14 February 2009

Nigeria: Thoughts on Arabic Language Village


This week's piece is a fulfillment of the promise made a fortnight ago that the column would bring the Nigeria Arabic Language Village (NALV) into focus.

As the title of the discourse suggests, we intend through it to educate readers who perhaps have vague or no knowledge at all of the existence of an academic institution in the country, specifically designed for Arabic language acquisition, immersion and acculturation.

Sometime in June 1989, a fifteen-man ministerial planning committee was set up to among others work out the modalities for phasing out the mandatory one-year study abroad for undergraduate students of Arabic and French languages with a view to establishing Arabic and French villages in the country where the immersion and acculturation needs, which hitherto took the students of these two languages abroad would be provided. Sequel to the submission of the report by the ministerial committee, Arabic and French villages were established at Ngala and Badagry respectively.

The choice of Ngala as the location for the NALV could be said to be deliberate. This is because the decision to establish the institution at Ngala must have been borne out of the fact that the town is inhabited by Shuwa Arabs who are native speakers of a dialect of Arabic language.

The location of the NALV at Ngala thus becomes relevant as students, when they go there, are assured of direct, close and dynamic exposure to the speakers of the target language and their culture particularly during guided tours to the market place and during social functions. This is in addition to the language acquisition techniques and facilities available at the center by which students and trainees can quickly achieve practical grasp of Arabic language.

With the presence of Shuwa Arabs in this part of the country, it thus sounds strange to consider Arabic as a foreign language in Nigeria. The current 9-year Basic Education curriculum does not recognize Arabic as an indigenous language. Arabic is looked at from the same perspective with French language, believing both to be foreign languages.

Infact, French language is even given a status that is higher than that of Arabic in the school curriculum. The decision of the government to make French language a compulsory subject of study for pupils from the fourth year of the 9-year Basic Education programme while Arabic remains optional throughout the 9-year period of Basic Education perhaps explains the preference we are talking about.

Ngala is an ancient town in Borno state and serves as headquarters to Ngala Local Government. Ngala, which is about 135 kilometers away from the Borno state capital, Maiduguri, is bordered by Chad and Cameroun to the North-east. It is host to the Chad Basin Development Authority (CBDA) as well as an international agricultural training institute jointly owned by Nigeria, Chad, Niger, Central Africa and Cameroun.

Ngala is also home to the prayer room where Shaikh Muhammad Al-Amin El-Kanemi, the scholar-warrior who ruled Kanem-Borno in the 18th century, spent 18 years (that's a world record today) in spiritual seclusion before ascending to power. This column referred to El-Kanemi a fortnight ago as the founder of the Kanem-Borno empire. My attention was drawn by one of the regular readers of this column to the error in that assertion. The error is by this piece corrected and thus regretted.

The Nigeria Arabic Language Village (NALV) took off in 1992 at Ngala as an inter-university center for Arabic studies under the auspices of the Federal Ministry of Education and directly supervised by the National Universities Commission (NUC). The academic programmes run by the NALV include the one-year immersion programme for university undergraduate students specializing in Arabic language which is usually at their 300 level; 12 weeks acculturation programme for students from Colleges of Education in the country; and an intensive Arabic course designed for Nigerians who desire to acquire speaking, reading and writing skills in Arabic language, which duration ranges between 3, 6, 9 or 12 months. The NALV at Ngala also runs language translation services and special programmes on request. This is therefore an opportunity for those who cherish, from members of the working class in both public and private sectors, to become speakers of Arabic language as it is the case at the Nigeria French Language Village (NFLV) at Badagry. With the NALV at Ngala, you do not necessarily have to travel abroad to an Arabic speaking country in Africa or in the Middle East to achieve fluency, proficiency and competence in Arabic language. The NALV has a liaison office situated at no.6 Gidan Madara, Lafia Road, Maiduguri.

My recent visit to the NALV at Ngala made a difference with the one I had seven years earlier. For those who knew what the center was some years back, a visit to the place today will convince you that tremendous progress has been achieved under the leadership of Professor Tijani El-Miskin who is the present Director/Chief Executive of the NALV. El-Miskin who took over from the pioneer Director, Professor Balarabe Abubakar in 2003, also served on the ministerial committee that planned the establishment of the Arabic and French villages.

Statistical record available at the NALV shows that not all Nigerian universities that run an undergraduate programme in Arabic language send their students for the one academic year immersion programme at the village. The Nigerian public does not equally seem to have taken full advantage of the Arabic language acquisition opportunities available at the village. Those who seem over the years to appreciate the services rendered by the village are students who come for acculturation programme from Colleges of Education across the country. We call on the concerned Departments of Arabic in Nigerian universities to make concrete efforts and provide necessary support that will avail their students with the opportunity of going to the Nigeria Arabic Language Village for immersion. The very deplorable state of the road to Ngala may have contributed to killing the zeal of university authorities and the passion of prospective candidates from wanting to go to the NALV.

We urge the Federal Ministry of Education under which the NALV is a parastatal to collaborate with relevant government agencies such as the Federal Road Maintenance Agency (FERMA) as well as the Borno state government to rehabilitate the road from Maiduguri to Ngala. Unless this road is made motorable, the services which the NALV are expected to provide may continue to remain un-accessible to potential candidates. May Allah (SWT) grant us the ability and zeal to acquire competence in the language of the people of paradise, Arabic, amin.

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