Break it down now

English may be Liberia’s official national language, but yesterday’s round of Ducor Debates was bi-lingual in an unexpected way.

Before an audience of primarily men, panelists from timber companies and the national legislature stood up one by one to discuss the Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA), the subject of the morning’s debate. In May, the European Union and Liberia signed the agreement, which seeks to ensure that all timber exported from Liberia to the EU has been logged legally.

Isaac Manna, one of the panelists, summarized the agreement’s benefits, arguing, “this will rekindle our reputation! It will help with capacity and human resources building! It will help our economy!”

When he finished, Kollie invited a volunteer from the Liberia Media Initiative to the microphone to “break it down small.”

“You’ve got a group of white people called the European Union,” the volunteer said. “The trees you have, the big trees, its called ‘timber’, and it’s good. It’s really, really good. The other group of people, the VPA, goes between the white people group, the European Union, and the people in the timber industry, the big wood industry.”

The men in the audience nodded, and the man continued. “So my people, you are here, you understand the message. Go tell other people the message that our government is making the laws, the laws to protect the country. So when people cut the trees to bring to the white people’s country, they do it with laws.”

The man spoke in “simple” or “pidgin” English, translating the formal language of the panelists into more basic terms for audience members to understand. In Liberia, written English is nearly identical to that used in the US or the UK, but the language spoken on the street and used in public service announcements is markedly different. When landowners want to prevent pedestrians from urinating on their property, they spray paint “No pepe here!” on the potential restroom. (Men using the bathroom on the side of busy streets is not an uncommon sight here.) Anti-AIDS campaigns urge lovers to use protection during “man-woman business”, and signs prohibiting bribery exclaim, “No money business!”

Unfortunately, understanding both formal and informal English is not a two way street. While educated Liberians use both with ease, their counterparts who never made it past primary school – or who never made it to school at all – cannot easily follow formal English.

Glancing around at his fellow audience members at the debate, Chris Nippy, a local student of Political Science, argued for the importance of using simple English. He explained, “Not everyone is a college student, so pidgin English is the best. It’s the English that the common Liberian can understand. You’ve got to bring the English down to them so they can share it with their friends.”

That’s exactly what Kollie attempts to do with his bi-lingual debates, and what the government and NGOs strive for with their pidgin public service announcements. With the current state of its education system, Liberia is unable to give all its citizens the skills needed to understand the country’s official language in its formal sense. So instead, grassroots and government groups alike bring the language to the people. It’s a band-aid approach, but for now it works. As the debate concluded, the audience members rushed to the stage, bombarding the translator, not the panelists, with pointed questions about logging and laws.

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