By Umar Abdullahi
Over the weekend, I was replaying a conversation I had on Friday in my head. The topic was ‘The use of native language as a medium of instruction in Nigeria.’ I got to hear opinions both for and against the practice.
On one side are those who feel teaching children in their native language will help them grasp quicker and increase the level of innovation. On the other are those who believe, by using English, children are being prepared for a leading role not just in their communities but also in the outside world.
I have thought about these arguments and can see the merit in both of them. If you teach a child in his/her native language, understanding is bound to be quicker. Russians learn in Russian. French learn in French. Arabs learn in Arabic. Why should a Nigerian be any different? Unfortunately, the demonym ‘Nigerian’ points to the crux of the matter. There is no universal Nigerian language. Rather, we acknowledge over 350 spoken indigenous languages across the Country. Which would you have teachers use in schools? We would need to train an army of translators to make sense of documents typed in one community that need to be sent to another.
Furthermore, there is no point trying to come up with textbooks in indigenous languages if there are no words in those languages for some concepts. To use the example that was given in the conversation I referenced earlier, what is the word for ‘microchip’ in your language? An answer doesn’t easily spring to mind. This should be taken as a challenge to our students in departments of Technology across the Nation. They could start a project in collaboration with those in the Department of Languages to translate some technological concepts and terms into our local languages. You are not likely to ever build a microchip if you keep thinking of it as something from a foreign country.
In a Country like Nigeria which is often divided across ethnoreligious lines, a case could be made that the use of English as a National language actually helps the cause of National unity and prepares everyone for being able to communicate should they find themselves outside their community. What would happen if I went to address the National Assembly in my mother tongue, you rose to oppose me in yours, the Speaker tries to mediate in his while the clerk tries to record what is being said in a fourth?
For better or for worse, I think the Use of English as a medium of instruction in Nigerian schools is here to stay. However, I believe there is room for communities to organise specialised training programs, seminars and workshops for their members in the local language of that community. Such a bold step may be necessary if we are to successfully address the innovation gap between us and more technologically advanced parts of the world. For so long, we have been speaking about “catching up.” Such a thing won’t happen until we start looking for home grown solutions to problems. Perhaps the first step towards achieving that would be for us to receive at least some of our learning in the same languages we speak at home. I don’t speak English in casual conversation unless the other person I’m addressing doesn’t speak Hausa. Neither do I think in English. Do you?
Umar Amir Abdullahi works at Paradigm Initiative Nigeria as Program Assistant, DakataLIFE