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‘Why teaching pupils in mother tongue may be impracticable nationwide’

By Onyedika Agbedo
25 February 2023   |   3:55 am
The idea to celebrate International Mother Language Day (IMLD) initiated by Bangladesh was approved by the 1999 UNESCO General Conference and has been observed worldwide since 2000.


Chris Uchenna Agbedo is a Professor of Linguistics and the Director, Centre for Igbo Studies (CIS), University of Nigeria, Nsukka. In this interview with ONYEDIKA AGBEDO, he speaks on this year’s UNESCO International Mother Language Day (IMLD), which was marked on Tuesday, February 21, the activities of the CIS in this regard and the proposed Medium of Instruction (MOI) education policy of the Federal Government, among other issues

How did the idea of IMLD come about?
The idea to celebrate International Mother Language Day (IMLD) initiated by Bangladesh was approved by the 1999 UNESCO General Conference and has been observed worldwide since 2000. Given its premium on the importance of cultural and linguistic diversity for sustainable societies, the world body sees it as within its mandate for peace to ensure the preservation of the linguistic and cultural differences that enhance mutual tolerance and respect among different peoples of the world.

The world’s languages are in the region of 7,000 languages with some languages better documented and more spoken than others. This discrepancy in terms of documentation and use portends real danger for the less-favoured languages, mostly minority group languages and indigenous languages of ex-colonial states of Africa, which are increasingly being haunted by threats of endangerment and outright extinction. This explains the premium being placed on the International Mother Language Day, as part of a larger initiative to turn around the dwindling fortunes of many linguistic communities and breathe life into their languages and cultural heritage.

How does this year’s observance intend to address the related issues of language endangerment and extinction?
It is in the light of the obvious threat to linguistic diversity occasioned by language endangerment that UNESCO chose ‘Multilingual Education – a Necessity to Transform Education’ as theme for the 24th edition of IMLD celebrations today. Multilingual education based on mother-tongue is intended to facilitate access to and inclusion in learning for population groups, whose L1 (first language) fall outside the majoritarian confines of dominant languages. These include L1 speakers of indigenous languages especially in ex-colonial Anglophone and Francophone countries of Africa and Asia, as well as languages of minority groups. This year’s IMLD celebration seeks to explore the extent to which potentials of multilingualism can transform education from a lifelong learning perspective and in different contexts.

The central theme flowers into three inter-connected sub-themes – (i) enhancing multilingual education as a necessity to transform education in multilingual contexts from early childhood education and well beyond; (ii) supporting learning through multilingual education and multilingualism in our fast-changing global contexts and in crisis situations including emergencies contexts; (iii) revitalising languages that are disappearing or are threatened with extinction.

How would you explain the IMLD to ordinary Nigerians?
The annual commemoration of the inaugural celebration held in 2000 began as a tribute to the Bengali Language Movement, which sought to recognise Bengali as the official language of present-day Bangladesh. Originally, the region, which was considered as part of East Pakistan, had large Bengali communities with distinctive language and cultural heritage, whose linguistic plights mirrored similar sour experiences of small linguistic communities around the global community. The story of state-sponsored mass killings of Bengalis during the 1952 Bengali Language Movement’s mass procession to draw global attention to their linguistic plights inspired the United Nations to designate February 21 as International Mother Language Day. The primary goal of this initiative is to save the world’s languages from extinction. Since its commencement in 2000, every international observance has been having a theme, with each year’s celebration incorporating new elements to educational efforts at preservation of indigenous languages and promotion of language learning.

What are those compelling reasons (if any) that informed the action that brought about IMLD?
International Language Day is important for a number of salient reasons. First, many of the world’s estimated 7,000 languages are currently at various stages of endangerment – from potentially endangered to terminally endangered or moribund. From the theoretical perspectives of Joshua Fishman’s Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale and Expanded Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale of P. Lewis & F. Simons for guiding the assessment of language endangerment and ethnolinguistic vitality of languages, most of the world’s languages face differing degrees of endangerment. Even when there are many spoken languages today, majority of them face threat of extinction either because many are no longer spoken or many have remained largely undocumented. This forms one of the primary motivations for this annual international observance.

Second, languages develop through interaction with others; today’s languages evolved into their current forms through this natural process; language preservation sustains the world’s rich and diverse linguistic ecosystem. Third, multilingualism is and has always remained the norm rather than the exception in most sociolinguistic contexts. This explains its growing popularity as a culturally rewarding experience in contemporary world.

What would you consider as specific actions, which language day observance entails?
One summative significant action in this regard is making conscious efforts at actualising the laudable objectives of IMLD. This may be in form of partnering with language and cultural centres, educational institutions, various levels of government, and NGOs to create awareness about the imminent danger, which tugs many languages in the face and the urgency of arresting the ugly situation. The best and most effective way to preserve a language and salvage it from the jaws of extinction is by institutionalising its practical use in terms of speaking and writing. It is said that a language lives and dies in the tongues of its speakers. It lives on if the owners speak it; it dies if the L1 speakers stop speaking and writing it. Beyond the L1 speakers, the commonality of humanity imposes a requirement on all human beings to strive to learn as many languages as possible. There is no better way to honour languages, which is the central motivation for the International Mother Language Day, than resolving to start learning at least, one today.

What role did your Centre play in marking the IMLD?
In the Centre for Igbo Studies (CIS), University of Nigeria for instance, our core mandate is to ensure the development, promotion and sustenance of Igbo language and culture. For us, IMLD presents another of such auspicious opportunities to sustain the advocacy for the speaking and writing of the Igbo language.

In light of this year’s central theme, which highlights multilingual education as a game-changer for transforming education, we envision the central role that CIS is positioned to play within the multilingual context of the University of Nigeria community. Apart from organising a one-day symposium on integrating Use of Igbo into the curriculum of School of General Studies programme of the university, part of the activities we embarked on to mark this year’s IMLD was a courtesy visit to the Vice Chancellor of the University, Prof. Charles Arizechukwu Igwe, as well as other sideline socio-cultural engagements in the Centre for Igbo Studies – all which were designed to advance the cause of Igbo language, literary and cultural studies in Igboland, Nigeria and in the Diaspora.

What is your reaction to Federal Government’s proposed Medium of Instruction Policy?
Well, in principle, I will consider it as a welcome development; nevertheless, I have my reservations about the policy concept, implementation and timing. The Minister of Education, Dr. Adamu Adamu, had noted that a National Language Policy for use in all primary schools across the country as approved by Federal Executive Council (FEC) stipulates that henceforth, instruction in primary schools, the first six years of learning, will be in the mother tongue. However, he added a caveat that the decision is only in principle for now because it will require a lot of work to implement. So, I will wait for the details of the policy, which the minister said his ministry is working on.

Nonetheless, part of the Minister’s statement that seems quite interesting is the objective of this policy, which according to him, is “to promote, and enhance the cultivation and use of all Nigerian languages.” However, I am cautious enough to hold my elation in check and to not stretch the policy’s anticipated merits beyond the limits of reason perhaps to the tempting point of burying reality in the pit of optimism.

How do you mean, sir?
The Minister did say that given that Nigeria has 625 languages at the last count, whereby the pupil is, the language of the host community is what will be used. Herein lies the linguistic conundrum. Take a typical classroom of a primary school in Warri for example whereby a population of 35 pupils is a mix of Itsekiri, Urobho, Igbo and Izon L1 speakers. Which of these languages would be taken as the language of the host community? Therefore, it is to the extent that similar language provisions in previous National Policy on Education (NPE) have hardly addressed the linguistic conundrum satisfactorily that I am tempted to view the policy from the hypocritical prism of ‘fulfilling all righteousness’ as depicted by the Imiryike proverbial lore – ‘Oryie Imiryike, azọ m gị’ (‘Oryie Imiryike market, here I come to transact business’).

Almost every successive administration in Nigeria has tinkered with the fundamental business of national language planning as if it were a gewgaw or gimcrack pastime that hardly deserved some measure of vigour and thoughtfulness. It beggars belief that a Buhari administration would wait till the twilight of its eight-year tenure before waking up so suddenly with a glib declaration of intent. This is however not peculiar to this current administration. Successive administrations since Nigeria’s independence have never been short of good-sounding policies; the problem has always been poor implementation strategies. It is either a case of policy somersaults/reversals driven more by a knee-jerk mindset that hardly reckons with the trajectory and possible merit(s) of its antecedence than a sound result-oriented one or not only a hare-brained and sappy but an ill-timed policy that has no place in good governance. But let me stop at that and avoid the risk of being accused of preempting the Federal Government. Discretion dictates that one takes refuge in the thorny comfort of late Bola Ige’s siddon dey look.