Foreign Languages under the Spotlight

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As the world celebrates Mother Tongues Day on February 21, Solomon Elusoji writes that to deprive indigenes of the use of their language for education is like taking away their heritage

 
Inside the classrooms of a Community Primary School on the outskirts of Lagos, conversations between students are held in Yoruba and a smattering of English phrases. The instructors, too, deliver their lessons with a composite of the two languages. But while one is the standard for tests and examinations and consequently revered, the instructors say, the other, which is most of the student’s mother tongue (Yoruba), is restricted to interpersonal communication.
 
“We usually use both languages when we teach the students,” Taiwo Adegoke, a Primary Two teacher says. “That’s because most of the students do not speak English at home and we will be unable to communicate with them without mixing it up.”
 
The reason for this interesting phenomenon is not far-fetched. Western education was imported by the white man and, naturally, gains expression through his language. And decades after attaining independence, the mode of expression continues to hold. But education itself is not a function of language, which is simply a means through which information is transmitted. The English language is not officially recognised in some of the best universities in the world and the Japanese, the Germans, excel educationally with languages local to their populations.
 
According to Otunba Gani Adams, a cultural activist, “the secret of technology is well hidden in language and that is why the world’s greatest economies pride themselves in their language and tradition.” This makes it impossible for outsiders to tap into the technology without getting immersed in their local language.
 
Truly, language is deeply connected to notions of culture and identity, but, according to UNESCO, as much as 40 per cent of the global population does not have access to education in a language they speak or understand. A large chunk of that number are in sub-Saharan Africa and Nigeria is a prime victim. In some quarters, it is believed that the lack of knowledge transmission in local languages is the reason for student’s mass failure in nationally conducted examinations like WAEC and NECO, since it is difficult to attain understanding (especially subjects like mathematics and physics which are riddled with complex and abstract notions) in a language which you have not sufficiently been immersed in; and understanding is crucial to the success of any form of education.
 
This problem is prominent enough to have attracted the attention of the Minister of Science and Technology, Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu. In January, while addressing pupils of Ekulu Primary School in Enugu, the minister said that the federal government is in the process of ensuring that primary school pupils are taught Mathematics and Science subjects in their mother-tongue.
 
 “The Ministry of Science and Technology is worried over the low interest in mathematics and the science subjects, so, we are working on plans to teach mathematics and sciences in indigenous languages in primary schools,” he said.
 
“These pupils grow up with their indigenous languages at home before they start going to school, where they are now taught in foreign languages. So, we have observed that there is a challenge to understand the foreign languages first before they could even start understanding what they are being taught.
 
“We believe that this plan will help our students to understand mathematics and science subjects, and also promote the application of science and technology for national development.”
 
The words of the minister are sweet to the ears, but the question of whether they can leave the domain of speeches and become implemented is a matter best left to posterity. The argument for local languages to become the de-facto mode for instruction in Nigerian schools is one that is almost as old as the nation’s independence. In 1969, a six year experiment tagged the ‘Ife Primary Education Research Project’, was initiated in South-west Nigeria. The project used Yoruba as the medium of instruction for the six years of primary education. Evaluations of the project found that students who switched to English after six years of mother tongue instruction performed better in English and in other subjects compared with those who did so after only three years.
 
 “There are many ideas that you want to pass across in Chemistry, in Physics, in Biology, etc that you can probably do more efficiently if you teach them in their local language,” Kola Tubosun, a linguist and teacher, says, in an interview with the Huffington Post. “What you’re trying to do is to raise people who are competent, and who are knowledgeable in a particular field. Education is about empowering people to be able to do things, so it really doesn’t matter whether it is done in English or it’s not. The people you’re teaching, if they can understand what you’re saying, and you understand the concept of what you’re trying to preach or to work on, then you can use that to solve a problem. So if that is done, I believe that we’re going to unleash a generation of really smart and innovative Nigerians.”
 
To buttress Tubosun’s point, a multitude of research point to the superiority of instructing students in their mother tongues, especially in the early stages, instead of in a second language, like English is to millions of Nigerian students. A UNICEF Policy Paper, ‘If You Don’t Understand, How Can You Learn’, notes that “speaking a language that is not spoken in the classroom frequently holds back a child’s learning, especially for those living in poverty” and that “at least six years of mother tongue instruction is needed to reduce learning gaps for minority language speakers.”
 
However, despite the obvious benefits of local languages over second languages, the Nigerian government, regardless of Onu’s words, is not particularly keen on investing in that direction. The popular reasons are the complexity of such a language policy in a country with hundreds of languages spread across its geography, and the massive funds that will be required to train language instructors and re-write entire curriculums. But some countries in sub-Saharan Africa are taking the giant leap. In 2015, Ghana announced a bold plan to eliminate English as the medium of instruction in its schools; and countries like Tanzania and Zimbabwe are on similar paths.
 
According to Dr. Charles Mubita, a Doctor of International Relations from the University of Sourthern California:  “The central message from these countries is that the time has come for Africans to change our mindset so that our education is administered in our local languages.
 
Many have questioned the wisdom of removing colonial languages as media of instruction in schools or as official languages. They argue that African languages do not have terms such as algorithms, trigonometry, convex geometry, quantum mechanics and other tongue twisters and jaw-breakers.
 
“The critics fear that these sophistries will be lost in translation thereby lowering the standard of education. For them, English is the definition of education sophistry, the height of sophistication, and epitome of civilisation.
 
“This negative reaction is informed by an erroneous assumption that English is the be-all and end-all of education – a false assumption that some successful non-Anglophones such as Russia, Germany, Japan, China, France, Finland, India, and many others will scoff at. Unfortunately, this debate only demonstrates how far we are from breaking out of the shell of imperialism and mental slavery.”
 
On February 21, the world will observe the International Mother Language Day, to promote the awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingual education, with the theme ‘Towards Sustainable Futures Through Multilingual Education’. So, it is time for those in power to wake up to the fractitious impacts of colonial languages and embrace the freedom inherent in local languages. Because, in the words of Nigerian educationist, scholar and former Minister of Education, late Professor Babs Fafunwa, “to deprive the indigenous speaker of the use of his language for education is like removing his soul.”