In fairness to the succession of policies and policy makers in the Nigerian Educational System over the years, so much has been said and done about the terrible state of our schools, the low quality of our graduates, the alarming structures of our institutions as well as the complex, disorderly and intricate nature of our learning curriculum. But sadly! No one is talking about one fundamental fact. It is the fact that to get the best out of our educational system - we must go back to the starting point.
The starting point is what Late Babs Fafunwa, the erstwhile Minister of Education described as â€˜Learning and Teaching in our Mother Tongue'. Fafunwa's contention was that colonial education robbed the Nigerian child of his inventiveness, creativity and originality. He argued that since the Nigerian child is forced to think in English, other than in Hausa, Igbo and other local languages, the child finds it hard to assimilate instructions easily and build manual dexterity effectively.
Certainly, Fafunwa's proposal made enormous sense. It made sense not only because education is best acquired through the Mother Tongue as many research have concurred, but because in its initial phase - our adoption of â€˜Colonial English' to teach in our education system lacked practical basis. Psychosocially, teaching in English at the expense of our local languages if not a misconceived idea must be morally unfair and mentally unjust to our innocent school kids.
In Western Europe as well as a major part of the East â€“ most, if not all countries teach many of their school curriculum in their Mother Tongue. In Japan, China, Brazil and many progressive countries around the World, basic Education is equally taught in the Mother tongue.
As was once noted by Fafunwa, research also shows that teaching children in their native language helps to rapidly uncover the child's innate talents and abilities, discourage drop outs and boost self esteem. It is the culmination of all these factors which translate into intrinsic motivation which makes education a worthwhile experience.
Although Fafunwa's vision and his spirited pitch for Mother Tongue education have not come into fruition in our national system. But today, his fears and concerns are still haunting our educational system. Year on Year, student's performance in SSCE and NECO are getting worse. The rate of truancy (reported and unreported) is becoming uncomfortably high; our primary and secondary school kids most often lack sense and originality in their thinking while the qualities of our graduates are evidently unattractive and off-putting to many prospective employers.
Recently, I exchanged chats with a manager of one top Nigerian firm that came to London to recruit. I asked why his company would prefer to spend tens of thousands of pounds coming abroad to recruit Nigerian Graduates when there are thousands of graduates in Nigeria who are unemployed. Besides, if he recruits in Nigeria, he won't have to spend millions of Naira helping the new employees to relocate back home for their new roles. His answer was straight and uncomfortable, but it was the truth.
He replied that, Nigerian graduates are sometimes very good, "but you hardly find the good onesâ€¦where you find them - they often lack some very important skills which we want as employersâ€¦what we want is that - can do attitude, innovative thinking, interpersonal qualities and transferable aptitudes which would help us to achieve better performance as a firm".
Exploring the roots of this typical low-quality of Nigerian Graduates tells us of course that corruption, incompetence and maladroitness rule our world, more practically; these vices rule the world of our policy makers, educators, academia and tons of stakeholders. But while most of these factors are acknowledged to be the barriers to the attainment of standardized and qualitative education in Nigeria's system, the top dog is our omission and consistent oversight of the starting point.
The starting point is the recognition that our local culture, heritage and language cannot be superseded by another culture or language in our own learning curriculum. It is the strong acknowledgment that our heritage, tradition, nature, science, literature and others are best learned and appreciated in our own natural way. The starting point is the appreciation that spontaneous flexibility, curiosity and manipulative ability can all be best developed amongst our kids if our basic education system is designed with our mother tongue in mind.
In 2009, German researchers find that Babies cry in their Mother tongue. Their research shows that in babies bid to imitate their mothers from the womb, they adopt her melodies, intonation, sounds and sensitivities.
Kathleen Wermke who led the research suggests that "the spectacular aspect of their finding is that not only are infants capable of producing various cry melodies, but they prefer to produce those melody patterns that are typical for the ambient language they have heard during their foetal life".
That said, it's also been concluded by many research that after maturity from infant to childhood, the natural and instinctive method of learning does not only continue amongst children â€“ it is indeed the best way for them to learn about their environment, culture and everything that has to be learned in and around their surroundings.
That being the case, this natural method of learning through instinct and instructions from infant to childhood should therefore be extended to the pre-elementary and primary schools simply because - it will encourage kids to learn naturally, spontaneously and explicitly. Besides, why should children take instructions at school in English and at home revert to their Mother Tongues. Development studies from the UK as well as the World Bank have shown that language gaps between home and the school contributes to the erosion of talents and the depreciation of knowledge.
In bridging such gap and in providing sound experiential and experimental support to the Mother Tongue debate, Fafunwa initiated and led the Ife Six â€“Year primary school project which used Yoruba as its main language. The project hypothesised that children who graduate after six years would build very effective cognitive, social and linguistic ability through the use of their Mother Tongue than others who have been taught in â€˜Colonial English'.
For the purpose of the project, an experimental and a controlled group were established. In the experimental group, all subjects and instructions were taught in Yoruba with English as the second language. In the controlled group, Yoruba was used for all instructions for the first three years, while English was used in the last three years.
After the sixth year, both the controlled and the experimental groups were made to partake in the same common entrance examination as every other pupil in the state. Overwhelmingly, the results showed that pupils in the experimental group performed better in all subjects including English than those in the controlled group.
This means that Mother Tongue plays a huge role in leaning and comprehension than English or any borrowed language.
Apart from Fafunwa's six year project which shows positive support for Mother Tongue Education, scores of research also shows that to nurture the best pupils who will later become students and professionals in life. Instructions at the very early stage of education must be given in Mother Tongue.
In Nigeria, strings of seminars, symposia and lectures are conducted year upon year on improving Nigeria's Education System but it does seem that the debate about Mother Tongue is dead. Surely, whether it is dead or not, the fact still remains that to revive and bring back sanity into the system, to develop, nurture and recognise talents who will build the Nigeria of future â€“ we must simply launch a New Debate about Mother Tongue.