[lg policy] Nigeria: When the Mother Tongue Fails

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Fri Sep 2 15:18:33 UTC 2011

Nigeria: When the Mother Tongue Fails

Judd Leonard Okafor

A decades-old education policy that requires children to be taught in
local language in the first three years of primary school is failing
to gain traction. The policy loosely defines local language, or a
vernacular, to be the language of instruction in immediate environment
of a child. It also allows for English language to be taught as a
subject, before being used as the medium for instruction in later
schooling. Educationists are worried that the policy is not taking
hold across the country, a blame they lay on the government, educators
and parents alike.

"We are only not implementing what is in our laws. That is the major
problem of this country," says Sani Abdullahi, an education official
with the Universal Basic Education Board in Jigawa State. He is not
alone in demanding for stronger implementation of the policy. At a
summit for heads of Nigeria's education establishment, the policy and
its almost non-existent implementation came under question from those
supposed to help push it.

"There is always a gap between policy making and policy
implementation," said Prof Modupe Adelabu from Ekiti State, where she
runs the UBE board. "We make policies and ignore the implementation."

Inconsistencies and disconnects

The absence of any implementation of such policy is becoming more
glaring to those involved in the education sector. Abdullahi cites
research findings that prove the policy is effective in training
children to learn faster than when English language is introduced in
the first year of education.

One group of Fulani children was taught every school subject,
including maths and English language in Fulfulde for three years. A
second group was taught in English. The research famously showed the
Fulfulde group performed better at evaluation tests than the English
group of children.

There is no end to pilot studies to prove the point, including some by
the Universal Basic Education group and the World Bank, according to
Adelabu, all to support the notion that it is "more effective to
deliver education in local language during the early ages of

Several researches have backed using mother tongues to make learning
more effective on the grounds that using a language common to both
home and school blurs the differences between living room and

The opposite -- when a child is exposed to two different learning
languages between home and school -- is the cause of unwanted
friction, according to proponents of the policy.

How does a kindergartener child of Yoruba parents understand that what
daddy calls Oba at the dinner table is same as what his teacher calls

"There is a disconnect from what that child knows at home and what he
is being introduced to at school," Adelabu explains.

"But gradually, you can encourage learning if you continue to teach in
the language the child already knows at home...and teach English as a

Education researcher Jide Abidogun believes "the child should be
taught with the mother tongue for him to be able to comprehend in
class", guided by a 2004 policy stipulating just that. The question
touches throughout the continent, and several countries may answer
differently, according to a recent research. A meaningful early
childhood education programme must recognise that children come from
different home backgrounds with language diversity."

Proponents of local language for instruction are few; the biggest
weapon in their arsenal is a policy that's hardly being implemented.
But they are fighting harder to convince a sceptical public that
mother tongue first gives much deeper learning. It isn't just about
preserving local languages.

Says Adelabu: "Having children learn English from day one...that is
the mistake people make. At times, when you have a problem, you
generally solve that problem in your mother tongue...and then you
translate it into English."

"Problem to some people"

Despite the policy, starting school in English is the norm, so much so
a school which teaches in a different language would be an oddity. But
not all fit the mould. In remote parts of the North, East and South,
schools still teach children in mostly Hausa, Yoruba or Igbo.

One respondent tells Daily Trust he grew up thinking mostly in Hausa,
found dealing in English a challenge and devoted a large portion of
his later education and effort to mastering English language. He can't
be certain whether he outperformed classmates who learned all the way
in English or how his early schooling has made him different from

Boniface Ukwah, a university lecturer in the east of the country,
agrees most people start learning in English language in his part of
the country. But spotting the difference between students who learned
all the way in English and those who did early years in a mother
tongue isn't easy. But there is a difference, he admits, learning in
languages other than English "is a problem to some people."

A policy recognising all Nigerian languages as meaningful media of
instruction in initial literacy, and in life-long and non-formal
education is reason enough to put him against the policy.

"If you are assessing someone, if you look at what they are writing,
you can tell their communication is very poor, because of the English.
But it will be worse if we change now because of the multilingual
nature of our society."

And what a multilingual country! Some 521 languages are listed for
Nigeria! So how does the policy deal with the problem?

In the policy, a mother tongue or the language of the immediate
community is to be used for learning in pre-primary and junior primary
levels and in adult and non-formal education.

An elitist problem

English language continues to function as the formal language of
bureaucracy, the law courts, formal literacy, secondary and tertiary
education. The three main languages - Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo - remain
tongues of national culture and integration.

The policy seems well thought out but the problem is that reality is
different in a very mobile society like Nigeria.

Children, like Franklin, of Delta parents born in a Yoruba-speaking
part of Plateau state faces three tongues - Urhobo mother tongue,
language of immediate Yoruba community and Plateau lingua franca -
Hausa, in addition to English. In what tongue would Franklin be taught
at school?

In other situations, where language is less of a problem, the right
dialect comes into question.

Ukwah speaks general Igbo fluently but would find it difficult holding
a microbiology lecture in the dialect spoken in his part of Ebonyi

"It will be difficult for me to teach this basic area in my dialect.
There are so many things. I need to develop the language I will use in
communicating it," he explains.

Then adds, "If the parents don't speak the language at home, it boils
down to the child trying to learn the language again, which is same
thing as what is happening in English."

Crops of schooling and private tutoring scratch a popular itch in
urban parents who want their kids to master the English language and
ride the wave to the best Nigeria and the English-speaking world can

Turning the situation around is proving tricky. Proponents like
Abdullahi believe "there is no difficulty and it doesn't cost
government anything." He adds that a crop of teachers are already
learning to teach in local languages, especially in the north of the

But Adelabu is more cautious about producing more graduates in mother
tongue languages from universities and colleges of education. "We
don't have enough teachers to implement this language policy," she
admits, "but we have to start now."
Relevant Links

    West Africa

Starting now means translating the entire corpus of Nigerian education
into local languages, and critics are doubtful how that will work in
subjects with specialist register and technical language. For
instance, how would carbon dioxide be rendered in Hausa, gravity in
Igbo or photosynthesis in Yoruba.

Departments of early childcare education in colleges of education are
still grappling with the problem. They simply must support the policy
and keep their own criticisms silent. Outside the sector, to both
parents and students, it is a cold awakening for those who would
rather things remained as they are.

Abdullahi calls it an elitist problem. "We are elites. We want our
children to speak English. We are ignorant that the policy we want is
not helping the learning of the children. We are not interested in the
child's learning; we are more interested in children learning


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