For decades, “Comment tu t’appelle?” and the response, “Je m’appelle …” has remained a popular patois among young Nigerians, who were taught French language at the basic education level. As they ascend the ladder academically, this popular phrase in most cases sticks, and often times remain all they remember about their French lessons. The Federal Government wants to change that in view of prevailing circumstances in an increasingly competitive world, and of course, the benefits derivable from having a second international official language. ENO-ABASI SUNDAY and UJUNWA ATUEYI, write on the initiative and the challenges that may confront its smooth take-off and implementation
IN over 20 European countries, studying a second foreign language for at least a year is mandatory. And in a good number of these countries, affected students are made to begin the compulsory study of their first foreign language as a school subject between the ages of 6 and 9.
According to a 2012 report from Eurostat, which is the statistics arm of the European Commission, other countries begin teaching their young ones this second foreign language at age three, while some countries in the United Kingdom leave it as late as 11. English is the most-studied foreign language across almost all European countries and at all education levels.
Of the 54 sovereign nations that that make up Africa, the second biggest and most populous continent in the world, well over 25 are English speaking while the rest are French speaking.
Nigeria, an integral part of the continent is sandwiched by French speaking countries including Cameroon, Niger, Chad, Benin Republic, and Togo. Further beyond, Guinea and Ivory Coast are also French speaking, a development that analysts say, naturally makes French a veritable language of international diplomacy, trade and commerce for us as a country.
With this scenario in sight, it is expected that the percolation of French language in the country would have been deeper. Sadly, that has not been the case. And that was the reason why for four days last May, French teachers and students gathered at the Department of Foreign Languages, University of Benin (UNIBEN), Edo State, to explore ways of growing the language in an environment, where English language is the numero uno.
During the exercise, the decreasing learning and communication in French raised concerns among the teachers, who expressed fears that the language may die in the country.
At the Biennial International French Conference, which had as its theme: The Challenges of French Studies in Nigeria, the Director-General (DG), Nigerian French Village in Badagry, Lagos, Prof Raufu Adebisi, urged the government to introduce policies that would make teaching of French attractive to young people. He added that improved funding for French schools would help achieve the aim.
One thing the government does not know is that you cannot learn a language properly if you don’t have a good teacher and a language laboratory. In developed world, a standard university, primary or secondary school has language a laboratory and speech therapy facilities
At the event, which brought together French teachers and students from primary and secondary schools as well as tertiary institutions and French language centres across the nation, Adebisi frowned at what he called the government’s apathetic attitude toward the learning of French. He said the language was facing enormous challenges, which have made it to be relegated in linguistics.
He went on to list poor remuneration for teachers, lack of employment for French graduates, inadequate materials for learning and poor representation of French in place of authority, among others as the major factors militating against the growth of the language in the country.
Barely one year after this session held, matters are suddenly looking up for the teaching and learning of French language in the country with the Federal Government’s plans to make the teaching compulsory at all levels of education in the country.
Minister of State for Education, Prof. Anthony Anwuka, while playing host to French Ambassador to Nigeria, Denys Gaver, in his office, explained that Nigerian students at all levels of education, will henceforth study French as a compulsory subject.
He stressed that the government was keen and sufficiently motivated to actualise its dream of making French language the second language of business in the country.
It is evident that for decades, Nigerian flag bearers have largely depended on language interpreters to communicate with participants from French-speaking countries at different regional and international fora. Matters are made worse by the fact that most Nigerian diplomats know little or nothing about French language. That may become history now if the government plan is faithfully implemented.
Before now, the teaching of French language (though optional at senior secondary level) was sort of restricted to public secondary schools, well-heeled private schools and a handful of tertiary institutions.
Even though only a few graduate as French majors yearly, university students are not compelled to take any course in French, as its study was restricted to those majoring in the subject. The number of students that write the subject in the West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE) remains perennially low and lends credence to the fate the subject has suffered in the country over the years.
However, to kick-start the “French language revolution” the government flagged off a French Clinic Project at the Federal Government Boys’ College, Apo, Abuja.
Anwuka at the event explained that it would improve the listening, speaking, reading and writing skills of Nigerian students studying the language, adding that with these skills, our French students will fare better in their examinations and in the world of work.
For Prof. Tunde Fatunde, “As a French professor and the current President of University French Teachers Association (UFTAN), I share all the fundamental reasons put forward by Professor Anthony Anwukah, for this fundamental move. In this 21st century of global economic and security interests, the Nigerian nation must invest in the teaching of French in order to defend our strategic interests in West Africa.
Surprisingly French is even a gradually receding language in international communication. So what are we talking about French. Many more French men would rather learn English, than English wanting to learn French. I am a socio-linguist, I deal with this, I have written on this, I have facts on this and I know what I am talking about
“Our private companies in telecommunications, banks, oil and gas have intensified their investments in French speaking countries of ECOWAS. The current security challenges and the fight against terrorism require, as a matter of urgency, closer collaboration with our French-speaking neighbours,” Fatunde stated, adding that, “In order to take care of our collective interests as Nigerians, French is an indispensable language for the coming generation. Just like Americans have recently discovered that they must learn Spanish to be relevant in the affairs of Central and South America and also handle the affairs of millions of Spanish Americans living in the USA. Today, Spanish is the second compulsory language in American schools at all levels from primary to tertiary.”
He continued, “The point I am making is that the government must realise that just like the Americans, French language has become strategic language for all Nigerians.
The French government came out with a startling revelation that the survival of French language and culture in this competitive global world is in Francophone Africa. Not in France. It is estimated that in the year 2050, Francophone Africa will be the biggest French-speaking region in the world. Nigeria, just like USA, must key into this strategic reality.
On how to embark on this expedition, he said, “The Federal Government must, as a matter of urgency, increase funding and recruitment of competent staff for the Nigerian French Language Village, (NFLV) Badagry, as the centre for training of different categories of French teachers; the French Language Project must be relocated from Abuja to Badagry, where facilities exist to train the trainers; the Nigerian government must discontinue sending French trainers to France as the huge amount made available for this purpose can be reinvested in NFLV, Badagry for better results.
“There are highly qualified and internationally recognised retired professors and professors in active service who can be deployed as consultants to NFLV,” the university teacher stated, adding that, “there must be a reintroduction of reading culture via literature to stimulate the teaching of French. Literature is the compulsory feeding bottle for those who want to learn French.”
Professor of English and Linguistics, University of Lagos, Prof. Adeyemi Daramola believes that enforcing the teaching of French is not only good, but also the best thing for us as a nation at this point in time because there is no language that one learns that is useless.
“Language is an essential attribute of human beings and its function is that of establishing of meaning. Our lives as individual cannot be realiseable if we don’t have meaning. And so, I am a functional linguist, and I want to say that it is the best thing that has happened to us. It is a good thing to make sure that our children begins to speak French because many French countries surround us. Internationally, France is very important and today globally,” he stated.
On the merit of getting Nigerian children to learn French now that most of them are not even conversant with indigenous languages, he said, “Linguistically, a child at 18 months should be able to speak a language, the mother tongue. But as the child grows, theoretically the child is able to learn as many as 10 languages combined, if the child is exposed to it. And so it is an error to think that we don’t need many languages.
“In fact learning French language will redirect our youth who don’t want to do anything. As a university teacher, I have realised that the young people do not have direction and they do not want to listen. They have been badly influenced by the rate at which people steal money in the country and so they want quick money. So I see it as a kind of redirection for our young people and it is good for them. It would not be a distraction from becoming whatever they choose to be in life. So, they could learn many languages at the same time, the inability of our young ones to speak their indigenous languages is the fault of the parents. So what the government should do, which they are not doing, is the revival of Nigerian languages.
The point I am making is that the government must realise that just like the Americans, French language has become strategic language for all Nigerians. The French government came out with a startling revelation that the survival of French language and culture in this competitive global world is in Francophone Africa. Not in France. It is estimated that in the year 2050, Francophone Africa will be the biggest French-speaking region in the world. Nigeria, just like USA, must key into this strategic reality
“Before I left Australia some years ago, Australian government devoted billions of dollars to reviving Australian aboriginal languages, that had as few as 20 speakers, and they succeeded. Researchers went out to record those languages and translate them and put them in archives for generations to see. So, we should encourage our local languages vis-à-vis the French language and English language.
On the availability or otherwise of teachers to implement this policy directive, he said, “You cannot learn a language properly if you don’t have native speakers of the language. Native speakers of French would be of tremendous help. So government needs to bring teachers of French who are native speakers of the language if we want to achieve maximum results.
“One thing government does not know is that you cannot learn a language properly if you don’t have a good teacher and a language laboratory. In developed world, a standard university, primary or secondary school has a language laboratory and speech therapy facilities.”
Director, Confucius Institute and Professor of English, at the University of Lagos, Prof Segun Awonusi, who described the linguistic orientation of the country as a trilingual situation, explained that the addition of French would change the situation to quadrilingualism.
“I do not think that quadrilingualism, which is the ability to speak four languages is necessarily the solution to our problems. I am a linguist, and I have argued this severally that it is not the solution. In the past, the argument has been ‘we need French because we are surrounded by the Francophone countries. But if you look at it, what is the basic language of commerce across frontiers in these countries?
“Most Yoruba people who invade the southern part of Togo and Benin Republic, are even using a form of Yoruba language known as Anago, and the point therefore is that even the basic language of commerce is hardly ever French. When they want to be friendly, they now even try to sound Anglophone than Francophone. So if that be the case, I am not convinced we need the burden of additional language to our kids, it doesn’t make sense to me.
“If you look at the volume of trade between Nigeria and Benin Republic in relation to volume of trade between Nigeria and Japan, why don’t we pick Japanese because we have a higher volume of trade with them. The argument about economic influence doesn’t make sense to me. If you are talking of the ECOWAS factor, which people have argued about, I don’t have a problem with ECOWAS having many languages just like the European Union (EU), which has quite a number, although some of them are now dubbed hegemonic. Those that are dubbed hegemonic are English, German and French. Surprisingly French is even a gradually receding language in international communication.
So what are we talking about French. Many more French men would rather learn English, than English men wanting to learn French. I am a socio-linguist, I deal with this, I have written on this, I have facts on this and I know what I am talking about.”
Awonusi, who says there was nothing really inappropriate in a Nigerian kid’s inability to speak French asked, “How many languages do we need a little kid to produce to make him feel a Nigerian? How many of you have felt that the absence of French in your lives has not made you to function effectively as Nigerians? The emphasis should be on our local languages. I would feel ashamed if I am in the midst of my people and I can’t speak our language, or I drive to the North and could not speak a little of their language.”
He continued, “In francophone communities, the whole idea is to make you a Frenchman, while in Anglophone communities, the idea is that, ‘yes you can share your common languages.’ And that is why they (Francophone communities) don’t trust us, even in the international community. They would rather work against us, whether at the level of the African Union, they are not likely to support somebody from Anglophone, because their system forces loyalty to France. Our system is not loyalty to Britain, but we have mutual respect for each other. That is the difference between basic Anglophone and Francophone communities.”
On whether he was worried that our native languages are going extinct? He responded, “Yes. I am a little worried about that. The interest should be what could we do to encourage more Nigerians and our young ones to pay attention to our local languages. There is need for a national linguistic reinforcement for kids who go to school in a monolingual society. Greater attention should also be on corpus planning to promote our local languages and government should place emphasis on reviving our local languages.