Minister of Science and Technology, Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu, recently announced plans to commence the teaching of mathematics and science subjects in indigenous languages in primary schools to encourage the application of science and technology in the country. He spoke while presenting computer sets and science kits donated by his ministry to the Ekulu Primary School, Enugu. Nigeria aims to send scientists to space someday, he said, and future progress depends on how effectively the country can apply science and technology.
He explained that the Ministry of Science and Technology was worried about the low interest in mathematics and science subjects in the country, hence, the plan to teach the subjects in the indigenous languages spoken by the children in their homes. According to him, “These pupils grow up with their indigenous languages at home then they start going to school where they are now taught in a foreign language. So…there is a challenge to understand the foreign language first before they could start understanding (the subjects) they are being taught.”
He went further to extol the utility of science and mathematics, citing India as an example of a country that has distinguished itself in maths and science using indigenous languages. He promised that his ministry would collaborate with the Ministry of Education to develop the capacity of our local languages as effective teaching tools. He also reminded his audience that no nation can become great without science and technology.
We commend the minister for his courage to place this issue on the nation’s education agenda, once again. Even though he may sound like a lone voice in the wilderness at this time, he is not the first to realise the imperative of teaching young children in their mother tongues. It was established, several years ago, that children learn faster, better and feel at home learning in their native languages.
Fifty-one years ago, the first apostle of the use of indigenous languages for the teaching of infants, Prof. Babatunde Fafunwa, who was Nigeria’s first professor of Education, went to great lengths to educate Nigerians on the benefits of teaching primary school pupils in their local languages. He also scientifically demonstrated why Nigerian children should be taught mathematics and science in their native tongues. Between the ages of 0 and five, Fafunwa had reasoned, Nigerian children are brought up in the traditional environment, but when they enter the school system at the age of six, they are taught in another language that is completely different from the one they are accustomed to.
Fafunwa had lamented that educators and psychologists assume that the Nigerian child would take this dramatic change in its stride whereas, indeed, the child is subjected to double jeopardy. “The fact of the matter, however, is that the child’s cognitive equilibrium has been disturbed and this abnormal situation tends to retard the cognitive process.” That, he said, is because “there is little or no continuity between the child’s home experience and his school experience – a situation that does not arise in Western countries where, in most cases, the child’s school experience is a continuation of his home experience and exposure.”
Studies on primary school dropouts in Nigeria reveal that 40 to 60 per cent is traceable to premature introduction of English as a language of instruction, poorly trained teachers and inadequate teaching and learning facilities.
Nigeria is probably the only country of its size and stature that has not formally adopted as policy the use of indigenous languages for teaching in its pre-school and primary schools, especially for mathematics and science subjects. We appeal to the mandarins in our educational institutions and in our governments to give the country an opportunity to reset its education. The data are in from all corners. Studies conducted by organisations such as UNESCO and the World Bank are emphatic that pupils learn faster, better and with enthusiasm when taught in vernacular.
The countries that rank highest in the world in mathematics and science tests, as reported by Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), are Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and barring Singapore, all have basic instructions in their local tongues. English-speaking countries including the United States and the Philippines tend to rank lower in those tests.
We are not unaware of the hard work required to make this change. We should anticipate questions like: how would the Pythagoras Theorem be translated into Kanuri or Urhobo? How do you simplify quadratic equations into Nupe and other local tongues, and, what is one trillion in Igbo language? Again, how do you teach children from different ethnic backgrounds in the same classroom, in cosmopolitan cities such as Lagos? If you teach children in the indigenous language of the location of their schools, what happens when such children have to continue their schooling in another part of the country where children are taught in a different language, or even in another country entirely? It is also important to determine and plan how to manage the transition from the teaching of maths and science in local languages in primary schools, to the teaching of the same subjects in English Language when they get to secondary school. We believe other nations overcame some of these hurdles through special translations or explanations.
We also do not minimise the politics inherent in teaching pupils in indigenous languages in a country, and even states, with many ethnic groups speaking different languages. Our diversity as a country, and the mobility of our population, are factors that call for caution and the need to make haste slowly.
This, indeed, is a programme that requires detailed planning and extensive training. But we must not lose sight of the prize: to popularise and harness the wonders of science and mathematics and give us a quantum leap in technology for the welfare and advancement of Nigeria for now and the future.