Teaching sciences in local languages
A Federal Government which is yet to reverse falling standards in education at all levels in the country is on the march again: It has announced plans to teach science subjects in local languages.
Minister of Science and Technology, Ogbonnaya Onu who disclosed the policy thrust while presenting mobile science kits to the pupils of Ekulu Primary School, in Enugu, explained that research had shown that the use of foreign language in teaching the sciences was responsible for the low interest in the subjects. According to the minister, the research carried out by his ministry indicated that a child who lives with his or her parents in the first five years was not likely to understand science and technology subjects taught in foreign languages. His words: “Teaching our children in foreign languages would create a serious challenge, especially when they had become familiar with the indigenous languages while living with their parents.”
Onu had then hinted that it might be necessary to review the curriculum and that would deal with the challenge of low interest. The new plan has received an instant support from many who have noted that advanced countries got their priority right in this connection, and developed because they had a sustainable policy on science and technology education. This is time.
This newspaper has consistently supported any policy that would enhance education quality at all levels but there should be proper planning and execution of the new plan on science and technology education. Germany, China and Japan are global economic powers that science and technology have propelled and their education up to university level is codified in their local languages. They only have some tertiary institutions where courses are taught in English within their jurisdictions.
Specifically, research has consistently shown that learners benefit from using their home language in education in early grade years. In most African countries, the language of instruction is English or French, and some learners in urban and some cosmopolitan settings speak and understand some English or French by the time they enroll in school. But learners in the rural areas enroll 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.
First, learning does not begin in school. Learning starts at home in the learners’ home language. On starting school, children find themselves in a new physical environment. The classroom is new, most of the classmates are strangers, and the centre of authority (the teacher) is a stranger too. The structured way of learning is also new. If, in addition to these things, there is an abrupt change in the language of interaction, then the situation can get quite complicated. Indeed, it can negatively affect a child’s progress. However, by using the learners’ home language, schools can help children navigate the new environment and bridge their learning at school with the experience they bring from home.
Second, by using his or her home language, a learner is more likely to engage in the process. The interactive learner-centred approach – recommended by all educationists – thrives in an environment where learners are sufficiently proficient in the language of instruction.
But when learners start school in a language that is still new to them, it leads to a teacher-centred approach and reinforces passiveness in classrooms. This in turn suppresses young learners’ potential and liberty to express themselves freely.
A crucial learning aim in the early years of education is the development of basic literacy skills: reading, writing and arithmetic. Introducing reading and writing to learners in a language they speak and understand leads to great excitement when they discover that they can make sense of written texts and can write the names of people and things in their environment. Research in Early Grade Reading (EGRA) has shown that pupils who develop reading skills early have a head-start in education.
It has also been shown that skills and concepts taught in the learners’ home language do not have to be re-taught when they transfer to a second language. A learner who knows how to read and write in one language will develop reading and writing skills in a new language faster.
In other words, use of the learners’ home language at the start of school also lessens the burden on teachers, especially where the teacher speaks the local language well (which is the case in the majority of the rural schools in multilingual settings). Research has shown that in learning situations where both the teacher and the learner are non-native users of the language of instruction, the teacher struggles as much as the learners, particularly at the start of education. But when teaching starts in the teachers’ and learners’ home language, the experience is more natural and less stressful for all. As a result, the teacher can be more creative and innovative in designing teaching/learning materials and approaches, leading to improved learning outcomes.
In the main, the use of learners’ home language in the classroom promotes a smooth transition between home and school. It means learners get more involved in the learning process and speeds up the development of basic literacy skills. It also enables more flexibility, innovation and creativity in teacher preparation. Using learners’ home language is also more likely to get the support of the general community in the teaching/learning process and creates an emotional stability, which translates to cognitive stability. In short, it leads to a better educational outcome.
Certainly, language is deeply connected to notions of culture and identity, and the language children are taught in can often reflect broader societal inequalities. Being taught in a known language is a key component of quality education for all learners – from the very early stages right through to adulthood. Early education in the mother tongue can prepare children for school and foster foundational skills, such as literacy and critical thinking, which are proven to significantly increase learning later on.
All told, governments at all levels need to set about enacting policies that recognise mother tongue learning, and – crucially – finance the implementation. This task will be costly and complex. There’s a need for more trained teachers from linguistic minority groups, teachers who can teach in more than one language, and textbooks in a language students can understand. While this may take time and gulp huge resources, the social, political and economic cost of maintaining the status quo should not be ignored.