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Primary, Secondary education: The case for instruction in mother tongue

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IN recent years, the percentage of candidates who pass the West African Senior School Certificate Examination  (WASSCE) has been hovering between 20.73 per cent and 31.28 per cent. Many reasons have been adduced to explain this trend.

One is that students no longer study due to so many distractions, especially from the social media. Interestingly, some people feel that the major issue is lack of comprehension of the medium of instruction which is the English language. There is no gainsaying the fact that if the medium of instruction is not well understood, there is no way a student will comprehend the subjects well enough to pass exams.

AUN student teaching pupils in Wuro Hausa Primary School in Yola, Adamawa State with tablets in local languages
AUN student teaching pupils in Wuro Hausa Primary School in Yola, Adamawa State with tablets in local languages

This group believes that if children are taught in their mother tongue at the early stages, they will understand the subjects better and subsequently do well in exams. Perhaps, in recognition of the crucial role of language in education, the Nigerian National Policy on Education stipulated that “Government will see to it that the medium of instruction in primary school is initially the mother tongue or the language of the immediate community and at a later stage, English.” In this report,

Vanguard Learning presents the opinions and possible solutions to the national embarrassment proffered by stakeholders Excerpts:

IN 2010, only 24.94% of candidates who sat for the exam obtained credits in English Language, Math and at least three other subjects.

2011 – 29.17%; 2012 – 31.28%; 2013 -29.17% and in the 2013 Nov/Dec edition – 40.46% passed. In 2014, only 31.28% passed.

Eclipse of the mother tongue: In an earlier interview with Karon Harden, American University of Nigeria’s Academic Liaison for Community Engagement and Service Learning,  she had said that from a linguistic point of view, and from the experiences garnered while tutoring primary school children in Yola in the Students Empowered through Language, Literacy and Arithmetic, (STELLAR) program, “if you first learn to read in a language that you understand, then it will strengthen your English literacy later. Reading is the foundation for all the other learning so if they cannot read, it is going to affect their science and other subjects so we are trying to reinforce their basic reading skills.

“Over 95 per cent of our kids do not speak English at home and they never hear English outside the school so they don’t have the comprehension.

National consciousness

They can decode a word, you can make them repeat it  for you but they don’t comprehend.”

In a paper entitled Language, Education and National Consciousness, presented by Professor Sola Oke at the Iju Forum in July 2012, the Professor of Modern Languages said:The explanations usually advanced for this poor performance include inadequate mastery of English and Math. Much as this is valid, poor and bad performance by learners who use a foreign official language in a multilingual situation could very well be partly a result of language inadequacies arising from total or near total marginalisation of their mother tongues.

“A Yoruba child who has been socialised primarily in the Yoruba community, is certainly more likely to make faster and more significant progress in formal education if he or she does not have to ‘purge himself of the mother tongue’ in order to facilitate the learning of English, the official language.”

Mother tongue is it: Angelina Kioko, a professor of English and Linguistics at United States International University, Nairobi, Kenya argues that “a crucial learning aim in the early years of education is the development of basic literacy skills: reading, writing and arithmetic.

Essentially, the skills of reading and writing come down to the ability to associate the sounds of a language with the letters or symbols used in the written form. These skills build on the foundational and interactional skills of speaking and listening. When learners speak or understand the language used to instruct them, they develop reading and writing skills faster and in a more meaningful way.”

Optimal language

According to UNESCO, “a child’s first language is the optimal language for literacy and learning throughout primary school. In spite of growing evidence and parent demand, many educational systems around the world insist on exclusive use of one or sometimes several privileged languages. This means excluding other languages and with them, the children who speak them.”

Global Partnership for Education in its reviews noted that that “children whose primary language is not the language of instruction in school are more likely to drop out of school or fail in early grades.”

Could this be the reason why Nigeria has one of the highest number of out-of-school children? In Nigeria, the use of local languages is banned in most schools.

Solutions: Professor Pita Ejiofor, former Vice-Chancellor of Nnamdi Azikiwe University argues that children should be taught in the language they understand best. “The de-facto mother tongue of our children is English language so my attitude is that you teach children in a language where their vocabulary is highest.

For many Ndi Igbo in the cities, that vocabulary is English. Just imagine teaching an Igbo child based in Lagos in Igbo language, he will not understand. So the best is to teach them in a language they understand most. A typical Hausa child knows Hausa more than any other language; a typical Yoruba child knows Yoruba more than any other language but unfortunately, for a typical Igbo child based in Lagos or Abuja, the language he understands most is English. There is no magic about mother tongue; it is only another word for a language which a child understands most.”

For Mr. Rajesh Mehta, CEO of Lagos-based The Bazzar Farms and Stores Ltd, “it is not necessary to teach the entire syllabus in the mother tongue but everybody must learn their mother tongue, otherwise, overtime, the language will disappear and we may not even know our roots.

Everyone has to speak his mother tongue whether he likes it or not so let it be one compulsory subject. A Chinese president will never speak English, he speaks Mandarin; a Japanese prime minister only speaks Japanese. In Germany, they speak German while in France, they speak French.

Forgetting his culture

It is only those people colonised by the British that always want to speak English and this has obviously affected us. Our children do not know our language; they have forgotten our culture so it has affected us to a large extent. If you forget your language, you forget your culture.”

Citing the India example, Mehta who is from Mumbai said: “In India, we have one national language, Hindi, which is compulsory. A student can then choose French or Sanskrit, one of the oldest languages in the world. So in what we call English Medium Schools, everything is taught in English but Hindi is compulsory for everybody and the child can choose any other language of choice as third language.”

On whether children understand better in their local language, Mehta answered in the affirmative, noting, however, that it is up to parents to teach them.

“A child grows with a language of his own. If you are born into an Igbo family, you definitely have to learn Igbo because everyone speaks the language at home but when the parents themselves do not speak the language, that is where the problem starts because once you go to school, you are going to learn English whether you like it or not but the mother tongue which you are going to start learning from year one, starts from when you start talking.”

In his contribution, Mr. Amed Demirhan, General Manager/Director at Barzani National Memorial, Kurdistan, Iraq, said that in Kurdistan, Kurdish is mostly used in primary and secondary schools especiallly in teaching social sciences while sciences are taught in English. Also Arabic is used. English is mostly used in the universities.

The Ife  example

Citing the Ife example in which the Faculty of Education of the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) performed an experiment in the 70s called Six-Year Primary Project (SYPP), Oke noted that Yoruba was used as medium of instruction while English was taught by specially trained teachers. “In some parallel schools, however, the medium of instruction was English in the last three years while Yoruba was used as medium of instruction only in the first three years. At the end of the six-year period, the pupils who were taught in Yoruba performed better than their counterparts who were taught in Yoruba in the first three years and in English in the last three years, in practically all subjects including English.

“The adoption of the SYPP approach in formal education for the whole of Nigeria would mean that all the major and main Nigerian indigenous languages could be used in line with the Yoruba example especially because of the spectacular success that the experiment achieved. (Bamgbose, 1992)

The Adamawa/AUN case

Dr. Margee Ensign, president of AUN said the computer students of AUN wrote apps for teaching Hausa and Fulfulde “because people want to learn in their mother tongues.”

Coordinator of AUN’s STELLAR program, Dr. Grace Malgwi, indicated that the reason STELLAR is successful is because the tutors who are AUN students teach using a bilingual language (English/Hausa).   And over 1,400 child beneficiaries in the primary schools have improved in their basic reading and numeracy skills.

Result from the program shows that during early learning, children in rural areas learn faster in their local language.

“The goal of STELLAR is to strengthen the basic academic skills of primary school students in Adamawa State so that they continue successfully in school and reap the full benefits of education.

Based on a study, in October 2013, STELLAR administered an Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) to 180 Primary 2 and 3 pupils in two schools in Yola as the baseline assessment for its fall semester tutoring program. The results showed very low levels of reading proficiency, with Primary 2 pupils reading on average only 0.38 words per minute (wpm) and Primary 3 pupils only 6.10 wpm (compared to 51 and 71 wpm, respectively, for grade-level equivalent in the US).

The low achievement rates come as no surprise to those who recognise the critical role of language in education.   Although English is the ‘official’ language in Nigeria, and the most common medium for reading and writing, it is only spoken by 20% of the population.

Of the 208 primary school pupils interviewed in the STELLAR tutoring program in 2012, only 4% reportedly speak English at home.   The most common home languages were Hausa (44%) and Fulfulde (27%); the remaining 25% spoke one of 15 other languages.

Malgwi noted that the STELLAR program is an after-school program that fortifies the foundation of a child’s education in the primary school.

Education  for All (EfA)

Education for All can only be possible if children are taught in their mother tongue. According to Global Partnership for Education, “some educators argue that only those countries where the student’s first language is the language of instruction are likely to achieve the goals of EfA. Research also suggests that engaging marginalised children in school through mother-tongue-based, multilingual education is a successful model.”

There is need to get the foundation right because if the foundation is not right, the entire structure will collapse. Institutional education researchers in Nigeria, therefore, need to explore measures and best solutions to fortify the early learning years of the Nigerian child using their mother tongue.

Angelina Kioko concluded that, “the use of learners’ home language in the classroom promotes a smooth transition between home and school. It means learners get more involved in the learning process and speeds up the development of basic literacy skills.

Using learners’ home language is also more likely to get the support of the general community in the teaching/learning process and creates an emotional stability which translates to cognitive stability. In short, it leads to a better educational outcome.”



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