Mother tongue policy requires rigorous planning – Punch Newspapers


AFTER many years, advocates of the mother tongue as the medium of instruction in schools have secured a victory. The Federal Government recently announced that it had approved a new National Language Policy under which the pupil’s first language would be the compulsory medium of instruction in the first six years of basic education, that is, from primary one to six. It is a positive policy thrust. However, great caution should be applied in its implementation to avoid the familiar national experience of disastrous outcomes arising from poor execution of noble development initiatives.

As enunciated by the Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu, the mother tongue of the child would be used exclusively for the first six years of education, and later with English, Nigeria’s lingua franca, from Junior Secondary School.

The government apparently takes cognizance of the huge preparation challenge required to make the programme work and produce better students. Adamu noted that the policy could only be fully implemented when the government would have developed adequate instructional materials and provided qualified teachers. His remarks that the decision is only in principle for now as it would require a lot of work to implement, is encouraging.

Many of the major policy shifts in Nigeria’s educational development have been marred by incompetent preparation and implementation. This policy should not go that way.

The advantages of a child’s first language as the medium of instruction in the early years of schooling have long been recognised by educationists around the world. Countries introduced to formal education because of their colonial experience following which the coloniser’s language becomes the medium of instruction, have struggled to shift to their native language. For artificial states like Nigeria with over 250 languages, dispensing with English is not practical, thereby necessitating the dual medium format of local language use at the early stages and the national lingua franca at the later stages of education.

UNESCO has been advocating mother tongue usage in early schooling. It cites research proving that “education in the mother tongue is a key factor for inclusion and quality learning, and it also improves learning outcomes and academic performance. This is crucial, especially in primary school, to avoid knowledge gaps and increase the speed of learning and comprehension.”

Researchers also found that multilingual education based on the mother tongue “empowers all learners to fully take part in society.” Leading educationists in Nigeria have also long advocated its universal adoption in Nigeria. Pioneering research and experimentation were undertaken by a team led by the late Babs Fafunwa, a professor of education, and ex-education minister.

Experts say mother tongue at the early education stages improves the children’s understanding, enhances their comprehensive development, improves their ability to learn other languages, and builds strong home-school partnership, among others. For teachers, it enables them to transfer knowledge easier. In contrast, they say exclusive use of a foreign language can cause alienation from one’s own culture and heritage.

Many developing countries have taken this bold step. In 2015, the new Nepali Constitution gave every Nepali community the right to mother tongue education. Similarly, Bolivia passed the National Education Act 2010 that requires every child to learn an indigenous language and culture in addition to Spanish, the national language. India rolled out a new National Educational Policy in 2020 that among others, mandates the use of the mother tongue in the first five years of primary schooling.

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In Africa, Zimbabwe, Madagascar, Rwanda, and Zambia have reported successful outcomes following the introduction of mother tongue education.

Though the advantages are well known, Nigeria should however proceed with great caution in its implementation, which has been the bane of the country‘s education sector.

The first step is to realise that education, being on the concurrent legislative list, the states have the major role to play. The Federal Government runs public primary schools only in the Federal Capital Territory. There must therefore be full, vigorous, and committed buy-in by the 36 states.

As Adamu acknowledged, there needs to be massive investment in procuring the needed instructional materials, including textbooks and in this technological age, ICT-enabled aids.

Then, teachers have to be trained; instructors must be proficient in the first languages to be able to impart knowledge to children efficiently. There should be no frantic rush; policymakers should be guided by experience, improve on the successes, and avoid repeating mistakes. A crash programme in the 1970s to produce instructors for the Universal Primary Education programme turned out many ill-prepared teachers whose negative impact on the education sector were to be felt later.

There should be proper curriculum development, improvement in the colleges of education and teacher training schools and establishment of new colleges, well-staffed, funded and equipped to turn out quality teachers. The federal and state governments should not repeat the mistake of sacrificing quality for quantity. The quality of teachers, teaching and administration in Nigeria today is acknowledged to be very poor, all aspects of education should therefore be improved. There should be further consultations among stakeholders to hammer out the details. For instance, some suggest that like India, exclusive use of the first language should be only for the first four or five years; by the last two years of elementary schooling, they add, pupils should shift to English.

States must buy strongly into this project for it to succeed. For example, when the Federal Government reintroduced the teaching of history in the curriculum, the states obviously were not fully involved. The 3,700 teachers the central government says it is training for this are grossly inadequate; unless the states key in, it will flounder. A similar fate awaits the mother tongue policy if the sub-national governments are not the prime implementers.

The National Institute for Nigerian Languages in Aba, Abia State, should be repositioned to produce the manpower required for the implementation of the policy. To complement the programme, parents should be sensitised and encouraged to speak their native language with their children at home. ,

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