This article was written for exploratory purposes, and thus does not argue against the use of English in the educational system in Nigeria. It aims to explore debates and provide counterfactuals.
In relation to the preservation of identity and culture, there has been an increasing amount of debate around the topic of the use of the indigenous language(s) of a country in the delivery of education. The use of English language in schools particularly in countries with a colonial past is often perceived as an imposition of western culture and arguably, political dominance. The argument typically echoes linguistic imperialism and highlights an associated marginalisation of periphery countries - a “prejudice and discrimination targeted at indigenous peoples” as posited by a representative of UNESCO. As opposed to increasing learning opportunities, the use of non-indigenous languages is considered to be disadvantageous to the sustainability and growth of a nation, as by default, it promotes unequal and exclusive access to education.
The controversy between the use of native and adopted language(s) is likewise shared in other non-indigenous language-speaking countries such as Algeria. Predominantly an Arab-speaking country in Northern Africa, and a former French colony, Algeria is faced with ongoing political discourse on the plan to offer STEM courses at primary and secondary levels in French, rather than the mother tongue of Arabic. This proposition is driven by concerns on the rate of assimilation of tertiary students who transition from learning in Arabic in preceding levels of education, and are taught in French in University. In opposition however, a conversion of STEM courses to French is argued as a vice to identity and a tool to “disconnect youths from their cultural roots.”
Similarly, in Nigeria, the ownership of the linguistic culture, application of indigenous languages in the educational system and re-evaluation of the language policies in the curriculum offered in schools nationwide are increasingly common phenomena in debates. The western system of education in Nigeria was implemented by Christian missionaries in the mid-nineteenth century, following the failure of the British government to adequately invest in education, during its colonial rule. Through this system of education, the use of a monolingual curriculum was enacted in the schools developed, and English language was, and still remains, the principal language in which courses are taught in schools.
Referred to as ‘vernacular’, the use of Yoruba language, for example, in the classroom in the mid-twentieth century was heavily discouraged, to the point where students were punished if Yoruba was uttered. This, as relayed in the personal account of the author Chinua Achebe, was likewise the case in schools in the Eastern parts of Nigeria where students were expected to “put away their different mother tongues and communicate in the language of their colonisers.” Thus, the use of English language in education in Nigeria is seen as a continued expression of cultural dominance. It is likewise argued as an erosion of values, and a threat to the access to education in Nigeria.
Though not offered as a basis of comparison, there is however a fundamental difference between Algeria and Nigeria that renders the arguments made for the use of indigenous languages in schools in the former stronger than that of the latter – the ethno-linguistic composition of the respective countries. In Algeria, 99 percent of the population are Arab-Berber, thereby making the country ethnically homogenous. Nigeria, on the other hand, is an amalgamation of at least 250 ethnic groups and 500 indigenous languages, and thus, an ethnically fractionalised nation. Therefore, establishing education systems and units in one, all or a percentage of the country’s indigenous languages may not only prove infeasible in terms of administrative and logistical procedures, but also cumbersome and expensive for the state. Even more so, with 1.9 percent rate of urbanisation propelled by rural-urban migration, the average population in a city in Nigeria comprise of a mix of extremely diverse tribes and people. In this vein, this may further engulf the ethnic tension that persists in various states in Nigeria, and the country at wide; paradoxically facilitates segregation, as opposed to unity and a shared sense of identity.
Notwithstanding, Professor Sophie Oluwole avows that “your language is important” and poses some questions, which probed the themes explored in the article. I would thus recommend watching the video prior to reading of the rest of the article, as it puts the arguments into perspective, fosters a better understanding of the use of languages, and offers a brilliant plot twist on literacy in Nigeria.
“What does it mean to be educated?”
I would argue that being educated encompasses possessing sound knowledge and understanding of a variety of ideologies, and the ability to articulate and apply the knowledge acquired from traditional and experiential mediums of learning. In basic terms, the World Bank often identifies three key themes with education – literacy, numeracy and skills. Providing what she calls the “Nigerian answer”, Professor Sophie Oluwole simplifies being educated as the ability to read and write. The question however is, in what language?
The philosopher and professor highlights the double standard cast on indigenous languages in relation to being “educated” in the Nigerian society. If one can read and write in English, but not in Yoruba or an indigenous language, one is considered as ‘educated’. The reverse is however not the case. If one can read and write in Yoruba or an indigenous language in Nigeria but cannot read and write in English, irrespective of possessing the similar levels of knowledge or attaining the same educational qualifications, one is considered inferior, illiterate and uneducated. Is this ideal however valid?
“The Japanese who does not read or write in English, is he educated?”
The French are taught in French from kindergarten to tertiary level, and required to take English and one other language as supplementary courses in school. Ironically, in Britain, all students are surprisingly taught in English but are however mandated to learn other languages in attempt enhance its multi-lingual environment. In Nigeria, however, majority of students – with exclusion to Northern Nigeria - are however taught in the core-language of English; with only one of the three main languages – dependent on the geopolitical zone in which the school is located - in Nigeria offered as a course in school.
Professor Oluwole therefore questions: why then should an indigenous language be offered as course in Nigerian schools, and not English as a course? Citing the Late Professor Fafunwa as a classic case, she further asserts that students can be taught all courses in their native languages and excel, and also take English language as a subject and achieve the highest grade in English language examinations. Citing another example, Professor Oluwole shares a disparity in the assimilation and performance rates of a Hausa boy when taught in English and later taught in his native language; antithetical to his woeful performance when taught in English, he later secured the highest grades in class when taught locally.
The latter example may thereby serve as explanation as to why the rate of performance of students in public schools in Nigeria is continuously low in national examinations. Given that a higher rural population than urban population in Nigeria and that a lot of children, irrespective of the “new age” come from native speaking homes, could students be faced with a dual burden of learning new concepts in different subjects, and translating information from English to their native languages, and vice versa? Further study with human participants would be required in order to test this hypothesis, and determine its implication for education policies in Nigeria. This however ignores other contributing factors including the poor quality of teaching, outdated curricula and the role of parents and guardians.
Reinstating my position, I do not argue for the elimination of English as the primary language of teaching. Fortunately or unfortunately, we live in a capitalist world and an open economy system. Thus, in the increasingly globalising world, teaching in solely indigenous languages limits the scope of economic, educational and employment opportunities of Nigerians. Taking Yoruba language as an example, it is only spoken by majority of West African countries, Cuba, Brazil, and a handful of other countries in the world. Thus, the scale of international trade and business opportunities individuals could leverage on, given the knowledge of only indigenous languages, is immediately constrained. Unless, of course, the economic and investment climates in Nigeria take a full turn, and let us assume that the confidence of domestic investors - at least - in Nigeria increases, the overall benefits in economic terms are minimal.
I however do not argue against the enforcement of indigenous languages, for reasons including the fact that the once-rich cultures are rapidly eroding in Nigeria, and the use of indigenous languages in conversations is dying among the younger generation. What would be ideal would be for people to be able to communicate not just in their own indigenous language but in other indigenous Nigerian languages and also English. This would allow for Nigerians to still be able to compete on national and international levels while persevering their distinct heritage.
So, how do we strike a balance?
Perhaps a level of hybridity between the use of indigenous and non-indigenous languages in the education of Nigerians may be a way forward. If so, how may we achieve it?
Should English remain the main language of teaching with compulsory courses in at least two native languages? Or conversely, should all courses be delivered in the native language of students, and English language be taught as a compulsory elective? Or perhaps, as Funmi Iyanda suggests, should STEM course be in indigenous languages and others in English, or vice versa?
Whatever the case may be, I do believe that parents do have a responsibility to ensure that their children communicate fluently in their native language. After all, as Professor Sophie Oluwole avers, “education does not start from the school, it starts from the home.” Similarly, I do believe that communities have a role to play in protecting their cultural heritage and languages.
I would love to hear what your thoughts are on the topic.
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Watch a similar video by Professor Sophie Oluwole here.
For a list of bibliography on the use of indigenous languages in Nigeria, linguistic imperialism and the effect on culture in Nigeria, kindly email firstname.lastname@example.org