Last week, I examined the gradual erosion of Nigerian languages, particularly the Big Three of Yoruba, Igbo, and Hausa due to a lack of usage. These languages and many other Nigerian languages are slowly disappearing; visit any typical home in the country, especially in the cities, small and big towns, and lately even in villages, and the dominant language of communication is often English.
As a people, we are gradually losing our identity, and we have struggled to achieve any meaningful development largely due to this loss. We seem to lack a proper understanding of the critical role of language in national development. Countries like China, India, Japan, Israel, Norway, and others who understand the nexus between language and national development have gone to great lengths to develop robust national lexicons for general use, particularly as a medium of knowledge transfer.
To answer the above question, conscious efforts must be made by both government and individuals to entrench our local languages in our education delivery and our everyday use at work and play. Numerous researches have shown that education in the mother tongue helps in better assimilation understanding and overall quality of learning. To underscore this fact, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has led the charge for decades now on mother tongue-based education starting from early schooling years as an important way to ensure better learning outcomes and to preserve a language. Also as part of its language preservation efforts, UNESCO in 1999 designated 21 February every year as the International Mother Language Day.
A profound experiment to prove the relevance of mother tongue in quality education was performed about 50+ years ago by a team led by the late Prof Babatunde Fafunwa at Ile-Ife, Osun State. The experiment, tagged the Ife Six-Year Primary Project, set out to show that children learn better when taught in their mother tongue; that “the child will benefit culturally, socially, linguistically & cognitively” far better than those taught in a second language, in this case English language. Two classes were set up in schools in Ile-Ife, the experimental group, and the control group. The experimental group was taught all subjects, except English language: Mathematics, Social Science, Basic Science, Health Education, Basic Technology, Civic Education, Home Economics, and others in Yoruba language while the control group was taught all subjects using the English language. At the end of the six years when the two groups wrote the First School-Leaving Certificate Examination, the experimental group that was taught using Yoruba language significantly outperformed the control group, taught in English, in all subjects.
Another interesting outcome was noticed from the experiment: only about 10% of the experimental group dropped out of school while the dropout rate for the control group was as high as 30%.
Perhaps the significant result gleaned from the experiment convinced our policymakers to inculcate the mother tongue in the National Policy on Education. Section 2C (d) of the policy on primary education specifically states: “The medium of instruction in the Primary School shall be the language of immediate environment for the first three years in monolingual communities….” In effect, school children in Yoruba communities, based on the policy, ought to be taught using Yoruba language, Igbo language in South East, Hausa in the North, Ibibio, Itsekiri, Bini in the South, Tiv, Ebira, Igala in the North Central, and so on.
It is clear that actively utilizing our mother tongues, especially in education, can have numerous benefits for the country even as globalization takes root. The country has for some time now struggled with its standard of education, and an increasingly worrying school dropout rate. Perhaps a strengthening of its mother tongue policy as enshrined in the National Policy on Education to ensure enforcement will be a good way to stem some of the rot in the school system.
As individuals, we need to do more in terms of the usage of our mother tongues in our homes to ensure our children pick them up early. For far too long, our native languages have been subservient to a foreign language, English. Who says Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa, or any other Nigerian language, cannot become a truly global language of trade, diplomacy, education, culture, and socialization, much in the same mode as English, French, or Portuguese. After all, Greek, Classical Arabic, and Latin were once dominant languages in the world.
The Big Three can become important languages globally considering that Nigerians have very active populations in almost every nation on earth. But first, as the owners of the languages, we must push for their prominence through conscious and active usage and the willingness to teach them to our children both in-country and in foreign lands.