ramification – the seeds of its collapse become manifest as the jargon, the colloquium, the abbreviation and the slang threaten to tear the universality of comprehension which language had always aspired to achieve. Once again we are threatened by the tower-of-Babel syndrome!

With the onslaught of electronic media, which statistically speaking, averaged a single cathode ray-tube television for an entire crowded neighborhood in the 40’s, to a television, personal computer, iPod, iPad, or at least a multimedia cell phone per person in present times, one might not be incorrect to characterize our times as the audiovisual age; yet, in spite of this technological frontal assault blazing new frontiers in the way the world interacts, powered at its very core by four fundamental tools (listening, speaking, writing, and vision), we are beset with a dearth in personal communication skills. The blame for this aberration can only be that this multimedia audiovisual thrust is commerce driven and not in the slightest, educationally inclined. Commercials sponsor programs, which are aired by ratings, which in turn, are driven by viewers’ interest – which to say the least, are mostly base, primordial, and preferring of brash entertainment than the ‘haughtiness’ of scholarly pursuits. Hence, we are fed junk because we crave it. The resultant scenario is that we are now better equipped than any other time in our history, for what we least employ – articulation.

The greatest irony in this (subjective) portrayal of events, is that luminaries in the ivory towers of scholarship were the last to appreciate the value of this great brainchild of theirs: preferring instead their old, time-tested teaching traditions, and joining the bandwagon only too late, when the new audiovisual rage had taken on a life of its own, creating interest groups, cliches, cliques, memes and even subcultures! The dinosaurian deans and dons were now compelled to serve where they could have ruled! On the other hand, the entertainment world – which hitherto had been roost of the rabble – found their measly fortunes stupendously multiplied and ossified overnight. Unfortunately, this latter segment of society were not particularly known for its endearment to erudition; and as if in retribution for all the slights and slovenly treatment of the past, they set about the destruction of all that smacked of scholarship and haute culture, and ushered in their own parlances (with typical disdain for erudition) as the new ‘cool’ way to be, until they had everyone – from lord to laity – jostling to become lay, mediocre or, at least, appear to be so! A reverse-Darwinism of sorts, and “jocks” had the “nerds” riding the backseat.

As books and other tools or signs of erudition took this backseat to laxer values, the need to listen, speak and write correctly became ‘nerdy’, which was something nobody wanted to be seen to be.  On the other side of the fence however, a rich, albeit ignorant, subculture was growing lush, fat, and socially fulfilled. This scenario therefore left very little doubt in the minds of the younger and more impressionable generation on which course to ply. Channels of intellectual decay began to compete in the ever-growing market for self indulgence and profligacy; whilst the internet, reality television, musical shows, social media networks, and even cellphones, without moderation, became conniving partners fostering this downward trajectory into ignorant limbo.

Since it is impossible to un-invent the wheel or to ‘bid time return’, practical ways to reinvigorate interest in listening, reading and writing might still be stitched into the existing fabric of interests as they prevail presently, but this would entail re-training teachers and re-equipping the traditional classroom. The underlying are a few ways in which this may be accomplished. The digital whiteboard. This is to blackboards as a cellphone is to smoke signals. When networked with the students’ personal computers and hooked to the Internet, it avails the class of online and audio-visual resources. It can save the teacher’s notes automatically thus leaving time for the writing-whilst-listening challenged student to listen more attentively.

The online library is the panacea for lean library budgets. Not only does it provide more books and resources in far less shelving area than the traditional library, but each student gets to take home the entire library collection.  Quick response codes , otherwise known as QR codes are links embedded in literature which can be scanned by handheld devices, directing them to richer content, internet-based resources.  An innovative teacher might prepare their course materials, enriched with internet resources, and post the pages’ QR codes on the billboard for students to scan and study.


Ali Musa, is a final year student in the Department of Mass Communication, Bayero University, Kano.

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