The Federal Government’s new national language policy for teaching in primary schools is a right step in the right direction. It recognises the need to develop, preserve, and foster national languages, particularly languages that are facing extinction. Minister of Education Adamu Adamu said students in primary schools would be taught solely in their mother tongue in the first six years of education. After that, teaching in junior secondary school would be conveyed through a combination of mother tongue and the English language.
Adamu said: “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 now agreed that primary school instruction, for the first six years of learning, will be in the mother tongue.”
Clearly, the new policy is based on research evidence relating to the central role that knowledge of native language plays in the development of children, their cognitive abilities, their thought processes, their identity, and their cultural practices and values.
On July 24, 2010, Lera Boroditsky, a professor of psychology at Stanford University in the US, wrote a profoundly insightful article in The Wall Street Journal in which some important questions were posed regarding the relationship between language and the development of our thought processes. The questions were: “Do the languages we speak shape the way we think? Do they merely express thoughts, or do the structures in languages (without our knowledge or consent) shape the very thoughts we wish to express?”
The response given by Professor Boroditsky was unequivocal. “The idea that language might shape thought was for a long time considered untestable at best and more often simply crazy and wrong. Now, a flurry of new cognitive science research is showing that in fact, language does profoundly influence how we see the world.”
Professor Boroditsky states further that if we changed how people talk, it would also affect how they think. So, “If people learn another language, they inadvertently also learn a new way of looking at the world. When bilingual people switch from one language to another, they start thinking differently, too… All this new research shows us that the languages we speak not only reflect or express our thoughts, but also shape the very thoughts we wish to express. The structures that exist in our languages profoundly shape how we construct reality, and help make us as smart and sophisticated as we are.”
Noting that there are basic questions we ask about humanity that will unravel the importance of language, Professor Boroditsky asks further: “How do we come to be the way we are? Why do we think the way we do? An important part of the answer, it turns out, is in the languages we speak.”
These questions and issues relating to language learning underpin the importance of the new Federal Government policy that requires primary school children to be taught in their mother tongue. Research evidence shows there are significant reasons why children should be encouraged to learn their native languages right from an early age.
The latest policy move by the Federal Government is long overdue but it is not new. As far back as 2013, Kenya’s Education Cabinet Secretary Jacob Kaimenyi said the use of local languages in shaping a child’s developmental stages was critical and had methodically been established to be productive. Based on that evidence, his ministry mandated all primary schools to commence teaching lower classes in local languages. He was adamant that the policy would be withdrawn. In fact, under its new language policy, the ministry directed schools to start teaching in the students’ mother language.
When he announced the release of the 2013 Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education examination results, he argued: “Learning theories backed by research indicate that the use of local languages as a medium of instruction in the formative years offers many advantages because it ensures smooth transition from the home to the school environment for first time school-goers.”
What alarmed educational administrators and stakeholders in Nigeria who possess good insights into the value of teaching young children in their native languages is why the Federal Government has just woken up to enact a policy that ought to have been in place right from the attainment of independence in 1960. There are sound reasons for advocating the use of mother tongue in teaching primary school students.
Language is central to the development and growth of every child. It is the pillar that engenders intercultural or cross-cultural communication. It reinforces every culture’s social values and how its members should perceive the world, interact with it, and make sense of their world.
Generally, language is an important source of a people’s identity, culture, power, and ideology. As some scholars have noted, the use of a language in a society significantly influences the acceptance of that language. Native languages are often perceived as a form of inferiority on the part of the speakers of those languages.
McGonagle (2004) argues there are various reasons why language use should be taken seriously. The first is that language serves as an instrument for “unity and division” in society. The second reason is that language can function as an instrument for strengthening a sense of national identity. The third reason is that language is connected to cultural matters such as “language and education; language and the media, and language and participation in public life generally”. These interconnected relationships can engender greater unity or division in any society.
I have always promoted the idea that every parent must teach their children their native language. Research shows that children have capacity to learn multiple languages. If children are not taught their mother tongue in their early years when they have the ability and sharpness of mind to learn new languages, it could be difficult for them to learn their native language when they become adults.
It is particularly shameful to watch some adults struggle to pronounce their names or communicate comfortably and fluently in their native language. The parents of those adults must be held blameworthy for depriving them that important opportunity to learn their mother tongue during their childhood years.
There are various ways society could support and promote native languages. The strategies include: Availability of government policies aimed to promote and protect those languages. Another approach is through provision of resources aimed to assist language communities to implement their objectives for developing their native languages. A third way is through active media programming aimed to promote native languages through programming. A fourth way is the support provided by local governments and municipalities through provision of language learning resources on their websites and in using native languages in the Council’s websites.
And yet another strategy is through activism by local communities. This could be achieved through availability of programmes introduced by language communities that are designed to advance, promote, and protect their native languages both on the Web and in traditional media. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) can also assist and contribute to native language development.
Overall, the key point to note is that, without official, unofficial, and private sector support for promoting early learning of native languages, the languages stand the risk of going into extinction.