Adamu’s policy on language of instruction: A wrong step, By Joseph C. A. Agbakoba

Recently, the Minister for Education, Adamu Adamu, announced a new language of instruction (LOI) policy for public primary schools, which will be implemented some time in an undetermined future – and rightly so because it is what one may refer to as a split-discontinuous policy: a policy that does not provide for a single-continuous language of instruction from primary to tertiary levels of education.


Over the decades, language nationalists have been canvassing for a policy like this. They have said that pupils in primary schools learn better in their mother tongue. This may be true, but they have not studied the effects of discontinuity of LOI on pupils at secondary and tertiary education levels, and nations that have tried this policy have run into different types of troubles. Some have reaped no apparent benefits and one such nation has reversed itself, returning to a single-continuous LOI.


Apparently, split-discontinuous LOI jeopardizes further learning at the higher levels of education where a different LOI is forced on ‘language shocked’, inadequately prepared students. Adamu’s LOI policy has this as well as other challenges which are not adequately addressed by its current provisions and which would warrant its withdrawal or indefinite postponement. Let us explore, debate and fine-tune them a bit.


First, what will states with multiple indigenous languages do? How will they avoid the language and cultural imperialism of the majority language(s) in their states and consequent linguicide of minority languages. Perhaps, such states would have to turn to pidgin but this does not seem to be the intended consequence of promoting Adamu’s policy.


How will non-indigenes, who are temporarily in a state for some reason or the other (such as public servants or other employees on tours of duty or transfer) school their children in public schools, if they have to learn a new language to the required level of competence before they can fit into an appropriate class or grade level?


And, what then will happen to such pupils if they have to do this every two or three years because their parents or guardians are frequently transferred to other offices within a state or around the federation. I have some personal experience of such movements, which I need not recount here.


Further, beyond these implementation issues, we find the real problems of learning, its measurement, evaluation, application and value. How will children manage ‘LOI shock’: how, for instance, will children who have learned in their mother tongue and vernaculars sit for unity school entrances in English and perform well and if they manage to pass, how will they cope with lessons in English with classmates who have been schooled in English from their kindergarten days? What levels of learning loss on account of LOI discontinuity are we looking at here? This policy might well be a recipe to exclude the children of the poor from good and further post primary education. This is precisely the outcome of a similar policy in Malaysia: LOI for public primary schools is Malay. The effects on further education for the children of poor caught in these schools is not good. Consequently, anyone, who can afford it, wants good secondary and tertiary education for his/her child or ward, sends them to private schools.


India, seeing the effects of a similar policy on education has reversed itself, bringing back English as its LOI. Split-Discontinuous LOI is apparently not good for further education, whatever its value in primary education. How then will Nigeria not learn from the experience of ex British colonies like herself? Only a fool fails to learn from the experience of others in a similar situation.


Besides, what Nigeria needs today is to move from rote learning to creativity – the bringing forth of new ideas and innovations based on truth, functionality and aesthetics in all areas of life; from knowledge production in the sciences, philosophy and humanities to technology, human organization, art, et cetera.


Creativity can be learnt in any language: this is a major lesson we get from Singapore. When the great Lee Kuan Yew became Prime Minister of Singapore in 1965, he made English the language of instruction (LOI) to the chagrin of Chinese language nationalists, who wanted Chinese to become the LOI following independence from Britain. This was part of his internationalist approach to development. He wanted Singaporeans to fit into the global economy well and competitively. Today, Singapore has been consistently at the top of pupils’ performance in STEM globally, while Malaysia, her much bigger neighbor lags very significantly.


Further, and more importantly, Singapore is a veritable hub of creativity – innovation and all – which can be seen in her home-grown patent records. In ten years, 2012 to 2021, Singapore, with approximately 5 million people, registered 3836 local or resident patents. Comparatively, within the same period, Malaysia with approximately 32 million people, registered 4940 local patents; Nigeria, with 211 million approximately, has only 522 local patents. Ethiopia, never colonized, with the sort of LOI policy that Adamu seeks to implement, a population of approximately 118 million, registered just 5 patents in the 10 years under consideration. There is a problem with creativity in Africa generally but the figures from Ethiopia seem to show that split-discontinuous LOI makes it worse.


The chief objective of education policy in Nigeria and Africa generally should be bolstering creativity via critical and creative thinking in education as well as problem solving, imaginative works, et cetera. And as already indicated, this can be learnt regardless of language; because it is an attitude and operation of the mind, first and foremost (which can happen in any language).


Ngugi wa Thiong’o, one of the earliest fundamentalist language nationalists in Africa, has tried to show how creative thinking in a non-native tongue is circumscribed (in the arts, particularly literary arts, I would say, even though he doesn’t speak of limits to his claims as such). I am inclined to agree that creativity in the literary arts may be a little more difficult in a second language but ‘a little more difficult’ does not mean impossible and the problems here can be solved by getting the second language to do what the author wants it do, and thereby transform the second language in accordance with local tastes and desires as Chinua Achebe suggests. This is what African writers of modern literature have been doing, and Nobel prizes and other awards can be found among their ranks. Ngugi, himself, has after keeping to his oath of writing in only his native Gikuyu for quite some time, returned to auto translating his Gikuyu works to English in order to reach a wider audience, showing at least the need for mother-tongue level proficiency in English, which happens to be the nearest to a global lingua franca in our age.


More importantly, however, is that this is a problem in literary arts mostly, which should not be treated as a problem for creativity generally. A bit of history might help us see this well. For about a thousand, seven hundred years, Latin was the lingua franca of western and central Europe; more than a thousand years after the death of the Roman Empire that spread this language. Education was done principally in this language and people were creative in Latin across board regardless of their native tongues: from St Augustine of Hipo in North Africa, to Albertus Magnus of Cologne, St Thomas Aquinas of Italy, William of Ockham, Roger Bacon, Francis Bacon (all of England), Copernicus(Polish/German), Galileo (Italian), Descartes (French), Newton (English); the German polymath, Leibniz wrote his main works mostly in Latin and French, not his native language German; Erasmus, a Dutchman, wrote in Latin and Greek; et cetera. Great and small scholars: artists, philosophers, scientists all worked with Latin, yet their creativity was not circumscribed and indeed the natural philosophers of this age working in Latin invented the greatest epistemic gift to the human race so far, namely, the ratio-scientific epistemic orientation and the scientific method, creating the scientific revolution.


It is important to note that while the literary people of this age were already writing in their native languages from an early stage, as seen with Geoffrey Chaucer (which is a nod to Ngugi), the philosophers and budding scientists were working in Latin and general education was in Latin and to a lesser extent Greek. It is also important to note that what people like Leibniz show with regard to our context is that the change of LOI should begin at the top, with great scholars writing in their preferred vernaculars thus generating the needed works at the summit of the education processes first, not with regulations for primary education, which will lead to difficulties when it comes to higher education.


We have since independence got many things wrong partly on account of jaundiced or fundamentalist nationalism (a type of bitter nationalism that wants to throw everything of colonial origin away without regard to present and future value or the possibility of adaptation, et cetera). I hope that the minister is not driven by such sentiments directly or indirectly. He has shown that he is not pleased with his work as a minister (due to run-ins with ASUU, in part at least, I suppose). However, this new policy of his might well be his biggest problem. I should think that it requires deeper interdisciplinary studies, which would also be comparative, looking at similar policies and their effects in other lands.


Last, but not the least, as a way of testing and maintaining the sincerity and sense of responsibility of the designers and implementors of this policy, including the minister, involved officials have to be made to send their children or wards to these vernacular public primary schools whenever they are willing to implement this split-discontinuous LOI. It is always a good test of sincerity and responsibility to get public officials to live by their policies.


When Harriet Harman, a minister in Tony Blair’s Labour Government in the UK, sent her children to private schools against the public image of the Labour Party (as the party of workers and the lower classes), she was made to resign immediately. I hope that Nigerians will insist that the public officials who designed or support this policy will walk the talk personally or resign – or otherwise pay adequately.


Agbakoba is a professor of philosophy at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.







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