On a forum of classmates from college, someone posted a video of a Professor who wants children to be taught in their native language. Some parts of the video were well thought out and she had some empirical facts to back up why such a method may be better. Listening was a big chore though as she spent a lot of time speaking in a language I do not understand. She also missed the point that some people have English as their first and only language.
I prepared a short WhatsApp type message to pass my points across but found out I needed a lot of background information sent first and ended up writing this article on my thoughts concerning language usage and cultural issues in Nigeria.
A. Yoruba people expect everyone to speak Yoruba.
The Yoruba, Ibo, and Hausas come from an Empire background. What we call Yoruba are a collection of people most of who did not even speak Yoruba or were called Yoruba until recently. What they had in common was being under a central empire with one overall culture which spread to subdue the individual cultures of the different people.
The people we call Hausas are mostly a collection of small pockets of tribes and ethnicity who use Hausa as their language for trade and administration. The Ibos never had an empire but were very close and have very similar cultures across all the city states.
What most of these hegemonies do not realise is that the people from the Delta and South Eastern Nigeria, never were under one empire and each community was almost autonomous with their language, culture, and religion. Communication with others was for trade and there was no expectation for the others to use a common language or come over to their culture.
While the Igbos will expect you to speak Ibo within Iboland, they adapt very fast to whatever culture or language they find themselves operating in, this is mainly business-driven though as traders need to understand the language and culture of their customers. This adaptation does not mean they will practice the culture or be subsumed by it though, it is purely a means of understanding and improving their business advantage.
The National Youth Service Scheme has really helped open up people to other cultures, and a combination of the Federal Government Colleges and firms with a National coverage has made people leave their comfort zone and open up to other regional cultures and way of life. You can see a big difference between people who have been part of these change agents and others who have not left their town since birth. Well, most times!
B. People from big groups do not have to mix with outsiders
The second part and key difference is that for the smaller cultures, they had to mix with people who did not understand their language and culture ON A DAILY basis.
A typical Yoruba, Ibo or Hausa state dweller, can go about life for years with absolutely no need to interact with a person of a different culture.
And that applies even today!
If you grew up in Ibadan, everyone around you spoke Yoruba, you went to a school where all the teachers spoke the same language and you and the teacher understood each other with spoken and non-spoken cues. Life was simple and everyone knew their place and what was expected of them.
If you grew up in Port Harcourt, you and your best friend in Primary School are not likely to understand each other apart from using English. You are exposed to different food, ways of greeting and absorb the fact that people are different organically.
C. Empires have critical mass
Growing up in one of the big blocks means that you observe a critical mass of people doing things ONLY ONE WAY and this colours the people’s thinking towards believing that is the only way.
One way of exchanging greetings
One way of worship
One way of marriage ceremonies
A key one is the concept of naming convention, it was a big struggle for me to understand why my friend named Biola was also Ade, hmmm, and that both were short forms of much longer names. And why people had multiple first names. Seeing as almost everyone I met had this same handicap, I accepted it and found out later why. The reverse of someone accepting my own naming convention was hilarious. Till now, I have people lecturing me on why I am wrong and that I should go home and ask the elders about our naming system. All based on them assuming all naming conventions have to be like theirs!
D. Default action is the safe choice
When faced with options, people default to what they know. Thinking about strange alternatives is tasking, and the human brain is designed to conserve energy and go for familiar choices. Actively considering other people’s opinions, culture, and choices and comparing them with yours is hard work. It is easier to default to yours as the gold standard and make others change to it!
Enough background, now, back to the video.
Prof Sophie Oluwole spoke about education in Nigeria, the importance of educating children in their mother-tongue, the real meaning of education and issues around assessing intelligence. I watched the video to the end but lost some of the key explanations where she switched into Yoruba. My original assumption was that the video was discussing Nigeria as a whole but tracing the video back to its original creator , my understanding is that it is for a Yoruba audience! I will still go ahead and discuss it in the context of Nigeria since both the producer and the Professor addressed it as if they were discussing issues relating to the whole country.
I like the concept, I support the use of our languages and really hate listening to people mixing more English into their speech that the language they are speaking. I do have a few challenges seeing how it will work.
i. How will this apply to areas that are multicultural and multilanguage?
Rivers, Bayelsa, Delta, Akwa Ibom, Benue comes to mind. These areas have multi languages living in the same place.
What about areas in the majority belt that have other people living and schooling in that do not understand the local language?
In Singapore, children are required to learn Chinese and Malay in addition to English, so learning multiple languages is doable if you have the infrastructure to support it.
ii. Language evolution
Most of our languages stopped evolving right after being conquered. How many new words have entered your language that you have documented? How do you explain basic concepts in your local language?
Take for example the concept of time, while you can say 1130am in most of our languages, it is meaningless.
iii. Competent teachers
Being a teacher is not just being a subject matter expert. At the lower levels, Primary and Secondary School, a single teacher has to understand a wide range of subjects well enough to teach the children. A primary school teacher needs knowledge of basic reading and writing plus basic science and arts. A primary school teacher will have to explain agriculture one day and migration of animals another day.
With all these though, I remember I was taught sometimes using Efik in Primary 2 and 3 and it was a good experience, so I have first-hand experience with being taught in local languages. Improving the use of local languages and making them more robust will help us all and preserve a lot of knowledge that are hard to translate or lose a lot in poor quality mapping to the dominant English (Or French as the case may be)
But going forward, we should improve competencies in English and make use of it as a medium of instruction given our present realities. While instructions in other languages look good, the person will ultimately have to learn and use English if they are to be part of the general populace outside their core region.
If a region wants to revert to using the dominant language in that region for instructions at schools, then actually set up a system for doing this and capture non-native dwellers. And local language instructions goes beyond just using the language in school, a system for using the same language in day to day transactions is required so enable the language to evolve and adapt.