In a rare show of solidarity, university teachers on almost all campuses of both public and private universities throughout the country have rejected a ministerial proposal that science be taught in three indigenous languages commencing at primary school level.
Describing the move as a waste of resources and a diversion from the real causes of poor performance in science-oriented courses, they argue that while indigenous languages are a necessary feature of society, particularly in the dramatic and visual arts and music, the English language is a driving force in a competitive global economy.
Although there are hundreds of languages and dialects in Nigeria, the official language of the country is English. As in all post-colonial countries the language issue is a source of ongoing debate.
The proposal around teaching in indigenous languages was sent to universities by Dr Ogbonnaya Onu, minister of science and technology, in collaboration with Mallam Adamu Adamu, minister of education. Their request was that universities develop models making use of three Nigerian languages as media of instruction for science and technology in schools.
The request was motivated by a waning interest in and commitment to science and technology amongst school children and students, deemed by the ministry to be the result of being taught in foreign languages.
“The Ministry of Science and Technology is worried about the low interest in mathematics and in science subjects. So we are working on plans to teach mathematics and sciences in indigenous languages in primary schools… We believe that this plan will help our students to understand mathematics and the science subjects and also promote the application of science and technology for national development,” Onu was quoted by local media as saying.
According to the working paper sent by the Ministry of Science and Technology to the universities, it is hoped that pupils taught in Nigerian languages would be more likely to continue to pursue science courses at university level.
While the vice-chancellors have formed committees of experts to commence work on the language project as directed by the science and technology ministry, there is a strong consensus amongst academics that the fundamental cause of a growing lack of interest amongst students in science and technology cannot be attributed to the medium of instruction.
“The minister is correct that there is a dwindling interest in the study of science and technology in our schools.
"There are two main causes of this malaise. They are inconsistent education policy and dwindling resource allocation to education in general,” said Dr Toyin Enikuomehin, lecturer of computer science at Lagos State University.
Enikuomehin said science education was at its zenith in the sixties and seventies when the University of Ibadan produced science graduates who were among the best in the Commonwealth.
“In fact, it was in the seventies that Ogbonnaya Onu, the [current] minister, graduated with a first-class honours degree in chemical engineering at the federal University of Lagos. In other words, there was consistency in science education and also consistency in the funding of education.
"How is it that the same minister, a beneficiary of the golden age of education in Nigeria, now proposes the establishment of indigenous languages as the ultimate solution to the crisis facing the teaching of science and technology in our schools?” he asked.
On the issue of funding Dr Adewale Suenu of the department of history and international studies at Lagos State University noted that since the discovery of oil and gas, funding of science education and education in general had paradoxically dwindled in Nigeria.
Suenu said Nigeria should emulate the South Korean model of educational investment. While Nigeria and South Korea were at the same level of development in terms of education funding in the 1960s, this had since changed.
“Today, the story is different. While South Korea invests over 50% of her annual budget in education and vocational training, Nigeria invests less than 4%. Consequently, South Korea is among the biggest economies in the world, while Nigeria is known as one of Africa’s oil producing and exporting nations.
While South Korea imports crude oil and gas from Nigeria, the latter imports industrial goods from South Korea. These are the contrasting consequences of different approaches to funding education and vocational training in both countries, he said.
In addition to the problem of a lack of financial investment in education, academics point out that there is no agreement on the ministry’s choice of Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba as the three languages to drive the study of science in Nigerian schools.
“We live in a multiparty democracy and there must be a referendum on the choice of languages to be used to drive science and technology. The imposition of any language without any democratic referendum will be resisted. I am Urhobo, one of the viable ethnic groups in the oil-producing Niger Delta region and my choice must be democratically respected,” said Alex Kemute, a postgraduate student at the University of Port Harcourt.
Even if agreement were to be secured on the languages to be chosen, there remain other challenges.
Sam Onuigbo, professor of English at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka said scientific and mathematical concepts were difficult to capture in indigenous languages.
“Some mathematical equations cannot be easily translated into these Nigerian languages. With regards to mathematical formulae… it will take some time and effort to devise indigenous representations. And any attempt to do a fast one will distort and destroy relevant information that is embedded in scientific formulae.
"Again, science is more or less a universal language… Attempts to represent these pieces of scientific information in indigenous languages have not been easy,” he said.
There is also the challenge of having adequately trained teachers. Jerry Orhue, professor of biochemistry at the University of Benin, who is not optimistic about the workability of the minister’s ideas, said many of the country’s science teachers do not themselves have mastery over their indigenous languages.
Receive UWN's free weekly e-newsletters