By Chris Anyokwu
The Federal Government of Nigeria recently announced that mother tongue shall now be the medium of instruction in all primary schools across the country. And this ground-breaking policy is compulsory and mandatory and is to be implemented forthwith. Speaking to the media after the Federal Executive Council meeting held late November, 2022 at Abuja, Education minister, Malam Adamu Adamu noted that 29 indigenous languages have gone into extinction as of today, leaving the nation with about 625 languages. Crucially, he emphasised that mother tongue would be used exclusively for the first six years of education before combining it with English in junior secondary school.
It is important to stress that the particular mother tongue to be used as medium of instruction is the dominant language spoken in the community where the school is located. It is, indeed, heart-warming and praiseworthy that this policy is coming on the heels of the equally laudable policy of introducing History to our school curricula after being dropped from school curricula nation-wide for so many years. Now, in the twilight of its tenure, the Buhari administration may yet claim these policies as worthy landmark achievements and far-reaching swansongs that will set the beleaguered nation on the path to recovery and transformative renaissance. Whilst the regime is justifiably being feted and drenched in plaudits for these belated yet patriotic feats, it is important to ask, why now? What informed the decision to make mother tongue the language of instruction in primary school? Is it the inability of our primary school children to comprehend complex theorems, ideas and concepts in secondary and tertiary schools? Or, is it because it has suddenly dawned on our policy-makers and government functionaries that development and growth are inextricably tied to the mastery of complex ideas and hypotheses which are usually framed and couched in a language, an exogenous language in our own situation? How does the student grapple with these complicated and complex data, notions, concepts and ideas if he does not, first and foremost, master the language of instruction?
Owing to our colonial past, mother tongues or indigenous languages have been discounted and downgraded as bush, primitive and even gibberish. Nigerian indigenous languages ab initio were draped in the pejorative tag of “vernaculars”, thus stripping them of their inherent communicative and symbolic functions. Contrariwise, however, English, the language of the conquering British, has been pedestalled as the language of power: the Tongue of God Himself. It is the language of government business, trade and commerce, of religious worship. It is the Language of Wider Communication (LWC) – Nigeria’s lingua franca. He who is able to demonstrate facility in the English language is regarded as enlightened, educated; very powerful. The mastery of it is a status symbol, both in the past and today.
As index of class, prestige and status, parents usually enrol their wards in prestigious and high-brow academies and schools where English and French are prioritised and “local” languages discountenanced or even put in abeyance, only offered as subjects, grudgingly. It is important to recall, also, that in the past and probably even in contemporary times, pupils in primary schools and students in secondary schools – caught speaking vernacular (Mother Tongue) were soundly thrashed and subjected to various forms of corporal punishment. This fetishization of English constitutes a sub-theme in Chinua Achebe’s novel No Longer At Ease. The Umuofia Progressive Union members contribute money for the education of one of their scions, namely: Obi Okonkwo, who travels to England to earn a Bachelor’s Degree in English. He makes First Class in English and upon his return to Nigeria, he spectacularly lets his benefactors down by refusing to speak “big grammar”, preferring instead to bedazzle them with simplicitas of “is and was”. The status symbol of English has taken several ridiculous dimensions such that people’s vain and vainglorious striving towards its mastery has spawn an industry of apes and parrots, mimic-men and women in the media, the clergy, drama and the theatre and the like. Many people still remember with wistful fondness the hugely – popular sit-com called “Ichoku” which had held TV viewers spellbound as comedians thrilled their audience with comical efforts to mimic the white man and his local interpreter who simply mangled and mutilated the language Shakespeare spake all in the name of linguistic performance. Beyond the comedic buffoonery of non-native speakers officially English, from the colonial times to date has enjoyed undisputed pride of place among other school subjects such that, along with Mathematics, it must be passed with a Credit or Distinction if the candidate must proceed in his academic odyssey. An ‘F” in English can well put paid to one’s dream of becoming “somebody”! Both WAEC and NECO, two examinations bodies, will see to it that the candidate perishes the thought of progressing to the Ivory Tower.
Even so, the English spoken in Africa is regarded as “impurities” or of inferior quality represented mostly by a lowercase “e” as in english rather than English. Children of Empire are thus looked down upon as sub-mental apes, a subject race, perennially shunted to the margins and fringes in spite of personal and collective exertions to speak Queen’s (now King’s) English! At this juncture, a bit of throwback to colonial times is in order. Much has been made of the translation of the English Bible into Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba and few other so-called minority languages. Critics wonder why it never occurred to the white man to translate Mathematics, science and technology into our indigenous tongues for ease of comprehension for our pupils and students. The British colonizers simply translated or aided the translation of the Bible into Nigerian indigenous languages for a number of reasons, chief among which was for ease of social control. They needed clerks, secretaries, drivers, interpreters, cooks, gardeners and washer-men and women both in the workplace and the homestead. Much like the field and the house nigger of the slavery days. But for those whose mother tongues were translated into English and vice-versa, they have so much to be grateful for. By way of the typology of indigenous languages in Nigeria, we may point to major “international” languages such as Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo (WAZOBIA). Then next are the growing languages; the dying languages and, finally, dead languages. The WAZOBIA trio has absolutely nothing to fear as the British, for a number of reasons, have cemented their place in the Nigeria emporium. It’s assumed that they have the demographic superiority and, thus, getting them on board in the heyday of colonisation was right policy. Following the glaring geopolitical and social advantages of the WAZOBIA ethnic groups, other ethnicities over time have seized upon the instrumentality of translation to achieve visibility. These are the growing languages such as Nupe, Tiv, Urhobo, Isoko, Izon, Ibibio, Bini, and Idoma. Others are on life-support, hovering between dying and dead languages categories. This hierachisation of languages, as earlier highlighted, has advantages and disadvantages in a multi-ethnic polity such as ours.
Even in the production and reception of African literature, the Language Question has bulked large. From inception, particularly, in the early ’60s, African novelists and critics have queried the use of foreign languages in the writing and criticism of African literature. Scholars such as the late Obiajunwa Wali (a PhD candidate at Oxford at the time), Eski’a Mphalele, Kenule Saro-Wiwa, Chinua Achebe, Ngugi, and Wole Soyinka had seriously debated the politics of language in the production of African letters. Whilst Obi Wali had dismissed African literature in English, French and Portuguese as appendages of the Western European tradition, Saro-Wiwa had suggested the deployment of Pidgin and Soyinka, Kiswahili as languages of choice. Achebe, it was, who insisted that status quo should remain. Achebe’s hard – headed pragmatism was premised upon the so-called fatalistic logic of continued use of English as official language in Anglophone Africa.
The whole world has finally woken to the realisation that development is absolutely tied to the mastery of one’s mother tongue as the medium of instruction from cradle to grave. This is the lesson the likes of the Chinese, the Japanese, the Koreans, and Indians are teaching the rest of the developing world. What’s more, as globalisation of Culture (i.e. Westernisation as universal culture) spreads apace, Nigeria has, finally, discovered that it is being erased from the map, facing inauthenticity, a crisis of consciousness, defective hybridity leading, ultimately, to epistemicide, or cultural genocide. To arrest this frightening reality, the following are recommended. The linguistic imperialism of WAZOBIA can only be addressed via the democratisation of the linguistic space in our multi-lingual society as the magnetism of the centre is proving ever more irresistible and the contestation for scarce resources domiciled at the Centre gets increasingly fiercer and more cut-throat, literally.
Against this backcloth, the teaching of ALL mother tongues to our pupils and students across the federation is a most laudable development. It will save dying and endangered languages from completely dying out or falling into desuetude. This move is in tandem with the National Policy on Education and the Nigerian Constitution. As we all know monolingualism is a form of oppression so if every school pupil is able to speak and write two or more Nigerian languages plus English, it will be beneficial to citizen and country. But conceptual and methodological issues are involved in seeing this policy to fruition.
Issues of grammar, phonology and lexicon are to be systematically and meticulously thought through and developed. In other words, these issues must form the major ideational planks in the formulation, standardisation, codification and the dissemination of Mother Tongue pedagogy. The fact is that this policy must be implemented to the extent that we are able to forge in every child a multilingual memory. Among other things, this policy will also enrich our individual and social linguistic repertoire, broaden our intellectual scope, rigidify our cultural identity in an irredentist globalising world and facilitate the extraterritoriality of our multilingual artists, singers, artistes, writers and creatives in general. To be sure, the teaching of mother tongue will foster the bridging of cultures, enhance code-switching and speakers’ expressive adequacy and, more importantly, constitute a veritable tool for national integration and cohesion. To get this policy off to a solid start, town and gown must collaborate –griots, minstrels, bards, diviners, dancers, storytellers and historians must be brought into the classroom to complement the bare-bones of theoretic pedagogy. The taste of the pudding is in the eating. Teachers must be trained and retrained and be properly incentivised to perform optimally in this regard as Babs Fafunwa and others dreamt of. If government, regardless of the party in power, is prepared to walk the talk, Nigeria is on the cusp of cultural renaissance.
Chris Anyokwu writes from University of Lagos.