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Teaching maths, sciences in mother tongues: The hurdles

Get our languages back first
Train more language teachers
Initiative worked for Fafunwa

By Dayo Adesulu

IF the Federal Ministry of Education concurs to the proposed initiative of the Minister of Science and Technology, Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu, to introduce indigenous languages in teaching of mathematics and sciences in primary schools, it will see pupils learning in their mother tongues.

You will recall that, Dr. Onu in Enugu last weekend while addressing pupils of Ekulu Primary School in Enugu said: “We are working on plans to teach mathematics and sciences in indigenous languages in primary schools.”

Lending credence to Dr. Onu’s view, the late Nigerian foremost educationist, Professor Babatunde Fafunwa, had said that a child learns best in his or her mother tongue, adding, “of all the continents and peoples of the world, it is only in Africa and perhaps in a few other ex-colonial countries that formal education is offered in a language that is foreign to the child.”

According to him, in Europe, North America, USSR, China and in all other leading countries of the world, the child goes through his primary, secondary and university education in his  own mother tongue.

Ogbonnaya Onu

Linguistic problems

He lamented that in Africa, south of the Sahara and north of the Limpopo, we educate our children practically in a foreign tongue from primary to post secondary level, while some of the native speakers of English or French have problems in understanding their own language. “The African child has  linguistic problems plus his own, thus, suffering  from double jeopardy,” he said.

Fafunwa who became professor of education in 1966 maintained that the average African child’s psychological development from age 0 to six in terms of his natural environment is interrupted or disturbed by his formal school experience at the age of five or six.

He explained that the African society of today is in ambivalent position and so is the child from this environment, adding that between the ages of 0 and five, African children are invariably brought up in the traditional African environment, but when they reach the age of six, one third to one tenth of these children enter another educational system almost completely different from the one they were accustomed  to.

This phenomenon, according to him  has not been given the attention it deserves by African educators and psychologists, stressing that we tend to assume that the African child takes this dramatic change in his stride and we expect him to respond to this new situation as an average English, American or German child would. “The fact of the matter, however, is that the child’s cognitive equilibrium has been disturbed and this abnormal situation tends to retard the cognitive process,” he said.

In his statistics, he noted that of the anticipated outcome of the Western form of education, more than fifty percent of the children who entered primary schools dropped out before the end of the course.

Drop-out phenomenon

He said: “A number of studies carried out on ‘primary school dropouts’ in Nigeria attributed the drop-out phenomenon which ranges from 40 to 60% to:  premature introduction of English as a language of instruction at the primary school; poorly trained teachers, and inadequate teaching and learning facilities

“There is little or no continuity between the African child’s home experience and  his school experience – a situation that does not arise in the Western countries where in most cases, the child’s school experience is a continuation of his home experience and exposure. In most primary schools in Nigeria, the teacher does a double task with his pupils in primary classes four, five and six. That is to say, the teacher employs Yoruba as a medium whenever the children fail to follow class instructions in English. This is inescapable because the children’s  level of proficiency in English is minimal.

“It was found for instance that all subjects except Yoruba were treated in this fashion even up to the last year of primary  education.”

He, however, heaped the blame of these deficiencies on the door steps of lack of language effectiveness, poorly prepared teachers, lack of adequate teaching aids, paucity of appropriate  text-books or the poor implementation of the national language policy.

The importance of the mother tongue as a medium of education: He maintained that the Nigerian child is being unnecessarily maimed emotionally and intellectually when we teach them at the elementary age in foreign language. He averred that no other nations in the world except most of the former colonies prepare their children for citizenship in languages  foreign to them.

Giving reasons for the use of mother tongue in educating children, he explained that the first twelve years are the most formative period of a child’s life, adding that during  this period their attitudes and aptitudes are developed.

He added: “It is also during this period  that the child requires diligent care of his physical needs and trained guidance of his  mental, emotional and social development. He said: “Through the mother-tongue as the medium of education, which after all is the most  natural way of learning. This is where the average European or English child has a  decided advantage over his African counterpart.

Natural environment

“ While the former is acquiring new skills during the first six years in his mother-tongue, the latter is busy struggling with  a foreign language during the greater part of his primary education. The English, German, or the Italian children explore their own natural environment and communication in their native tongue, thus acquiring at very early stages self-confidence, initiative, resourcefulness, creative reasoning and adaptability-skills necessary for further  growth in later stages of development.

“It is our contention that a child, if helped to lay the foundation of his future development in his own mother-tongue, will likely be in a position to build upon it in later years even in another language. We are, therefore, constrained to ask whether this serious defect in our colonial pattern of education has not robbed the child of inventiveness, originality and creativity since he is forced to think in English instead of Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo or any other Nigerian language.”

Reacting to the development, the Secretary, Ijede, National Association of Proprietors of Private Schools NAPPS, Mr. Bazuaye Peter, said it was a good development, provided the government put the necessary logistics in place. He said: “If you take a look at Ghana as a country, the government made it a matter of national policy to teach their children in elementary school in Ghananian language. The development over the years has boosted their secondary and tertiary education.

Secondary and tertiary education

“However, before implementation, the Ministry of Education has to develop a new curriculum, create awareness and organise seminars in different local governments. In Nigeria, we have over 400 dialects apart from the Hausa, Ibo and Yoruba languages. Therefore, since Nigerian students do not speak the same language, teachers have to be trained on various languages on how to pass across knowledge to students in their mother tongues.”

On his part, the Deputy Director, Distance Learning Centre, University of Ibadan, Professor Oyesoji Aremu said: “The policy idea is not new given the fact that it is in practice in some Asian countries like China, Japan and India. Research works have shown that first language of a child is the best approach in pedagogy. However, the policy idea may be somewhat challenging in Nigeria because of lack of an acceptable indigenous language unlike Hindus in India and Japonic in Japan.”

Folakemi Omogoruwa said: “Too many Nigerians are too elitist. Teaching or illustrating to children who already know only how to speak their language, isn’t the same as the spoil posh schools that your children attend,we are talking about two plus two here not newton laws of motion. Minister of Science and Technology, says schools are supposed to teach mathematics and science subjects in indigenous languages, talking specifically about primary schools and a few secondary schools, saying that they are going to collaborate with the Ministry of Education to see how to make this work out so as to in a competitive race for advancing our nation in science and technology.

“They are also talking about the interest of these children in going on to learn more about science and technology,and they say perhaps the reason why these kids are not that interested in education is because you are forcing them to learn. English is a foreign language, and trying to teach them a complex subject in that language may not work out but you can spark their interest at a very young age, by speaking to them in the indigenous language they understand.”

Joshua Ikemefuna said: “This is simply reinventing the wheel of Professor Fafunwa which he initiated decades ago. However, if my father is Igbo and my mother is Yoruba, what is my indigenous language? Effiong Bassey said, “acquiring knowledge is as important as an ability to communicate. For example, there was a Chinese engineers on the same projects of my team who did not understand a lot of what we say.

Exposure to any practical science

“When we sketch our communication, they  improve in knowledge, but not every thing can be put in drawing format, they eventually got a Nigerian engineer who had learnt Chinese sometime ago to bridge the gap.”

Igbagbo Adewole said “Lets look at the Indians and Chinese, some of the great Indians and Chinese scientists got their formative years in the U.S, no one taught them in Hindu in America or England and most of them were from first generation and they spoke only their languages at home. It is not teaching English in Yoruba that will solve the problem, public schools don’t have labs, they are not exposed to any practical science all they learn is theory, how will they be interested in what they are learning, lets address the  real issues.’’

Ngozi Chukwuma said: “As interesting as teaching sciences and Maths in indigenous language could be, we should also think about the vocabulary of indigenous languages. Our vocabulary should first be upgraded like other universal languages. For example, how does one say three trillion in Igbo language? I think the method of teaching should simply be worked on to aid children learning in English before sciences, this is similar to what foreign colleges and universities do when asked to do one year course in English before going on to take their courses.”

Oluwatobi Odukoya said “Teaching in Nigerian languages is not a new idea. As a matter of fact, Professor Babatunde Fafunwa was the lead person, having experimented it with two schools in Ile-Ife where English as a subject was taught in Yoruba language. It was on record that students in those schools came out with distinction in Maths and sciences. They did much more better in English Language than schools where English was taught as primary language of instructions.

“What killed the idea was politics. The Minister of Science and Technology just needs to contact the Minister of Education for the report because it was a Federal Government project. Japan, China, India, Germany, France, they teach their children in their own languages that is why they are way ahead of us.”

Ogenekaro Akpovure said: “It will make more sense to teach in local languages in primary schools in the country and to also enforce it on private schools. If you understand  your local language well, English Language will be easy to translate.”


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