The Nigerian government recently formulated a new National Language Policy that would require elementary school students to be instructed in indigenous languages instead of English. Making the policy declaration, Nigeria’s Minister of Education Adamu Adamu was quoted as saying that “the government has agreed now that, henceforth, instruction in primary schools, the first six years of learning, will be in the mother tongue.” He noted that although the policy has taken effect theoretically with the announcement, the government needs “time to develop the material, get the teachers and so on.” That last statement credited to the Minister will form the core of this essay. We shall examine certain fundamental policy actions necessary for the actualization of Nigeria’s new language policy.
Several studies have established a connection between educational achievements, national advancement and the use of indigenous languages in formal education. Nigeria’s new language policy mirrors the language policy of nations such as Japan, Tanzania, Germany, China, South Africa, Kenya and others, where education at the primary level is conducted in indigenous languages. Research has linked mother tongue education with an increased level of innovation and creativity among learners. Reasons advanced by the many nations committed to mother tongue-based education include strengthening a sense of identity for citizens, an appreciation of indigenous knowledge, as well as upholding national dignity.
The plurality of languages in Nigeria has often been advanced as the reason why a local Language of Instruction (LOI) policy will be defeated by centrifugal forces. To address such considerations, the Minister of Education reassured Nigerians that all Nigerian languages will be treated equally, adding that, according to the policy, each school’s LOI will be the prevalent (indigenous) language spoken in the host community. The government of Nigeria, in establishing the new policy, reiterated its commitment to the preservation of cultures and their unique characteristics, emphasizing that so much has been lost already, due mainly to the disappearance of some indigenous languages.
There are many challenges facing the new language of instruction policy in Nigeria. These include the prevalent use of English as a home language across many Nigerian cities, the overwhelmingly huge diversity of ethnicities that call many Nigerian cities home, and the challenge of ensuring compliance, especially with the mushrooming of private schools, among others.
Addressing Teacher-tongue Prevalence
Within the past decade and a half, Nigeria has changed a lot such that in many homes, there is no longer a ‘mother tongue’ but a ‘teacher tongue’. The language of educational instruction, English, is spoken at home, with the understanding that children who speak English at home are smarter than those who do not. The error of this assumption has been much publicized in recent times. Yet, this prevalence raises questions surrounding the local language competency of students. To address this concern, the government of Nigeria might learn a lesson or two from the practice in the Northrine and Westfalia regions of Germany where the government provides a mechanism for the pre-screening of students to determine their local language competency. This pre-screening will be followed by mandatory local language support courses, provided by hundreds of trained language teachers who are posted to different schools.
Allowing non-Community-linked Indigenous Languages of Instruction
Part of the politicizing that might arise as a result of the new language of instruction policy will be a preference for ancestral, rather than community-based languages. Nigeria’s cities are diverse. Hausas live in Lagos, Igbos live in Abuja, and Yorubas live in Port Harcourt, to mention a few. Most of these immigrant parents would rather their children study in the language of their parents, rather than the language of their host communities. Some flexibility on the part of the government might be helpful here. Where, for instance, the majority of students in a school prefer a particular language to the language of the host community, provisions can be made for those students to be instructed in that language.
Ensuring Mandatory Parental Involvement
The success of Nigeria’s new language policy should not depend heavily on government funding, but rather on mandatory volunteerism by parents, grandparents, aunties, uncles, and other relatives of pupils, as well as outside volunteers. The policy should incorporate a mandatory policy for families of children to volunteer their time to teach indigenous languages to students who need extra lessons to thrive in classrooms. Different ways of ensuring compliance must be factored into the policy. In cases of hardship, some parents can be paid an appropriate stipend for transport and time spent away from their business. For parents who work, employers will be mandated – very much like the American jury duty practice – to grant time off for parents to volunteer to teach such languages when it is their turn. Beyond the cost-saving benefits, the economic, social-psychological effects of this interaction within the community and on the children and schools will be numerous.
Ensuring Compliance in Private schools
The government of Nigeria must pull out all measures to ensure that all private schools within the country comply with the directive. Not one single private school, no matter how international it claims to be, will be allowed to subvert the policy. Suspension of operational licenses, closure and payment of heavy fines are some of the suggested measures the government can adopt to ensure compliance. Private schools should be encouraged to utilize parent volunteerism as a way to cut costs.
Career-Based Relevance for Language of Instruction
Beyond the policy of mandatory instruction at the elementary level, the government should ensure the continued relevance of indigenous languages across all levels of society. A policy designating indigenous language examination as a pre-requisite for employment in both the private and public sectors can follow suit within the shortest possible time. Making the learning of an indigenous language mandatory in secondary schools and for admission into universities is another approach that will solidify the place of indigenous languages in the country.
Indigenous knowledge-based Curricula
Much more than promoting the policy of indigenous languages of instruction, it is necessary that local knowledge is mainstreamed into elementary school curricula. Translating A is for Apple in an indigenous language to a child who hardly sees apples in her home does not meet the needs of education. Education, to elicit creativity and innovation, and inspire deep thinking, must be based on the real-life, lived experiences of learners as conveyed in their heart language.
Introduction of a Unifying Language
At this point, perhaps the government of Nigeria might strongly consider the introduction of Swahili as a unifying national and continental language. Julius Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania, promoted Swahili as a pan-African language in the 1960s. Nyerere used Swahili to bring his country together after gaining independence. Enlightened voices across Africa and beyond are unanimous in the agreement that a pan-African language will contribute exceedingly to unifying and prospering Africa. However, to make Swahili really pan-African, there is a need for political resolve, economic motivation, and investment in spreading the language to all corners of the continent. Nigeria is able to take on the mandate at this point in the history of policy-making around the language of instruction in the country.
There are many economic benefits that can accrue to citizens as a result of Nigeria’s new language of instruction policy. An increase in the publishing of books in indigenous languages is one. Others include the production of digital content, such as cartoons, educational videos, kid programmes and movies in indigenous languages. The employment of teachers and parents in teaching in indigenous languages as well as the springing up of local language teaching classes is another.
Nigeria’s new language of instruction policy holds great potential for transforming the country across sectors. Teaching in indigenous languages can enhance a commitment to national ideals, increase civic responsibility, build a culture of respect for one’s and other ethnicities as well as spur an increase in creativity and innovation among citizens. In crafting a blueprint for implementation, however, the new language of instruction policywill require deep insights and well-thought-out and marshalled plans to ensure a highly productive transition and outcome.