Nigerians and Politeness Expression in the English Language: A Study of the Non-teaching Staff of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka

Nigerians and Politeness Expression in the English Language: A Study of the Non-teaching Staff of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka

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In Nigeria, the English language is the language of everyday communication, especially in work places. To support this, most employers of labour expect a high level of proficiency in the language skills, from would-be employees. However, probably because English is a second language in Nigeria, most Nigerians are yet to grasp its intricacies, they lack necessary linguistic capacity to express their feelings appropriately. Many a time, required tact and courtesy expected in social interactions during service encounters are found wanting. This often causes a setback in communication. One of such work places where the above stated is exemplified is the university community, the haven of polished people. The researcher’s focus in this study is, therefore, to show that everyday communication in the English language is to be peppered with linguistic politeness, demonstrate different ways in which communication could be face threatening and suggest how one could couch speeches and compositions with politeness strategies in order to sustain cooperative communication. The choice of the non-teaching staff of the University of Nigeria was made considering the fact that they are the service providers to students, staff and even visitors to the university community. The expositions, discoveries and suggestions of this study are worthy of note.



1.1      Background of the Study

 “The gift of language is the single human trait that marks us all genetically, setting us apart from the rest of life” -- Lewis Thomas.

            Language is one unique means of communication characteristic to man. This means that man has the ability to engage in and sustain interactions to a desired level. Language is also the vehicle of social interaction. Consequently, in order to function well in everyday living, one needs to be functional in the language or languages of the given speech community. The human life is, in fact, interwoven with language and communication as language is not just part of us but defines us. Moreover, speech remains the primary way humans express themselves through language (O’ Grady and Archibald 1).

             In Nigeria, the English language as the recognized official language has come to stay as it is the language of instruction in educational institutions, the language of the government, the language of the mass media and the language of everyday use. It has for well over a century continued to enjoy the pride of place in the nation.

It was Ludwig Wittgenstein, a German philosopher, who taught that ‘the meaning of language depends on the context of use’. In his opinion, language as used in ordinary life constitutes a language game, which means that the users of language follow rules for accomplishing verbal acts. Examples of the ordinary uses of language include giving and obeying orders, asking and answering questions, describing places and events, giving directions and so on. It should be noted that language is primarily speech and since speaking is a productive language skill, it is generally believed that it embodies the thoughts of man.

             In everyday situation, as we communicate with other people to get information, to gain knowledge about a topic or to reach a variety of goals, there is the need to be successful. In order to achieve this, one has to follow some important strategies. Besides the postulation of the language philosopher, Herbert Paul Grice, called the Cooperative Principle, there exists another concept that served when people talk. It is called the Politeness Principle, which has above all been developed by pragmaticists like Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson, Geoffrey Leech, Richard Watts to mention but a few. In this principle, the concern is not just the information in a conversation, but the effect of what is said on the hearer. This principle seeks to maintain the social equilibrium and the friendly relations, which enable us to assume that our interlocutors are being cooperative in the first place (Leech 82). In addition, from a pragmaticisits’ point of view, ‘politeness’ is the term we use to describe the relationship between how something is said to an addressee and that addressee’s judgment as to how it should be said (Grundy 202).

Since the English language is rule governed, it is expected that interactants in the language follow the rules to avoid grammatical and attitudinal errors.  When and where these rules are neglected, the utterances so produced are most likely to be unacceptable conventionally. Moreover, bearing in mind that English language is the tool for education, it is expected that one who is educated should as well be cultured. Culture and communication can be said to be inseparable as the former in this context not only dictates who talks to whom about what and how the communication proceeds but also helps to determine how people encode messages, the meanings ascribed to the messages and circumstances under which these messages may or may not be sent, noticed or interpreted. With regard to the English language use in Nigeria, there ought to be compliance with the rules of communication, which unfortunately seem to be wanting.

 Politeness expression in the English language is concerned with the consideration a speaker has for his hearer when speaking. “We each have expectations as to how we should be addressed by the various people we meet in the various contexts in which we meet them. The study of politeness is the study of the way in which these expectations are met or not met as the case may be” (Grundy 187). Politeness expression can be shown verbally or non-verbally. This is so because it is possible to hear what one has not said as he communicates in the non-verbal cues, which he exhibits consciously or unconsciously. A communicator can only be said to be successful when, while speaking, he chooses words in a manner that will enable the hearer in the given context to recognize the actual intention of the communication which, if other things being equal, is done nicely. As the exercise of language choice to create a context intended to match the addressee’s notion of how he or she should be addressed, politeness principles are a paradigm example of pragmatic usage. For instance, a situation wherein someone exclaims that she is being bitten by mosquitoes as a friend enters, leaving the door open should indicate to the latter that the door should be closed.

Owing to the little or no realization of the importance of linguistic politeness among public officers who are supposed to be serving the public well, this study aims at addressing this linguistic problem and finding out the extent to which public office holders reflect politeness expression in their speech and writing.

1.2 Statement of the Problem

            Most users of English in public establishments in Nigeria lack required tact and courtesy in their social interactions thereby producing many a time uncooperative utterances, which often cause setbacks in communication. Because English is a second language in Nigeria, most Nigerians lack necessary linguistic facility to express their feelings appropriately in a given context. Again, we are yet to take up a course in pragmatics in Nigerian universities. For the reason that pragmatics as a branch of linguistics, which, deals with contextual meaning, is not being taught in our schools, we have recourse to using the English language expressions inappropriately and impolitely even when communicating with the public. In real-life situations, one needs polite expressions to maintain relationships and work ethics, the aim of this project is to examine the use or lack of use of politeness expressions in the speech and writing of the non-teaching members of staff of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.

            The researcher focuses on this select group and specifically the departmental secretaries of this university because none has conducted a study on this group before now as it concerns their usage of politeness expression. The overall intent is to identify possible loopholes in their communication during service encounters and thereafter fill them, that the dignity of man be restored.

1.3 Objectives of the Study

This study aims at bringing to the fore the existence of the politeness principle which many Nigerian users of the English language do not know about as shown in their interactions especially as it concerns those occupying public offices who on a daily basis are faced with situations that require politeness. This general objective can be broken down as follows:

  1. To identify the diverse ways in which the communication of public officers could be impolite or face threatening
  2. To proffer steps and measures of ensuring that public officers begin to take into consideration the principles of politeness as they communicate and work towards face-saving acts
  3. To project face work – how speakers use politeness strategies to acknowledge the face wants of others

1.4 Research Methodology

This study adopts a survey research method. A survey research design is one in which the entire population or a representative sample is studied by collecting and analyzing data from a group using questionnaire. Moreover, a survey is a descriptive study, which seeks or uses the sample data of an investigation to document, describe and explain what is existent or non-existent, on the present status of the phenomenon under investigation. Owing to the fact that this research work is geared towards finding out the extent to which the non-teaching staff of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, embellish their speeches and compositions with the expression of politeness and where it is lacking, proffer suggestions, this method is considered suitable.

1.5 Scope of the Study

 This study will cover a select population of the non-teaching staff in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. This will only include the secretarial staff of the university, due to the enormous number of the non-teaching staff in the university. This selection was done bearing in mind that these members of non-teaching staff, by the nature of their service encounter, interact the most with the public on a daily basis.

1.6 Significance of the Study

 This study will be useful to a lot of people. It will help curriculum planners to incorporate this branch of linguistics – pragmatics - into the English language-learning curriculum. Students and lecturers will find this study useful in didactics and pedagogy.

Moreover, employers of labor will benefit maximally from it. This is because information got from it will equip them in giving adequate training and orientation courses to their employees on the mechanics of public interactions.

It will also enable other researchers to further contribute on this treatise.

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