By Paul Nwabuikwu 

It’s no longer news that the Federal Ministry of Education, in the immediate aftermath of the yet to be resolved eight-month ASUU strike and other difficult challenges confronting the sector, has come up with a brain wave which it intends to implement as soon as possible. As part of a new National Language Policy, primary school pupils in Nigeria will henceforth be taught in their mother tongues, that is, their local languages. 

According to the plan which was recently unveiled by Minister of Education Adamu Adamu, local languages will from now on serve as exclusive mode of instruction for the entire first six years of primary education. Thereafter, they will be complemented with English Language from the first year of secondary school. For the purposes of the new policy, the mother tongue or local language in which pupils will be taught will be the dominant language spoken in the community where a school is located.

The THISDAY report on the development also clarified that “even though the policy has officially taken effect, it can only be fully implemented when government develops instructional materials, and qualified teachers are available”. Which begs the question: what’s the hurry? 

Based on his record so far in the hugely important ministry, Adamu, a respected journalist has found policy implementation much tougher than the prescriptions that peppered his elegant columns in the past. Under his watch, there is little to cheer about in Nigerian education. Old problems have mutated into hardier forms, exacerbating new challenges. To be fair, money is a big issue, of course, as oil revenues continue to contract even as population continues to surge and poor economic management worsens economic prospects. But perhaps just as critical is the lack of not just bold ideas but rigorous ones to make up for huge gaps. 

And this new exciting but not properly considered policy is not likely to improve Adamu’s record. While there is some evidence that teaching children in their mother tongue can lead to better performance in class and other positive outcomes, there seems to be potentially fatal lack of rigour in conception and undue haste in execution. But first a little background. 

A former minister of education, the late Babatunde Fafunwa was a major champion, in fact the face of advocacy for the inclusion of mother tongue in early education for many decades. Even in death, his shadow looms large on the subject. He wrote a famous piece on the subject, The Importance of the Mother Tongue as a Medium of Instruction in 1969, headed a successful project on the subject at the Obafemi Awolowo University and led many other interventions and initiatives on the issue in a highly impactful, pioneering life. But even though subsequent studies largely proved his point regarding the superiority of early stage instruction in local languages compared to the exclusive instruction in English model (in typical Nigerian fashion, the Ife project was later discontinued due to lack of funds), it was a far from perfect picture. As Professor F Niyi Akinnaso, retired professor of anthropology and linguistics noted in the article Policy and Experiment in Mother Tongue Literacy: “Although, like the Ife project, many experimental projects on mother tongue literacy in other countres are shown to have succeeded in realizing their objectives… the findings indicate that its use as the medium of instruction in schools cannot compensate for the deficiencies in the educational system, particularly poor quality instructional facilities, or the social barriers in the wider society which prevent certain groups of minority children from learning well in school…”

Angelina Kioko, a professor of English and Linguistics at United States International University in Nairobi summarized the benefits thus: “The use of learners’ home language in the classroom promotes a smooth transition between home and school. It means learners get more involved in the learning process and speeds up the development of basic literacy skills. It also enables more flexibility, innovation and creativity in teacher preparation. Using learners’ home language is also more likely to get the support of the general community in the teaching/learning process and creates an emotional stability which translates to cognitive stability. In short, it leads to a better educational outcome”.

But the idea, she acknowledged, works best when the pupils grow up with the local language and when they are taught by teachers who have a strong grasp of the mother tongue. Outside these ideal conditions – for instance, in certain neighbourhoods in Nigerian urban centres where pidgin English is the popular form of communication or in the many Nigerian families where, sadly, children speak only English – the expected benefits may not materialize. In fact, trying to shoehorn mother tongue learning into such spaces is sure to make things worse. Children not comfortable with the local language and teachers who are not fluent in speaking or teaching it will struggle. The results will be predictably bad.  

Given the realities, it is clear that the rush to announce the mother tongue at primary school level policy, possibly an attempt to ensure that Adamu leaves behind a legacy apart from record setting university strikes will do no favours to a highly challenged education system. Whatever may be the intellectual and practical merits of the idea, execution – our common Achilles heel – is likely to be problematic. As Professor Akinnaso has noted, despite its clear benefits, the mother tongue model cannot make up for deficiencies such as lack of or poor instructional materials or social barriers faced by children from minority backgrounds who have a different mother tongue from the dominant one. How will the children whose “mother tongue” is pidgin English cope? And those who effectively have no mother tongue except that left behind by the British colonizers? 

And has anybody fully done the math in terms of determining what kind of manpower needs, curriculum adjustments, training programmes etc will be needed over the short and medium terms. For sustainability reasons, this is critical.  

The Education ministry’s statement that the policy has been launched but will be “fully implemented” when qualified teachers and materials are available is ominous. It gives the distinct impression that the cart has been shoved in front of the horse. At the very least, this national rollout should be replaced by a pilot project. The situation is bad enough in our schools. Let’s not create the mother of all flops. 

*Nwabuikwu is a member of the THISDAY Editorial Board

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