Adamu on language of instruction: Wrong step forward
Recently, the Minister for Education, Adamu Adamu, announced a new language of instruction (LOI) policy for public primary schools, which will be implemented sometime in an undetermined future – and rightly so because it is what one may refer to as a split-discontinuous LOI policy: a policy that does not provide for a single-continuous language of instruction from primary to tertiary levels of education.
Over the decades, language nationalists have been canvassing for a policy like this. They have said that pupils in primary schools learn better in their mother tongue. This may be true, but they have not studied the effects of discontinuity of LOI on pupils in secondary and tertiary education levels, and nations that have tried this policy have run into different types of troubles, have reaped no apparent benefits and one such nation has reversed itself, returning to a single-continuous LOI.
Apparently, split-discontinuous LOI jeopardizes further learning at the higher levels of education where a different LOI is forced on ‘language shocked’, inadequately prepared students. Adamu’s LOI policy has this as well as other challenges, which are not adequately addressed by its current provisions and which would warrant its withdrawal or indefinite postponement. Let us explore them a bit.
First, what will states with multiple indigenous languages do? How will they avoid the language and cultural imperialism of the majority language(s) in their states and consequent linguicide of minority languages. Perhaps, such states would have to turn to pidgin but this does not seem to be the intended consequence of promoting Adamu’s policy.
How will non-indigenes, who are temporarily in a state for some reason or the other (such as public servants or other employees on tours of duty or transfer) school their children in public schools, if they have to learn a new language to the required level of competence before they can fit into an appropriate class or grade level? And, what then will happen to such pupils if they have to do this every two or three years because their parents or guardians are frequently transferred to other offices in the federation or even state. I have some personal experience of such movements, which I need not recount here.
Further, beyond these implementation issues we find the real problems of learning, its measurement, evaluation, application and value. How will children manage ‘LOI shock’: how, for instance, will children who have learned in their mother tongue and vernaculars sit for unity school entrances in English and perform well and if they manage to pass, how will they cope with lessons in English with classmates who have been schooled in English from their kindergarten days? What levels of learning loss on account of LOI discontinuity are we looking at here?
This policy might well be a recipe to exclude the children of the poor from good and further post primary education. This is precisely the outcome of a similar policy in Malaysia: LOI for public primary schools is Malay. The effects on further education for the children of poor caught in these schools is not good.
Consequently, anyone, who can afford it, wants good secondary and tertiary education for his/her child or ward, sends them to private primary schools, where English is the LOI. India, seeing the effects of a similar policy on education has reversed itself, bringing back English as its LOI. Split-Discontinuous LOI is apparently not good for further education, whatever its value in primary education. How then will Nigeria not learn from the experience of ex British colonies like herself; only a fool fails to learn from the experience of others in a similar situation.
Besides, what Nigeria needs today is to move from rote learning to creativity – the bringing forth of new ideas and innovations based on truth, functionality and aesthetics in all areas of life, from knowledge production in the sciences, philosophy, humanities to technology, human organization, art, et cetera.
Creativity can be learnt in any language: this is a major lesson we get from Singapore. When the great Lee Kuan Yew became Prime Minister of Singapore in 1965, he made English the language of instruction (LOI) to the chagrin of Chinese language nationalists, who wanted Chinese to become the LOI following independence from Britain. This was part of his internationalist approach to development. He wanted Singaporeans to fit into the global economy well and competitively, as bilinguals, with mother-tongue level proficiency in English for studies, research, business and work, and mother-tongue level proficiency in Chinese for home and other aspects of daily life – he himself is an example of the success of this type of bilingualism.
Today, Singapore has been consistently at the top of pupils’ performance in STEM globally, while Malaysia, her much bigger neighbor lags very significantly. Further, and more importantly, Singapore is a veritable hub of creativity – innovation and all – which can be seen in her homegrown patent records. In ten years, 2012 to 2021, Singapore, with approximately 5 million people, registered 3836 local or resident patents. Comparatively, within the same period, Malaysia with approximately 32 million people, registered 4940 local patents; Nigeria, with 211 million approximately, has only 522 local patents.
Ethiopia, never colonized, with the sort of LOI policy that Adamu seeks to implement, a population of approximately 118 million, registered just 5 local patents in the 10 years under consideration. There is a problem with creativity in Africa generally but the figures from Ethiopia seem to suggest that split-discontinuous LOI makes it worse.
To be continued tomorrow
Joseph C. A. Agbakoba is a professor of philosophy at the University of Nigeria.