Nigeria says it wants primary school teachers to conduct lessons in local languages instead of English, which is currently used. But how practical is that in a country where more than 600 different tongues are spoken?
Kareem Abiodun Habeebullah, whose mother tongue is Yoruba, was just a secondary school student when he was whipped in class for not speaking in English.
“When I was growing up, I was struggling to speak English,” he tells the BBC. “There was a particular class,” he says, recalling the incident in 2010. The teacher called him up to answer a question, and he was stumped.
“I know the answer but I can only respond with my mother language,” he remembers saying.
The teacher replied “no way”, came to where he stood, and then the beating began. Corporal punishment is still common in some Nigerian schools, although moves have been made to eradicate it.
“She gave me one stroke of [the] cane,” and sternly reminded Mr Habeebullah that he was not allowed to speak Yoruba in class, he says.
His was not an isolated incident he says, and other students at his school received harsh reprimands for daring to speak in Yoruba instead of English.
More than 60 years after independence from Britain, English remains Nigeria’s official language, and is used in public settings such as schools, universities, government and many work places.
But the political tide appears to be turning. In November, Education Minister Adamu Adamu announced the National Language Policy which stipulates that the first six years of primary education should be taught in the children’s mother tongue.
He said the changes were necessary because pupils learn better when they are taught in “their own mother tongue.”
Currently, primary school children are taught in English, with teachers in certain communities mixing local languages with English for ease of comprehension.
However, it is unclear how the new policy will be rolled out because – in a country where government estimates say 625 different languages are spoken, and with people moving around the country – many Nigerian children live in areas where their mother tongue is not the dominant local language.
Teaching in the mother tongue was in fact first put forward as a national policy in the 1970s, but because of difficulties rolling it out in such a linguistically diverse country, it was never put into effect, as the government wishes to do now.
The policy is already facing stiff opposition. Despite his own experience, Mr Habeebullah, who is now a school teacher, does not think teaching in local languages is a good idea.
“If you were to take a look at Nigeria as a country, we have more than 500 languages, which will make it very hard” to implement.
He questions how classes could be taught properly in a local language when it may contain students who speak different tongues at home. In his own class in Sabongidda-Ora, in the southern Edo State, five different languages are spoken, he says – Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa, Ora and Esan.
Although he is supposed to teach in English, there are times when he has to explain things in Pidgin English, so all the pupils can understand.
“There’s no point in teaching them something they cannot decipher, it would be very wrong.”
However, “I can’t be teaching students in their local language” he insists, because he simply does not know how to speak all the various tongues spoken by his students.
Furthermore, if they don’t speak English in primary school, they will find it difficult later on, he adds.
‘Too little too late’
For many middle-class Nigerians, especially in the south, English is now their mother tongue and some may not speak any local languages. This is partly a result of marriages between members of different ethnic groups, and people moving to cities, where English is the lingua franca.
Tayo Adeyemo, 46, from Lagos State agrees that teaching children in their local language at primary school is impractical.
Lagos’ local language is Yoruba, but as it is the country’s commercial hub, people who speak other languages have also moved there and still speak their mother tongue.
“I don’t think it’s a very good idea,” the father of a nine-year-old primary school student tells the BBC.
“For many years now English has been used. I used English in my primary school, many, many years ago. So for them to bring such a policy now, I don’t see it as something that would work.”
Despite English and Pidgin being the lingua franca in the ethnically diverse city of Lagos, education ministry spokesperson Ben Goong confirmed to the BBC that Yoruba would be the language of instruction in the metropolis.
At first glance the new policy sounds positive because the government “is trying to bring back the culture” of local languages, Mr Adeyemo says.
But his children speak English at home so he doesn’t think his youngest son would even understand classes taught in Yoruba: “There’s this increasing trend of people speaking more of English. It’s the lingua franca anyway,” he says.
It “just seems easier” to speak English at home because that is the language the children are taught in at school, he says.
Although he would like his son to speak Yoruba, he thinks “it’s too little, too late” now.
“Unfortunately, you are unable to let them understand both languages at the same time.”
‘Failing the children’
However for the many Nigerian children who don’t speak English at home, being taught in a language they don’t necessarily understand very well from an early age puts them at a disadvantage at school.
Senior education specialist at the World Bank, Dr Olatunde Adekola, tells the BBC the current teaching setup is “failing the children”.
Some parents who speak their local language at home complain that their children are “not learning fast” enough in schools, says Dr Adekola, who is from Nigeria. He blames this on the language barrier – namely, teaching in English.
When the language spoken at home is completely different to that taught in schools, it creates confusion and a “disconnect” he says.
It is not necessarily the role of the school to teach primary school children how to speak English, but to boost their literacy by teaching them how to read and write in their first language – whether that be Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo, Pidgin or another Nigerian language, he says.
“If any school is going to be meaningful in Nigeria” it must “start from the language the children speak to their parents, irrespective of where your parents come from”.
Dr Adekola adds that the key to whether the new way of learning succeeds is how it is put into practice.
Another huge stumbling block is that many current teachers simply cannot read and write at a high enough level in a local language to teach it to students, Dr Adekola warns.
“If you go to university now, how many teachers are reading bachelor’s in education, or diploma in education in languages and how to teach children in their languages?” he asks.
“So, you need to first equip the teacher to know about the language so they will be well-equipped on how to teach the children.”
The education minister, Mr Adamu, admitted at the time of the announcement that it would be a challenge to make the changes. He said it would “require a lot of work to develop materials to teach and get the teachers” who have the skills in local languages.
He said that the language used in each school should be the tongue spoken in whichever local community the school is located.
“We have 625 languages at the last count and the objective of this policy is to promote, and enhance the cultivation and use of all Nigerian languages,” he added.
The policy will not be limited to teaching in just Nigeria’s three major local languages – Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo – but once it is “fully operational” there will also be teaching in the hundreds of other tongues spoken across the country.
The government says the children will also have the chance to learn a second Nigerian language as well as receive teaching in a foreign language such as English, French or Arabic at a “certain stage”.
However, it is not entirely clear when the policy will be put in action.
As for Mr Adeyemo, he admits that he wishes his children were fluent in their local language, despite speaking to them in English at home. But he is clear in his reasoning behind this choice.
“English, being the lingua franca, would always have an edge”.
Additional reporting by Olivia Ndubuisi in Lagos
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