Taking intelligent advantage of foreign languages

Once upon a time, there was deliberate and concerted effort by both states and the Federal Government to teach French language in secondary schools. That was a time when education was given prime treatment and policy and funding. The money was not as huge as was experienced later, when oil revenues yielded surplus, but the little that was available was put to good use. The teaching of French language was encouraged, with subsidies paid to those who take up the language as major course at higher education. Students of foreign languages generally were encouraged to travel for internship in countries of native speakers, in order to gain more expertise.

But after a while, interest in French language and other languages waned and it was no longer a major subject in schools. Expatriate teachers were no longer encouraged to come into the country and teach. The case for French was really sad, for a country that is surrounded by French speaking countries of Cameroon, Niger and Benin Republic. Chad and others in central Africa also speak French. The gains for Nigeria as first projected in the first republic were meant to be enormous, both politically and in commerce. Imagine a Nigeria of today where majority are good in French just as they are in English language. Imagine the influence to be garnered among ECOWAS neighbours and in the international community, where bilingualism and multilingualism have yielded great advantage in global commerce and international bureaucracy. But policy summersault and refusal to fund education generally have been the bane of advancement in all spheres.

The same policy flip-flop and parochialism is what has been demonstrated, with the controversial new education curriculum put in place by the Nigerian Educational Research and Development Council (NERDC). As is usual with the bureaucracy, undue secrecy over matters that require public debates and inputs from stakeholders is what has put the NERDC on the defence as the body struggled without much success to explain what the new curriculum is all about and douse the ethnic and religious tension the debate has generated.

The rumour that the Federal Government was enthroning a new education curriculum to give upper hand to Islamic religious study, against Christian religious study gained traction early 2016, but very little was done on the part of policy makers to explain the details. At that time, the polity had not degenerated to what it is now, where ultimatums are being issued for some Nigerians to return to their places of origin. At that time, there was still hope that President Muhammadu Buhari has come to do justice to Nigeria, to address old sentiments and biases that combine to frustrate national growth and development.

It was no less a man than Cardinal Olubunmi Okogie, the Archbishop emeritus of Lagos who drew public attention to certain rumour that emanated from the education ministry, to the effect that the new curriculum was about to be adopted.

In the piece titled; We Are Watching: The Education Curriculum, the clergy, well distinguished in his bluntness and forthrightness way back in April 2016, narrated what he gathered from the rumour mill. He started by saying that the manner the country is configured allows for all manner of stories and suspicions to be generated and circulated. He said: “We live in a country where the rumour mills work relentlessly and unceasingly, a land where conspiracy theories are never in short supply. There are rumour in the air that a new curriculum of basic education is either about to be adopted, or has already been adopted by the Federal Ministry of Education, and that it is already being implemented.

“It is said that this curriculum, with the stated intention of merging religion and national values, merges subjects like Christian Religious Studies, Islamic Studies, Civi Education, Social Studies, and Security Education into one compulsory subject; that this compulsory subject will be taught to our children from Primary 1 to Junior Secondary School 3, that our young and impressionable minds will be taught in this compulsory subject that Jesus neither died on the cross nor resurrected; that all the children to be taught this subject would be required to memorise and recite the Quran; that they (children) will be taught or are being taught already that they may disobey their parents if they do not allow them to become Muslim.”

The clergy proceeded to imagine that these were articles peddled by mischief-makers and warned of their capacity to be destructive, especially with the bourgeoning social media. But he equally warned of the damage to be harvested should some persons in government attempt to author a curriculum in the manner that was rumored.

He said: “If indeed such a curriculum is being implemented or is about to be implemented then its authors and executors should seriously consider its implications. It would be gravely imprudent to present Islam to a Christian child in ways that devalue Islam. In same way, it would amount to grave disservice to interreligious relationship if Christianity were to be presented to a Muslim child in ways that devalue the teachings of Christianity.”

That was April 2016. Today, those scary details that were rumored to be in the new education curriculum seem not to be there anymore, or maybe they have been watered down because of the flag raised by the eminent clergy and others. What has become the bone of contention is the study of Arabic language and fears that it would enhance propagation of Islam and give undue advantage to adherents of that religion, while Christians and persons of other religions would be shortchanged.

These fears are heightened due to past experiences, whereby each religion and ethnic group works very hard to use state machinery to procure certain advantages in favour of their religions. Since the collapse of regional governments, centralization of administration and policies has enthroned actions that tend to forcefully redistribute talent and resources. Religion that was properly addressed as a private concern in the Constitution finds its way back as the single most important determinant of state policy. In other words, policies are deliberately skewed not to foster growth and expansion of knowledge, but to gain religious advantages. That is how the military administered the country for decades and that is where we are still.

Otherwise, having Arabic language as a major course is a good source of knowledge for Nigerians of all religions. There is great deal of scholarship to be derived from knowledge of the Arabians. Great philosophers of Arab origin have influenced Western knowledge and science and that should have very little to do with religion. The Chinese are spending resources to teach their language all over the world, not as a tool of imperialism, but to be part of global inclusion. They want to facilitate commerce and expand their economy. Many Nigerian languages are going extinct and world language bodies are raising resources to help conserve them. What has NERDC done about them? What programme of action does NERDC have in place to enable Nigerian businesses take advantage of Arabic language to explore the Middle East, apart from enhancing practice of Islam?

We have seen enough of educational policies that did not enhance our science and technology. What have we gained from the 6,3,3,4 system and the advantages of middle level technical skills it promised? What about the Nomadic education policy, for which budgets are still raised as of today, yet, farmers and herdsmen are fighting everywhere? How far have we consolidated on teaching WAZOBIA?

The language of science and technology is not about religion; it is not Arabic, it is not Chinese. It is not even English. It is in the amount we invest in education and research. Lagos State is encouraging teaching of Chinese, for knowledge and competitiveness in global space. Those who work very hard to stifle knowledge on the basis of religion are not doing themselves any good. They will not go anywhere, but could succeed a while to hold others back.
We can take advantage of all languages and be proficient in them. But let religion remain where the constitution has consigned it.

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