Fallen standard of education: Will mother tongue use solve the problem?

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In this report, BENJAMIN SAMSON examines the new National Language Policy introduced by the federal government on the use of mother tongue as a compulsory medium of instruction for public primary school pupils and its impact on learning outcomes.

Fallen standards

The World Bank in a recent report about standard of education in Nigeria said, Nigeria is experiencing a learning poverty in which 70 per cent of 10-year-olds cannot understand a simple sentence or perform basic numeracy tasks. Thus, this percentage of children in the country is not achieving basic foundational skills.

A policy analysis expert, Christiana Omale, told our reporter that, “Even though Nigeria does not lack the right policies to address the learning crises, challenges of poor infrastructure, inadequate funding, inadequate and under-prepared workforce, high classroom learner ratio, 1:55 in primary schools, and insecurity, among others, in the education sector have continued to downplay the efficacy of the policies.”

New policy

As part of efforts to tackle learning difficulties, the federal government recently approved a new National Language Policy which makes mother tongue a compulsory medium of instruction for public primary school pupils.

The Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu, made this disclosure recently while briefing reporters on the outcome of the Federal Executive Council (FEC) meeting presided over by President Muhammadu Buhari at the State House, Abuja.

While explaining that the government is aware that its implementation will be difficult, the minister revealed that the mother tongue will be used exclusively for the first six years of education, while it will be combined with English Language from Junior Secondary School.

According to him, even though the policy has officially taken effect, it can only be fully implemented when the government develops instructional materials and qualified teachers are available.

Adamu said the mother tongue to be used in each school will be the dominant language spoken by the community where it is located. The minister said the government is prepared to preserve cultures and their peculiar idiosyncrasies, stressing that so much has been lost due to the extinction of some local language.

He assured Nigerians that all Nigerian languages, which he said are over 600, are equal and will be treated as such.

Experts react

Experts who spoke with our reporters described the policy as a game changer in learning among children.

A lecturer, Department of English Language, University of Abuja, Dr. Ganiu Bamgbose, said studies have shown that children assimilate better when taught in the language of the environment. He said an experiment by a former Minister of Education, Prof. Babatunde Fafunwa, revealed that pupils assimilate better in a local language and it became a policy during his time that children in Primary 1 and 3 be taught in their native languages but, sadly, this hasn’t been implemented in Nigeria

 “It is highly feasible. In fact, there are over 600 languages in Nigeria. This is why the target is that pupils should be taught in the language of the environment. So, each school uses it as the language of instruction, the language of that environment. For instance, if a child is going to school in Badagry, he will be taught in the Egun language.

 “However, this policy is for the first six years of primary school. Afterwards, pupils would be taught in the English language and a native language would be offered, compulsorily, by all the students.”

In an interview with Kenneth Chuckwuka, a lecturer in the department of education Nasarawa state university, said that from a linguistic point of view, and from the experiences garnered while tutoring primary school children in the Students Empowered through Language, Literacy and Arithmetic (STELLAR) programme, “if you first learn to read in a language that you understand, then it will strengthen your English literacy later. Reading is the foundation for all other learning so if they cannot read, it is going to affect their science and other subjects so we are trying to reinforce their basic reading skills.

“Over 95 per cent of our kids do not speak English at home and they never hear English outside the school so they don’t have the comprehension. However, aside from the three national languages (Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo); other languages should also be used at the basic education level.”

Likewise, the Nigerian Publishers Association (NPA), has commended the federal government for granting approval for teaching in the mother-tongue of pupils in primary schools across the country,

President/chairman-in-Council of the association, Uchenna Cyril Anioke, said in a statement that the approval is timely and a way to advance the education sector.

The NPA president said the policy is in line with the association’s calls for adoption of indigenous language in the teaching of science in primary and secondary schools, even to the tertiary institution as a sure way in raising the bar of teaching and learning as well as promotion of mother-tongue.

 NPA said with this singular move, the country will be on its way to joining global powers that have advanced in science and tech, as well as medicine as the pupils will assimilate better in mother-tongue than in English which is a borrowed language.

 He said North Korea, which is becoming the world strongest nuclear force, hardly writes in English language but in their local language where according to him they hide their ideas and innovation from those who do not understand the language.

“There is abundant evidence to show that nations who teach and publish books in their local languages are more advantageous than those who rely entirely on the English language. India, which today has become a choice place for medicine, teaches and publishes more in mother-tongue than English language.

“China is a developed country and leads in construction and infrastructure. They hardly speak English and all their books are in the local language. In Indonesia, which is also a developed country, teaching and learning is conducted in indigenous languages.

 “Nigeria can actualise this and as an association, we welcome the policy of teaching in indigenous language in the first six years of the pupils’ education. It is in tandem with our prolonged appeal.

 “As modalities to put this into practice begin soon, we as an organisation with the cardinal focus of contributing to national development will assist in publishing books that will aid implementation of this policy.

 “We are hopeful that it will be a quantum leap in our educational development as well as a broad pathway towards achieving the much desired breakthrough in medicine, science and tech and indeed in other fields of human endeavour,” he stated.


However, a professor of Account Management, Crawford University, Igbesa, Ogun state, Comfort Omorogbe, argued that, “I don’t support the use of our mother tongue to be used in schools. Despite the three main languages, students, who go through language classes in schools, still cannot communicate with it effectively, whether orally or written.

 “English Language readily facilitates communication, though it is from our colonial master. The English Language places students in an advantageous position to interact with more people in most parts of the world.

 “Education outside the country becomes almost seamless, unlike learning with local languages. In an ever evolving society, where development and technology is advancing, learning in our native language would keep us perpetually backward.’’

Likewise, the proprietor of Betharbel Montessori School, Abuja, Mrs. Monisola Aiyekuiseyin, told our reporter that some pupils may not be familiar with the local language and pupils who were transferred from another area/state would face communication challenges and lack of reading materials.

 “If the teacher is not conversant with the language, pupils will lose out academically. Some will equally face pronunciation challenges of some words. In English, pupils may not learn English faster, adjusting to English is not always easy when they cross from grade.’’

Also, Jemimah Othniel Wakili of the Department of Mass Communication, University of Maiduguri told Blueprint Weekend that the recent approval by the federal government for the use of the mother tongue in elementary schools across the nation is a setback to the already comatose education sector in the country.

She said: “Though English is the official language, many Nigerians are still battling with poor communication techniques. Majority of Nigerians including pupils, students and even university graduates can’t write or speak good English despite the training they have been going through right from the elementary level to the degree level. Imagine a person that can’t speak good English after undergoing 16 years of training, from primary 1-6, form 1-6, and level 1-4! What would you expect from someone who had never undergone such training from day one?

“The current policy for instructing pupils using the English Language is in order. It assists the pupils and students to acquire good communication skills and have exposure while dealing with issues of national importance. The federal government should realise that the new policy to instruct pupils using their mother tongue is a setback to the nation’s education sector.

“Also it is not good enough to adopt such a policy in a multifaceted nation like Nigeria where regional, religious and cultural differences are the major concerns. How could one communicate properly in the English language when he/she lacks the requisite foundation? Therefore, adopting the mother tongue as a way of instructing pupils in the nation’s primary schools is a major setback to education. The policy is indeed retrogressive, considering how students and graduates are battling with poor English communication.

“Thus, since Nigeria is multi-ethnic and multi-religious, the English language should be maintained in our schools as a medium of instruction. This is to say if the nation’s populace needs inclusive and decent governance of affairs, the government should jettison the so-called mother tongue instruction in our primary schools.

“As such, it is good for the government to drop such an obnoxious and retrogressive policy as it would do more harm than good to the education sector.”

Teachers divided

A teacher at St. Paul’s Anglican School, Wuse Abuja, Gladys Efemona, said, “for a child’s intellectual enhancement, teaching in the local language is preferable and it will yield results, compared to the foreign languages.

“If they are taught in our local languages, the level of assimilation would be high and we would be able to preserve our heritage.”

She insisted that learning through mother tongue was the right of the child. It makes children strong in mental and social bonding.

 “Learning does not begin in school. Learning starts at home in the mother language. Although the start of school is a continuation of this learning process, it also presents significant changes in the mode of education,” she said.

 Another teacher in the same school, Paul Ojeme, said, “Many education systems favour those using national or ‘global’ languages instead of mother tongue in teaching. Education is often carried out in the old colonial language, such as English or French.

 “This is based on the belief that certain international languages are important. Developing the use of mother tongue to deliver lectures poses a lot of challenges that should be addressed first before we can apply it.

 “Sometimes in multilingual countries with many local languages, teachers do not speak the local language which the pupils learn at home. They speak the dominant language. In other cases, teachers themselves may not be fully proficient in the language of instruction. For example, how many teachers in Abuja speak Gbagi fluently? ” he asked.

FCTA ready to implement policy

Meanwhile, the permanent secretary in the Federal Capital Territory Administration (FCTA) Mr. Adesola Olusade, said the FCT is ready to implement the new National Language Policy.

Olusade made the announcement at an end-of-year and award ceremony, organised by the FCT Education Resource Centre (ERC) on Tuesday in Abuja.

He said once the modalities were set out, the FCT would kick-start the programme, to ensure that indigenous languages of the people would not go into extinction.

“FCT is part of the federal government, therefore, when a programme is initiated by the federal government, what we look forward to is to domesticate and implement it.

“The Education Resource Centre will also pilot the implementation of this policy and for us it is a welcome development and we will implement it to the best of our ability. We want to see our young ones speak our dialects and whatever it means for us to support that effort, we will give in to it.”

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