23 February 2010

Nigeria: Preserving the Mother Tongue Initiative


Four hundred languages have become endangered all over the world in recent years; some mother tongue languages, including a few in Africa have, gone into extinction. It is in the spirit of preserving mother tongues worldwide that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) earmarked February 21st every year as World Mother Tongue Day. This year's event was marked last Sunday.

Code switching has become a serious phenomenon endemic today especially among the educated in Nigeria. Rarely would they speak in their mother tongue without the use of words and expressions from non-mother tongue languages. English more than any other language appears to have affected most Nigerian elite in this way. These days, it is fashionable among many parents in urban settlements to speak with their children in languages other than their native tongues. Children of such homes gradually feel alienated from their mother tongue.

Mother tongue in human society has great utility. For instance, it is a means by which speakers express their feelings, emotions and thoughts. It also transmits knowledge and culture from one person to another and from one generation to another. Mother tongue performs political functions too. Through it, people are taught civic responsibilities. It is equally used for political campaigns and for grassroots mobilization. Mother tongue likewise plays important roles in child rearing through folktales, songs, proverbs, witticism, adages, etc. Moral lessons are imparted in the process.

Mother tongue in the same way facilitates imaginative process through which concepts are formed. Research from the pioneering work of Professor Babatunde Fafunwa, a former minister of education, suggests that pupils taught in the mother tongue of Yoruba learnt better and faster than others who are taught in English. This became the basis upon which Professor Fafunwa built his premise that "pupils in the early years of primary education learn mathematics and sciences better in their mother tongues". The same theory was employed by Japan when in 1868 the Meiji Revolution, in a strategic reform programme, adopted the teaching of sciences in Japanese mother tongues. Other language communities that use mother tongue as medium of instruction in schools include China and India. As we know, these societies have grown to be the world powers that they are today.

In the effort to promote the use of mother tongue and the development of indigenous languages in Nigeria, the current National Policy on Education provides that the medium of instruction in the primary school should be the language of the environment for the first three years, with English being taught as a subject during the period. Unfortunately, there is no indication that this rule is being enforced. There are no enough teachers to teach mother tongues in our schools. There is also the challenge of lack of facilities, including language laboratories and materials like textbooks and dictionaries for the teaching and learning of mother tongues in schools.

Nigerians, especially in their formative years, should be encouraged to speak their mother tongues with their family members, especially in their homes. Parents can sustain the practice, where they live outside their mother tongue milieu, by finding time to travel to their respective language communities so that their children would have the opportunity to explore the potentials of their mother tongues. The National Assembly can also be a powerful incentive by allowing mother tongues to be part of the official languages in proceedings and other official debates. Indeed, section 55 of the 1999 constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria provides that "the business of the National Assembly shall be conducted in English, and in Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba...". Action should be taken to implement this.

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