On 31 May 2017, Nigeria’s Minister of Science and Technology, Dr Ogbonnaya Onu, announced plans for the country to begin teaching mathematics and science in indigenous languages at primary school level to encourage the application of science and technology in the country. He said that the Ministry of Science and Technology was worried about the low levels of interest in mathematics and the sciences. He added that the ministry had noted that students who grew up speaking their indigenous languages at home before they started school faced the challenge of first understanding the foreign language they were being taught in even before they could begin to understand what they were being taught.
“We believe that this plan will help our students to understand mathematics and the science subjects, and also promote the application of science and technology for national development,” Dr Ogbonnaya said.
A neglected policy
This policy was in fact first introduced in the National Policy on Education (NPE) in 1997. The idea was that students in primary school should be taught in the language of their immediate community and then be introduced to English language as they grew up. The document also emphasised that government would ‘encourage the learning of indigenous languages’.
The policy has been backed by studies of basic education conducted by the World Bank and the United Nations Organisation for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO), which have all indicated that young children learn better and faster when instructed in their mother tongue.
However, past administrations did not pay much attention to this policy. This is because many actors in the country’s political circles did not understand the need for a holistic approach, which included socio-contextual issues like teacher behaviour, classroom structure and student activities to help equip them with the skills and values that would contribute to their roles as productive, socially conscious citizens and, ultimately, to the development of their country. Consequently, the language of learning in Nigeria moved away from its indigenous languages.
Today, the country has only one general language of communication, which is English. The language was bequeathed by Nigeria’s former colonial ruler, Great Britain. Nigeria does have three other major languages, which are recognised by the government: Hausa in the north, Igbo in the southeast and Yoruba in the southwest. This corresponds with the three major tribes in those regions.
Studies have indicated that young children learn better and faster when instructed in their mother tongue.
However, we need to bear in mind that Nigeria is the seventh most populous country in the world and the most populous in Africa, with over 250 ethnic groups and 527 different local languages. And this West African nation is projected to surpass the 300 million mark by 2050, according to the World Population Prospects 2017.
While indigenous primary education may sound like a good idea, one may be tempted to ask a number of questions. For example, how would the Pythagoras Theorem be translated into local languages like Kanuri or Urhobo? How do you simplify quadratic equations in Nupe? And what is one trillion in Igbo?
In addition, in cosmopolitan cities such as Lagos, for example, how would one teach children from different ethnic backgrounds in the same classroom? And what happens when children taught in the indigenous language of the location of one school have to continue their schooling in another part of the country where children are taught in a different language entirely?
In cosmopolitan cities such as Lagos, how would one teach children from different ethnic backgrounds in the same classroom?
Preserving our heritage
Despite these challenges, Dr Dele Omojuyigbe, head of the general studies department at the Nigerian Institute of Journalism (NIJ) in Lagos, believes that the new policy will help young children to better integrate into their societies.
“For example, a Hausa man who lives in a cosmopolitan city like Lagos would have to be integrated into the Yoruba community, while his Hausa parents integrated him into the Hausa language at home,” he told This Is Africa.
Dr Omojuyigbe pointed to a research project, called the Six-Year Primary Project (SYPP), which the late Prof Aliu Babatunde Fafunwa embarked on at the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), Institute of Education, between January 1970 and 1989. Prof Fafunwa selected pupils in primary six and ensured that they were taught all subjects in both the English and Yoruba languages. He found that all the students who wrote in Yoruba did far better than those who wrote in English.
“Language is our way of life; it is our identity; it beautifies our individuality in diversity,” said Dr Omojuyigbe. “It will [also] help us to advance our individuality and retain our cultural values. It will help us think fast and develop technologically.”
More importantly, Dr Omojuyigbe believes that the new policy will help the Nigerian languages that are on the verge of extinction to stay alive. According to UNESCO, half of the global languages that are threatened by extinction are African. However, preserving Nigeria’s languages is the responsibility of all Nigerians, warns Dr Omojuyigbe, not just of educators.
“We need to teach our children to read and write in our local languages. Let’s read books in our languages – even the dishes we eat and the way we relate to people are embedded in our local languages,” he said. “We should never allow our indigenous languages to die.”