Odds against teaching sciences in local languages

By Eno-Abasi Sunday and Ujunwa Atueyi   |   02 February 2017   |   3:41 am

students-in-a-classroom-in-a-nigerian-schoolDays after the Minister of Science and Technology, Ogbonnaya Onu, said plans were afoot to commence the teaching of science subjects in the three major Nigerian languages as a way of helping pupils learn better, stakeholders say that lack of adequate indigenous language teachers and science teachers who can speak their indigenous languages, as well as the presence of children from diverse ethnic backgrounds in classes are some of the factors that would guarantee the failure of the initiative, write ENO-ABASI SUNDAY and UJUNWA ATUEYI.

At several fora, the idea of teaching pupils in their mother tongues has kept on reverberating over the years. The most recent being last Sunday’s submission by the Minister of Science and Technology, Ogbonnaya Onu, who hinted of plans to commence the use of indigenous languages in the teaching of mathematics and science subjects like physics and chemistry in schools in the country.

The minister while on a visit to Ekulu Primary School in Enugu, Enugu State, claimed that teaching students in Nigerian languages would arouse their interest in these subjects.

He said the ministry is worried about students’ loss of interest in science subjects, which it believes is due to the “foreign language” being used to teach.

“The Ministry of Science and Technology is worried over the low interest in mathematics and the science subjects, so, we are working on plans to teach mathematics and sciences in indigenous languages in primary schools. These pupils grow up with their indigenous languages at home before they start going to school, where they are now taught in foreign languages. So, we have observed that there is a challenge to understand the foreign languages first before they could even start understanding what they are being taught.

“We believe that this plan will help our students to understand mathematics and the science subjects, and also promote the application of science and technology for national development.

“No nation can become great without science and technology. If Nigeria is to be great, then Nigerians must embrace science and technology. You can’t produce anything without science and technology. We are exporting our jobs by importing everything we need, and that is why our graduates are no longer able to get jobs after their studies,” Onu said.

He added, “For us to build the country of our dreams, for us to make Nigeria a truly great nation, a nation that is able to feed and house its citizens, a nation with a stable currency, we must embrace science and technology. It is my duty as the minister of science and technology to make Nigerians to understand this,” Onu stated.

If this plan sees the light of day, Nigeria won’t be trailblazing in this regard on the continent. In April 2015, Tanzania became the first sub-Saharan country to revert to its indigenous language as the primary medium of communication in its educational system, when the government of President Jakaya Kikwete, announced that Kiswahili, better known as Swahili would henceforth be the primary language used in schools in that country.

That step was part of an ongoing plan by the country to upgrade its educational programmes, in an effort to better prepare Tanzanian youths for the future.

Since its independence from Britain in 1961, public education in Tanzania has been bilingual as elementary school pupils are taught in Kiswahili, and English language is included in the curriculum.  At the secondary school level, and throughout the collegiate level, roles are reversed, with English becoming the primary format.

The new development, however, brought some semblance of clarity to a system that, for many years created a lot of confusion among many students, as they failed to excel in either language.

The Global Partnership for Education, which supports 65 developing countries to ensure that every child receives a quality basic education, prioritising the poorest, most vulnerable and those living in fragile and conflict affected countries, also support teaching kids in vernacular.

In an article on the issue titled: “Children Learn Better in Their Mother Tongue,” the body said, “Many linguistic groups are becoming vocal about the need to ensure that the youngest members of their communities keep their linguistic heritage. Some governments, such as in the Philippines, have recently established language-in-education policies that embrace children’s first languages. A compendium of examples produced by UNESCO (2008b) attests to growing interest in promoting mother tongue-based education, and to the wide variety of models, tools, and resources now being developed and piloted to promote learning programs in the mother tongue.”

For Professor of English at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN), Enugu State, Sam Onuigbo, teaching science and technology subjects in vernacular is a very lofty idea, but like all lofty ideas, the practical aspect and results are not as easy as envisaged for a number of reasons.

“It won’t be easy to implement what the ministry wants to because a number of scientific concepts cannot be captured in indigenous languages. Some mathematical equations have these formulas that cannot be translated easily into indigenous languages. And like these mathematics formulas, many of the scientific formulas are fixed, and because they are fixed it will take some time and effort to devise indigenous representations of these formulas. And any attempt to do a fast one will distort and destroy relevant information that are embedded in these scientific formulas.

“Again science is more or less a universal language, which computer has tried to amplify and place in different other languages, but if you notice, attempt to represent these science information in other languages, which are even more widespread than our indigenous languages have not been easy to achieve,” Onuigbo said.

He added that, “That is why computer language is more or less in English language, attempt to represent it in French, German, Chinese, or any of this other growing world languages have not yielded much fruits. And if we have not been able to capture this scientific movement and computer innovations in any of these well-known languages, I doubt how easy it will be for us to capture them in our own indigenous languages.

“My position therefore, is that while this is a very lofty idea, it needs sometimes, efforts, researches and of course a committee to devise these concepts in our indigenous languages and agree on the representations so that whenever such codes are used, teachers of indigenous languages will know that we are making reference to this or that, otherwise any movement without these landmark arrangement may not yield much fruit.”

Head of Department, Educational Foundations, University of Lagos, Prof. Ngozi Osarenren, is of the view that the initiative is going to be very difficult to get off the ground because we do not even have enough indigenous language teachers in our school system. “So who will do the translation of those scientific algorithms and formulas?

The major problem we have in the education sector is that everybody feels he/she is an expert in education without thinking things through. You need to think things through; you cannot use indigenous language to teach science because no matter the level, it is not going to work. For instance, I’m very fluent in Ibo and Efik languages, but I don’t know the equivalent of folic acid in these two languages that I speak.”

She regretted that it is only in the education sector that non-experts are always saddled with the task of running the show, while other less sensitive ministries still manage to get people that are conversant with those ministries.

Professor of Biochemistry, University of Benin, Prof. Jerry Orhue, is equally pessimistic about the workability of the idea. He questioned: “How are they going to teach science and technology subjects in indigenous languages when majority of those who are going to teach do not even understand their indigenous languages. It is laughable, and that is the truth.

“This is the same thing they did during the 6-3-3-4 system when Introductory Technology was introduced, and machineries worth millions of naira procured without training technologists or artisans that would use them. Those things were locked up in cartons and were never used. At the end of the day, those equipment were stolen.

“This is very much similar as they always wake up one morning and formulate policies that don’t have direction. For instance if they say they want to teach science subjects in Edo language, the person going to teach does he/she understand Edo language, the children you are going to teach do they all understand their indigenous languages?

Insisting that the government has not addressed the real issue, Orhue added, “Majority of our science teachers do not even understand their indigenous languages. When you come to a school were you have pupils of Ibo, Hausa, Yoruba and Edo origin in class, how are you going to teach in such a class? Are you going to teach basic science in Edo or Ibo? What happens to those who are non-Ibo and vice versa?

“So, for me it is a futile exercise. They should channel that energy into ensuring that it works best in the language that we all understand. Right now, even the teacher who teaches my children Edo language in school, does not even understand the language well enough because I end up doing a lot of corrections at home as an Edo man. So how do you now expect a teacher who teaches in English language to now translate what he taught in English to vernacular? It won’t work.”




  • Benjamyn

    Kai! There’s no problem teaching science in indigenous languages. First of all let’s start it casually in the country community schools. It should not be a mass project and it should not be done in the city schools.
    Besides I am the first person to talk about this mode of teaching! This age group of leaders are slow.

  • Marianne Aaron

    If terminology has been developed, it is now time to train the teachers of some model schools in rural areas where these languages are spoken most. They need to learn how to use the mother tongue to teach, because one can teach much more efficiently in the mother tongue than in English. For example, the students can express themselves better in their language and can explain by themselves what they have already observed in their environment. So teachers should not continue to teach them as though they do not know anything yet. The use of mother tongue makes it possible for students to be much more active learners and for teaching to be interactive. This makes for much better learning, which the students can more easily use in their lives, rather than just cramming it for exams! Then, together with these teachers, instructional books need to be developed in these Nigerian languages!

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