Yoruba Language as a tool for academic advancement

Lagos State Governor, Akinwunmi Ambode

Governor Akinwunmi Ambode recently signed into law a bill making Yoruba the language of instruction in all schools – public and private – in Lagos State, thus opening a new vista in the history of education in Nigeria. Head, Education Desk, IYABO LAWAL explores the intricacies of the daring step.

okan, eeji, eeta, eerin, arun (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)”, the schoolchildren recited excitedly after the teacher.

Soon, it was time for the multiplication exercise.

“Eeji lopo ookan je eeji; eeji lopo eeji je eerin; eeji lopo eeta je eefa; eeji lopo eerin je eejo…(2×1=2; 2×2=4; 2×3=6; 2×4=8)”the animated teacher read out the multiplication table in Yoruba.
The pupils – from various ethnic backgrounds – were thrilled as they repeated after their teacher.

As the bell rang for lunchtime, the kids chorused the exercises in Yoruba as they ran across the field to play under the noon sun.
The teacher felt proud about the new language of instruction and looked forward to the next class.

Recently, the Lagos State Government signed the bill, Yoruba Language Preservation and Promotion of Law into law. According to the Permanent Secretary, Lagos State Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture, Fola Adeyemi, the development represents a cognisant reflection of the position which the state prides Yoruba language as the cultural vehicle for articulate communication.

With the signing of the bill this year, the teaching of Yoruba language became compulsory in both private and public schools in the state. The law also mandates all state-owned tertiary institutions in the state to integrate the use of the language as a course unit into their General Nigeria Studies (GNS).

Not a few stakeholders in the education sector have praised the move by the Akinwunmi Ambode-led administration, noting that the law is vital to the preservation of Yoruba language, especially at a time when the language is almost going into extinction.

“The importance of language in any society cannot be overemphasised. Language serves as a strong means of communication in every society and as a vehicle of reaching every strata of the community.

“Therefore, the recent signing of the Yoruba preservation law by Governor Ambode signifies a signpost to the relevance of mother tongue in every society, regardless of adoption of foreign languages as bilingual, multilingual or lingua-franca,” Adeyemi stated.

Today, China has become a force to be reckoned with in the world and the permanent secretary pointed out that the impressive aspect about the growth of China is that as it grows across all sectors, its language, culture and tradition equally develop even beyond its borders. Take Mandarin (Chinese) for instance; it is becoming one of the world’s most spoken languages.

Promoters of Yoruba as a language of instruction in schools in Lagos have argued that it serves as a “catalyst for the promotion of the culture, custom and tradition that the language embodies”.
Encouraging parents and others to support the bold initiative, Adeyemi said, “The younger ones must be brought up to take pride in their language, culture and tradition. Our people should desist from seeing foreign languages as superior to indigenous ones. Living in a contemporary world where the rate of cultural influence and adaptation has become quite astonishing, diverse languages have found their ways into several parts of the world.”

Yoruba is unique and its variants are spoken across Cuba, Brazil, Republic of Benin, and Trinidad and Tobago.

“Our country is blessed with a very rich culture and heritage. This is the foundation on which all our social institutions and interactions are built. Unfortunately, we have neglected our culture and traditions to our own detriment. Our youth today do not have a strong appreciation of our history and how we got to where we are.

“Every society must cherish its historical antecedents because they serve as source of inspiration for succeeding generations to discover, appreciate and take pride in their identity. It has become very imperative that we take a step back and revisit our history. It has become important that we renew efforts to preserve and protect our history,” Ambode had said.

In January 2017, the Minister of Science and Technology, Dr. Ogbonaya Onu, announced what not a few parents and guardians had hoped for years would help schoolchildren to better understand what they are being taught in the class, when he said plans were under way for mathematics and science subjects to be taught in indigenous languages in primary schools across the country,

Onu had gone to Ekulu Primary School in Enugu to present computer sets and other science kits donated by his ministry. But his dream is beyond the kids being computer-literate or science-savvy; he dreams of a day when Nigeria can send scientists into space.
So, how will using indigenous languages make that possible?

“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,” Onu had affirmed.

Nigerians will have at least a reason to cheer that news because an information technology powerhouse like India had long before now adopted a similar strategy by teaching mathematics and the science subjects in indigenous languages at the primary school level.

But experts have noted that the government will have to first develop the vocabulary of the indigenous languages before they could be used to teach the subjects effectively.

For Onu and the Federal Government, that will not be a hard nut to crack as the Ministry of Science and Technology would collaborate with the Ministry of Education to develop the capacity of the local languages to serve as effective tools for teaching mathematics and science subjects.

Onu’s words re-echoed Prof Babatunde Fafunwa’s position that Nigerian schoolchildren should be taught at the primary school level in their mother tongue.

According to Fafunwa, educators and psychologists assume that Nigerian kids will easily switch from the mother tongue they grew up learning to a new language they are confronted with in school.

“The fact of the matter, however, is that the child’s cognitive equilibrium has been disturbed and this abnormal situation tends to retard the cognitive process. There is little or no continuity between the child’s home experience and his school experience – a situation that does not arise in Western countries where, in most cases, the child’s school experience is a continuation of his home experience and exposure,” the first Nigerian education professor had said years back.

Scholars have noted that concerning primary school dropouts in the country, 40 to 60 per cent is traceable to premature introduction of English as a language of instruction, poorly trained teachers and inadequate teaching and learning facilities.

The World Bank and the UNESCO’s studies on basic education have all indicated that children learn better and faster – eagerly – when instructed in their mother tongue.

Some studies further noted that countries that rank highest in the world in mathematics and science tests, as reported by Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), are usually those that pay more attention to teaching schoolchildren in indigenous languages.

But some questions have been thrown up concerning this cheering news: How will children be taught in a cosmopolitan city like Lagos with pupils from various ethnic backgrounds? What happens if a pupil has to move to another state and school where his or indigenous language is not being used? Despite the seeming challenges, experts feel the merits outweigh the demerits.

As noted by a professor of English and Linguistics at the United States International University, Nairobi, Kenya, Angelina Kioko, in countries where English is not the first language, many parents and communities believe their children will get a head-start in education by going ‘straight for English’ and bypassing the home language.

In Kenya, she stated, some learners in urban and some cosmopolitan settings speak and understand some English by the time they join school. But learners in the rural areas enter school with only their home language. For these learners, using the mother tongue in early education leads to a better understanding of the curriculum content and to a more positive attitude towards school.

She gave a number of reasons for that. First, learning starts at home not in school with use of indigenous language.

“Second, by using the learners’ home language, learners are more likely to engage in the learning process. The interactive learner-centred approach – recommended by all educationalists – thrives in an environment where learners are sufficiently proficient in the language of instruction. It allows learners to make suggestions, ask questions, answer questions and create and communicate new knowledge with enthusiasm.
“It gives learners confidence and helps to affirm their cultural identity. This in turn has a positive impact on the way learners see the relevance of school to their lives. But when learners start school in a language that is still new to them, it leads to a teacher-centred approach and reinforces passiveness and silence in classrooms,” Kioko argued.

She explained further that when learners speak or understand the language used to instruct them, they develop reading and writing skills quicker than when instructed in a foreign language like English.

Ibadan-based Executive Director, African Languages Technology Initiative, Prof Tunde Adegbola, said despite the advantages the use of mother tongue provides for every society, it is unfortunate that Nigerians prefer to communicate in English, a foreign language.

But Prof Ngozi Osarenren of the department of Education Foundation, University of Lagos (UNILAG) described the policy as backward and unfair and should be revisited for the progress and development of the sector in the state.

Osarenren, a counseling psychologist and erstwhile commissioner for education in Edo state said Lagos State has always been a pacesetter in so many areas and wondered the point the government is trying to prove with the new policy, which she described as backward.

She said,” Introducing Yoruba as the language of instruction in Lagos State schools is a very unfair policy, it is an attempt to take the state backwards. While as commissioner for education in Edo State, I replicated so many things from Lagos like the uniformed exam policy, which is still on till today.

But some scholars are of the view that a proper foundation should be laid out before indigenous languages become the medium of instruction for pupils in primary schools across the country.

They also urge the Federal Government to ensure that such innovation will be sustainable and will not be subjected to the political caprices of successive governments.

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