By Olakunle Olafioye
The quest to revive the dying local Nigerian languages received a boost penultimate week when the Federal Executive Council (FEC) announced the approval of the adoption of the mother tongue for teaching in primary schools across the country.
The fear that more Nigerian languages could go into extinction as constantly expressed by language teachers and linguists has continued to go unheeded as the government, according to language experts, has only shown passing interest in addressing the issue.
Not long ago, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), declared that 29 Nigerian minor languages had become extinct, with another 29 minor languages in danger of extinction.
Experts have often blamed the development on the failure of the government to institute a national language policy aimed at reversing the trend, maintaining that the farthest Nigeria has ever gone in preserving its languages was to have come up with some language provisions contained in the National Policy on Education. One of these provisions was a directive, which required that pupils in primary schools should be taught in their mother tongue for the first three years of education. But experts said it was never implemented.
Announcing the approval of the latest policy at the end of the Federal Executive Council meeting, the Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu, said the council approved the adoption of the mother tongue as a compulsory medium of instruction in primary schools in the country.
The minister pointed out that the new policy was borne out of government’s determination to preserve indigenous cultures and their peculiar idiosyncrasies, lamenting, however, that much has been lost due to the extinction of some local languages.
He assured that all Nigerian languages were equal and would be treated as such.
Explaining how the policy would work, Adamu said that the mother tongue to be used in each school would be the dominant language spoken by the community where the institution is located. According to him, “memo on national policy was approved by the council. So, Nigeria now has a National Language Policy and the details will be given later by the ministry.
One of the highlights is that the government has agreed now that henceforth, instruction in primary schools; the first six years of learning will be in the mother tongue.”
The announcement of the new policy has, however, been greeted by mixed feelings.
A retired head teacher, Mrs Tanwa Ogundele hailed the move, describing it as the first step in reviving indigenous languages in the country. “Primary school is the foundation of formal education. If we fail at that level of education it will be difficult to straighten things up for ourselves at later stages. This idea will certainly help to achieve two vital goals. One, it will aid the understanding of what our children are learning at school because research over the years has shown that children at that level of education understand better when they are instructed in their local language or their mother tongue.
“Secondly, it will help in deepening their understanding of their native language because once their parents are aware that the government has mandated indigenous language as language of instruction in primary schools, they will be compelled to speak it and teach their children right from the beginning.
“Most parents relate with their children in English language because they know it is the language of instruction in schools. We have got to a stage where children do not know anything about the indigenous language anymore and when they travel to their villages, their parents will become their official interpreters because they neither speak nor understand their own language,” the retired head teacher said.
Officially, the policy is deemed to have begun in spite of the government’s admission of it herculean nature.
The minister, while announcing the policy had said that more time was needed to develop the materials, prepare the teachers and so on.
“Since the first six years of school should be in the mother tongue, whereby the pupil, the language of the host community is what will be used,” Adamu was quoted to have said.
Not a few educators are of the opinion that the implementation of the policy would pose serious challenge especially in schools in urban communities where pupils and teachers are from different ethnic backgrounds.
An educationist, Mr Stephen Ojiaku said that the implementation of the policy in a state like Lagos would be very difficult.
His words: “In a state like Lagos where we have virtually all ethnic nationalities in the country, the policy is most likely to hit the rock because where you have, let’s say 30 pupils in a class out of which 13 are Yoruba, about eight are Igbo; you also have Hausa, Itshekiri, Idoma etc, which language are you going to deploy? If you decide to adopt Yoruba as language of instruction because the policy says the language of the immediate community should be adopted, that means that more than half of the class will be at disadvantage if they are not conversant with the language adopted.”
True to Ojiaku’s submission, most teachers in rural communities said the adoption of mother tongue in teaching in Nigerian schools will aid teaching and learning in schools in the countryside since children in these areas are majorly exposed to their native language.
Mr Akibu Soetan, who taught in schools in rural communities in Ogun State for close to 10 years, said that experience has shown that pupils in rural communities feel at home when they are taught in the local language they are familiar with. “The introduction of mother tongue as medium of instruction will be beneficial to pupils in rural communities because that is what they are used to. During my days in rural schools we often had difficulties in relating with the pupils in English. So at a point we resorted to mixing both English and Yoruba; whatever was said in English would have to be interpreted in Yoruba in order to ensure that they understand. But that did not solve the problem entirely because we would still end up giving them the notes in English language. So the pupil usually had the challenge of having to read their notes in English. But with this new policy, teachers should be able to explain and give notes in local languages,” Mr Soetan explained.
Language experts in Nigeria, who over the years have championed the cause of the need for the revival of the dying Nigerian languages and preservation of the endangered ones, said that they received the latest government’s pronouncement with cautious optimism as this was not the first time such policy would be made.
A language expert, Mr Patrick Isiegbe, said that this is not the first time the government would be introducing such policy.
“Some years ago the government came up with a similar directive that pupils from primary one to primary three should be taught in indigenous languages. But that never happened because I did not see any school, particularly in the South here, where teachers are using local Nigerian languages as medium of instruction.
“Perhaps, it happens in the North, I can’t really say. The problem with this policy, like many other policies of the government, is in the implementation. We have a government which is adept at churning out policies, but very weak when it comes to implementing the policies.
“Extending the use of mother tongue as medium of instruction in primary schools to primary six is commendable because it is an indication that the government is still listening to us. The most important thing is that government should be serious about its implementation,” he advised.
Another language expert, Mrs Toyin Balogun wants the government to go beyond the policy of limiting the use of mother tongue to pupils in primary school.
According to her, “learning and the use of indigenous languages as medium of instruction in primary schools cannot solve the problem entirely. We need to go further. If our children stop learning their own languages in primary school what will happen when they proceed to secondary school and when they get to tertiary institution where the language of instruction is purely English Language? We need to do more. The government should make the study of at least one indigenous language compulsory for students in secondary school and at other institutions of higher learning to be able to consolidate in whatever foundation is laid at primary school.”