Mother tongue in education

If we want children to learn, we must teach them in the language they play with, think with, and communicate with on daily basis.

Children learn their first lessons from their mothers. This ranges from speaking the first ‘sensible’ words to being able to express themselves or ask for their needs. Language is the tool for this self-expression. It builds up naturally and gradually. The mother does not need to sit the child down and ask it to learn. The child just learns. Through daily communication, bonds are built, self-confidence grows, simple commands are given and obeyed, and daily routines are followed all because of the use of a common language.

The school is supposed to be a place where children continue the learning process already initiated at home. However, for most Nigerian children, coming to school is a nightmare because they are barred from speaking and learning in the language they have used ever since they were born.

The school is presented to the Nigerian child as a place where they have to drop the ‘old yoke’, that is, the home language, and learn a new language in order to fit into the system. This, apart from disorienting the child somehow breaks the familiar bonds: parents who cannot speak the school language are made to ‘hands up’; they can no longer participate in teaching their child – even when it comes to the simplest concepts that pertain to their daily lives and experiences. The child is also barred from speaking the mother tongue as English becomes the new normal. Self-expression, thinking and every other act that flowed freely and naturally become a herculean task as the child tries to do so in an unfamiliar language. Going to school becomes the same as learning a new language and years that ought to be spent learning the curriculum contents are rather spent learning a new language.

My work, which is a research, will make a case for the use of children’s mother tongue in education. From my earlier works, I realized that this is a complex area of study in Nigeria due to the highly multilingual context in which the schools operate and the politicization of the language policy. In spite of those complexities, I would like to present a clearer picture of what goes on in typical Nigerian classrooms. Through this, I would like to draw attention to the fact that teaching in an unfamiliar language, that is, English, will continue to harm the Nigerian child.

Eucharia Okwudili Ugwu

NigeriaUniversity of Ibadan