[lg policy] Lagos language law: giving federalism a soul

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Sun Feb 25 15:52:01 EST 2018

 Lagos language law: giving federalism a soul
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*If Nigeria’s most cosmopolitan state can see the wisdom in encouraging
children to learn in their mother tongue, other Yoruba states have no
reason not to borrow a leaf from the Lagos State government.*

*Today’s piece is dedicated to the memory of Akinwumi Isola, a man of high
knowledge and culture who devoted a great deal of his intellectual energy
to promotion of learning that takes advantage of the role of mother tongue
and other languages in the acquisition of knowledge in a modern world that
has provided so much to facilitate bilingual and multilingual education in
a multicultural world.*
*Every two weeks, one of the world’s languages disappears, along with the
human history and cultural heritage that accompany it….A language is far
more than a means of communication; it is the very condition of our
humanity. Our values, our beliefs and our identity are embedded within
it….It is through language that we transmit our experiences, our traditions
and our knowledge. The diversity of languages reflects the incontestable
wealth of our imaginations and ways of life.—UNESCO Director-General Audrey
Azouulay at the 2018 Mother Language Day: Mother Language Day with the
theme “Linguistic Diversity and Multilingualism Count for Sustainable

The recent signing of the Lagos State Yoruba Language Preservation and
Promotion Law (LSYLPPL) calls for congratulations to both the legislature
and the governor of the state. The law has been long in coming but it is
gratifying that it has come before self-imposed cultural anomie comes to
the state because of the erosion of cultural values and identity in a state
that has become a laboratory for multicultural literacy in the country.
Lagos State is one state that has sacrificed so much of its resources and
identity for the unity of Nigeria, having served first as a political
capital of the country and ever since as the country’s commercial and
cultural capital. Enacting a law that can sustain the state’s identity,
improve cognitive development of its youth, create a pedagogy that nurtures
innovativeness while also developing a huge cultural economy in the state
is a welcome development.

LSYLPPL has come to address many educational practices in the state that
hitherto had been driven by misconceptions birthed and nurtured by parents
under the influence of ungrounded theories about the role of mother tongue
learning in academic achievement and confidence building of the child.
Governments in a state comprising Yoruba-speaking Lagos Island, Badagry,
Epe, Ikeja, and a huge population of people from other parts of Nigeria who
have chosen to make Lagos State their home have responsibility to promote
bilingual literacy. For long, governments in the state have had to focus on
other pressing problems: making sure all children can attend school during
the day rather than in the afternoon; providing adequate learning
infrastructure for millions of children of school age; training and
retraining of teachers; and increasing the number of schools in a
city-state with a population estimated to be about 20 million. It is
commendable that LSYLPPL has come at a time that physical infrastructure
has stabilised in the state, after many years of positive intervention by
various governments in the state.

Lagosians have for too long condoned or ignored parents’ misconception that
denying children   opportunity to use their mother tongue in school is a
primitive thing that has no benefit. To many parents, restricting their
children to use only English in school and at home is not only a sign of
sophistication but also a means of preparing such children for a life of
eminent success, which parents erroneously believe can be aborted if such
children learn in their mother tongue. While private schools may get away
with this untested theory that grew largely among illiterate parents and
parents who are first-generation middle-class members in a social and
economic context in which their academic credentials have given them
noticeable social mobility, public education should not be encouraged to do
so. What the new law has done is to de-program parents and guardians who
have chosen the wrong route of educating a child in a post-colonial country
like Nigeria. It is cheering that the new law has come to rescue children
from problems of access, ease and quality of learning, general cognitive
development, and academic achievement of children in Lagos State. This is
the kind of law that should be emulated by other states across the

With signing of a law that encourages teaching and learning in mother
tongue (L1) without any prejudice to acquiring simultaneously knowledge of
and in L2 and L3 in multilingual and multicultural Nigerian federation,
Lagos State government has another feather to its nest of problem solving
governance. This is a good complement or reinforcement of the National
Language Policy: ensuring that children acquire literacy in their mother
tongue, one other Nigerian language in addition to English as the lingua
franca. Such policy is in sync with language in education policy in
communities that are multilingual: Canada, Belgium, Singapore, Switzerland,
Nicaragua, Scotland, and many others. Nobody can thrive in the EU today
without being bilingual. Bilingual or multilingual education in Hausa,
Arabic, and English had existed in most of the states in the North since
the amalgamation of Nigeria.

Similarly, most of upper and middle-class people in the old Western Region
and Lagos studied under the model of bilingual education. For example, most
of the people  who have been stellar performers in knowledge-driven careers
in the Yoruba region of Nigeria, like their counterparts in other regions:
the father of Nigeria’s decolonization, Herbert Macaulay, top politicians
like Obafemi Awolowo, Ladoke Akintola, top civil servants like Simeon
Adebo, Tejumade Alakija, Nigeria’s only Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, and
other stellar writers: Akinwumi Isola, Femi Osofisan, Niyi Osundare, Daniel
Fagunwa, and top academics/vice chancellors like Hezekiah Oluwasanmi,
Ifedayo Oladapo, Ojetunji Aboyade, Oladipupo Akinkugbe, and all recipients
of National Merit Awards in Western Nigeria, Sylvester Adegoke,  J.F.A.
Ade-Ajayi, and many top achievers within and outside Nigeria, too numerous
to mention in this short essay, are products of bilingual or multilingual
education. The theory that it is when students do none of their learning in
L1 that they can achieve is patently false. It is thus laudable that Lagos
State government has chosen to take the bull by the horn.

As expected, criticisms of the law have started to grow within the few days
of the governor’s signing of the legislation and should be expected to grow
further. As mordant as such criticisms may be, it is important for the
state’s governor and legislature to rest assured that they have
courageously thought outside the box of unplanned monolingual learning in a
growing ethos of local and global multilingualism. Parents and guardians
are certainly going to worry about the requirement for a Credit in Yoruba
for admission to Lagos State’s higher education institutions. Such parents
do not need to call for an end to the law because of this requirement. All
they need to do is to appeal to the government to delay enforcement of that
item for three years during which students currently in JSS3 can enrol for
Immersion Yoruba course for the next three years, if their preference for
tertiary education is for Lagos state institutions.

With the Lagos State Yoruba Language Preservation and Promotion Law, the
government of the state is a trailblazer for other states in Western
Nigeria interested in saving their language, culture, values, and identity
while connecting their learning to global civilization via English. The
government of Lagos State should be proud of its prescience in respect of
disappearance of languages every two weeks, acknowledged by the UNESCO a
few days ago. It is also fitting that the law was ready for signing before
the BBC took a bold step to make sure that at least three Nigerian
languages: Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba are promoted through such a global news

Certainly, citizens who have gotten used to teaching and learning only in
L2 need to make major adjustments, just like their children and wards who
have been victims of such choice by their parents in the past. And the
government of Lagos State ought to do its best to make the transition
smooth for those currently experiencing a philosophy and practice of
education that shouldn’t have occurred in any part of post-colonial
Nigeria. If Nigeria’s most cosmopolitan state can see the wisdom in
encouraging children to learn in their mother tongue, other Yoruba states
have no reason not to borrow a leaf from the Lagos State government.
Congratulations to the government of Lagos State.


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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