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From Mother tongue to Teacher tongue: Language Diversity in Africa’s Changing Nurturing Environment


Traditionally, mothers are known to spend more time with their children, especially at the earliest (0-3) years. It is during this time that children build the emotional foundation and imbibe speech skills that will last them a lifetime. In many households today across Africa, especially among the middle- and high-income families, caregivers, nannies, and teachers have taken on the role of parents who are often engaged in some form of career or business. Psychologists have studied the social-emotional impact of the absence of parents in the lives of young children, and the research results indicate that children raised this way tend to grow into adults with deep-seated emotional challenges, who are, as a result, severely handicapped from contributing their best to societal advancement. In addition, the impact of a loose nurturing environment for young children is strongly felt in the formation of language skills, especially in Africa, where UNESCO estimates that many (indigenous) languages are on the brink of extinction.

When colonial authorities attached corporal punishment to the use of mother tongue within the school environment, it was thought that Independence would restore some respect for Africa’s indigenous languages. That was not so. Only in few cases were indigenous languages validated and vigorously promoted after Independence. In many cases, the language, forcefully bequeathed during colonialism, was welcomed as a unifying national language. Although some form of a national language is considered by many to be a centripetal force necessary for the advancement of any nation, it could become retrogressive when indigenous languages are stifled in the process of promoting one universal language for the larger population, especially when this is used to perpetuate linguistic imperialism.

If the battle against Africa’s languages was initiated by the colonial authorities and upheld by different African governments after colonialism, it is now being willingly and happily spearheaded by families and communities in many parts of the continent. Across many major cities in Africa, it is no longer uncommon for babies as young as 3 months to spend a minimum of 9 hours a day at daycare centres. At these institutions, the language of instruction is usually the national or regional languages, which are often colonial languages. These babies grow up interacting with their caregivers, who soon metamorphose into teachers as the babies get older. Tired and worn out after a hard day’s job, parents pick up their children with little energy and patience left for long, idyllic, drawn-out interactions in local languages. While some parents make an effort to speak their mother tongues to their children, many do not see any need for that, opting instead to sustain conversations with their children in their “teacher tongue.” Among many other reasons that have been advanced, parents claim that speaking to the children in their “teacher tongue” would make it easier for them to thrive at school.

In instances where a parent stays home longer than the average few months of parental leave, they are often in a hurry to enroll their children in “nursery” schools in order for them to “start learning early.” These well-meaning parents are often unaware that the most important education for a child under the age of 3 is social-emotional learning, which is best provided within the family setting. Fidgety at the fact that their child is lagging behind the working mother’s child, “staying-at-home” moms also hurry off their children to “school,” truncating the children’s social-emotional learning, bonding and security.

Psychologists have established that early exposure of young children to the rigours and stress of an overly academic curriculum leads to stress and mental health challenges, causing them to drop out of school at an early age among other (even more serious) mental health, emotionally debilitating and physical ill-health consequences. Lilian G. Katz, Professor Emerita of Early Childhood Education at the University of Illinois, explains: “While early formal instruction may appear to show good test results at first, in the long term, in follow-up studies, such children have had no advantage. On the contrary, especially in the case of boys, subjection to early formal instruction increases their tendency to distance themselves from the goals of schools, and to drop out of it, either mentally or physically.”

At the surface level, Africa copies and longs for what the West has today: the technology, the economic power, the political system and the educational infrastructure and resources. However, as far as following the principles that earned the Western world its place in the global comity of nations, Africa appears to be going in the opposite direction. For centuries and up until currently, many Caucasian (white) American and European mothers choose to spend a considerable amount of time at home when their children are not of school age. Fathers are joining the mother’s in more recent times, allowing their wives to hold careers while they stay home to provide the critical foundation for raising successful children. Many of the scientists, entrepreneurs, artists, educationists, medical doctors and researchers and technologists that we know today across the West became so because they were not shipped off to school before they turned 3 years old. They were raised by at least one present parent, and their sense of self was sealed before they had to be exposed to the harsh non-family environment of the school setting.

Mother-tongue expression is deep and spontaneous. Spontaneity of communication has been linked with an exponential increase in innovation and creativity. The muzzling of Africa’s indigenous languages has been linked to, among others, the low level of innovation and productivity across the social, political, and economic spheres in the region. Individuals, communities and governments in Africa will do well to shift the emphasis back to raising children who will deeply connect with their environment and reality. It is such children who can grow up to feel such an intense sense of oneness with their roots that they will seek to transform their communities and nations for the better.

Dr Chika Ezeanya Esiobu blogs at She is the Principal of Julani Varsity and Founder of African Child Press

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