Chinua Achebe’s "New English" in Things Fall Apart (2022)

Activity 1. Igbo vocabulary and English similes

Have students interpret Igbo words and phrases that Achebe includes in Things Fall Apart.

Tell students that the poet John Ciardi used to emphasize not “What does the poem mean?” but “How does the poem mean?” (Teachers should have read the novel with students and discussed plot, characters, and other traditional elements of a narrative—what the novel means.)

Clarify that in this lesson students will focus on the how—the overall objective is to uncover how Achebe used the English language to tell an African story.

Write the word foo-foo on the board and ask if anyone remembers its meaning in the novel. (This staple food of the village is made from boiled and pounded yam or cassava.)

Write a list of the following Igbo words on the board: agbala, chi, egwugwu, ilo, ogbanje, obi, ogene, osu, efulefu. Ask if students can define any of these words from the novel. Then point out the Glossary at the end of the novel and ask students to locate the definitions.

  • Agbala—woman; also used of a man who has taken no title
  • Chi—personal god
  • Egwugwu—a masquerader who impersonates one of the ancestral spirits
  • Ilo—the village green, location for community assembles and dances
  • Ogbanje—a changeling child, one who repeatedly dies and is reborn
  • Obi—the house of the male head of the family
  • Ogene—a kind of gong
  • Osu—an outcast
  • Efulefu—a worthless man

Ask students to explain why Achebe left these words in Igbo when he wrote the novel in English. (The words are a constant reminder of the setting of the novel; they provide “local color”; there may not be an exact equivalent for the concept in English.)

Ask how many students needed to refer to the glossary as they read. What strategies did they use to help define the words if they did not check the glossary? (Achebe provided context for these words so that the reader can guess their meaning.) Point out that this use of Igbo vocabulary is one way that Achebe added an African nuance to his English vocabulary.

Review with students the meaning of the literary term simile available from EDSITEment’s Literary Glossary.

Distribute Worksheet 1. The Use of Similes in Things Fall Apart. Divide students into pairs and have them discuss the meaning of each simile to complete the chart. (Worksheet 1.1 contains suggested answers.) Share answers within the whole group.

Ask students: Where do these similes come from? What do they have in common? (They all come from the everyday experiences of the Igbo, including weather, agriculture, hunting, war, and animals with which they are familiar.) Point out that through the use of such similes, Achebe was once again shaping the English of his novel to the African experience.

Assessment—Have each student compose three sentences, each of which incorporate a simile and use at least one word of Igbo vocabulary.

Activity 2. Proverbs as “Palm-Oil”

Have students determine the meaning of Igbo proverbs as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings to analyze the cumulative impact of proverbs on meaning and tone. In this way students identify how Achebe’s language evokes a sense of time and place; how it sets tone and conveys mood; how it provides local color to the narrative.

Locate the paragraph in Chapter 1 that begins, “Having spoken plainly so far …” Read aloud the first two sentences.

Have students consider the definition of the word proverb. Discuss the general use of proverbs in everyday life as well as in literature.

Ask students what they think is meant by Achebe’s statement, “Among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded highly and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.” (Palm-oil is a common ingredient in cooking traditional West African food; in fact, the ingredient labeled “vegetable oil” in our own food is often palm-oil. The expression suggests that proverbs can sometimes be easier to say, to understand, or to remember than direct statements, and they are a much-appreciated addition to conversation.)

Encourage students to come up with an equivalent English proverb to this saying such as a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.

Ask them to give some other examples of English proverbs and to explain their meaning.

Possible answers:

  • When in Rome, do as the Romans do.
  • The pen is mightier than the sword.
  • The squeaky wheel gets the oil.
  • Birds of a feather flock together.
  • A picture is worth a thousand words.
  • The early bird catches the worm.
  • Never look a gift horse in the mouth.
  • Too many cooks spoil the broth.

Ask students to explain why we use such proverbs. (They are a kind of short-hand for complex ideas; since most people know the meanings of common proverbs, proverbs convey ideas quickly and colorfully; they express the values of the society.)

Distribute Worksheet 2. The Palm-Oil of Conversation. Give half the students the assignment to do using Chapter 3; give the other half, Chapter 4. (These are the chapters that are richest in proverbs. If you prefer, you can assign individual proverbs to students; a list appears in the Worksheet 2.1, including proverbs from other chapters.)

When students have completed Worksheet 2, team them up so that each pair has proverbs from both chapters. Give them time to share their proverbs and question each other about their meanings.

Assessment—Have students respond to the following prompt in their journals:

  • Choose one of the proverbs from Worksheet 2. Write a paragraph responding to this prompt: Does this proverb have universal meaning, or does it only make a statement about the Igbo society in which it originated?

Activity 3. Folktales

Have students analyze a unique point of view or cultural experience of the Igbo people reflected in their folktales.

Explain to students that, in addition to using Igbo vocabulary, similes drawn from Igbo daily life, and proverbs, Achebe also used folktales as a way of sharing Igbo culture and illustrating their values. Define folktale.

Ask students for examples of folktales they have heard, read, or studied previously. Reinforce that while many of the stories are used to entertain both children and adults, they can also be used to teach values or explain natural phenomena.

Read aloud the story “Vulture and the Sky” in Chapter 7. Pose the following questions:

  • What values does the story convey? (The need for harmony in the natural world, the connections between men and animals)
  • Does it attempt to explain natural phenomena? (Yes, it explains both drought and flooding rain.)
  • Looking at the position of the folktale in the larger story explain why Achebe might have inserted this particular story at this point. (Nwoye prefers the gentler stories of his mother to the warlike ones of his father; Vulture softens the heart of Sky by gentle pleading rather than by threats.)

Divide students into four groups and assign each group one folktale from the novel: Mosquito and Ear (Chapter 9), Snake-lizard and the Leaves (Chapter 9), How Tortoise Got His Bumpy Shell (Chapter 11) and Mother Kite and Daughter Kite (Chapter 15) Ask each group to study the story and be able to:

  1. Retell the narrative
  2. Identify values taught by the story
  3. Identify natural phenomena that are explained by the story
  4. Hypothesize about why Achebe chose that particular story for insertion into the novel at that point

Distribute Worksheet 3. Analyzing an African Folktale, in order to help students organize their ideas. Allow each student group time to work and then have each group present to the class as a whole. (Suggested Answers are available on Worksheet 3.1)

Assessment—Have students work independently to analyze other African folktales that they locate using printed sources or the Internet. Use Worksheet 3 as a graphic organizer for this assessment.

(Some useful resources for this activity are available at the Internet Sacred Text Archive: South-African Folktales and Folk Stories from Southern Nigeria.)

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