A new policy for Nigerian languages in the country’s education system

Nigeria is home to more languages than all but two countries on Earth. Still, primary school students in the West African nation have been educated mainly in English for decades, even after the country gained independence from the British Empire in 1960.

That may be changing in the near future, though. 

Just a couple of weeks ago, the nation’s government approved a policy to make students’ mother tongue the primary language of instruction for students in all primary schools. The switch won’t be immediate though — with more than 500 indigenous languages (some counts even go as high as 625 languages), it’ll likely take a while for teachers and administrators to prepare themselves for the shift. Nonetheless, the policy has been hailed as an important step toward supporting and preserving the nation’s linguistic diversity.

“The government has agreed now that, henceforth, instruction in primary schools; the first six years of learning will be in the mother tongue,” said Adamu Adamu, the nation’s minister of education, according to a report from Sahara Reporters.

Nigeria’s official language is English, which is spoken by a little more than half the country’s population. The language’s status in the country is a remnant of its colonial history under the British Empire, which ruled over the country for about a century. The language becomes less common in rural areas, where languages native to the country become more prominent.

Details on the new policy have been fairly scant. While the Nigerian government has told the media that students in primary school will be instructed in their mother tongue until they reach junior secondary school, it’s still not entirely clear what timeline the government is working with. 

Previous policy on education states that students in monolingual communities shall be taught in their mother tongue for the first three years of primary schooling before switching to English, however many teachers report not having sufficient access to teaching materials in the local language. Transitioning to local languages as the medium of instruction then, will entail a major rehaul of textbooks and other materials to properly accommodate the new policy.

“Theoretically, this policy starts from today and the use of mother tongue is exclusive but we need time to develop the material, get the teachers and so on,” Adamu said.

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Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner is a writer from Sacramento. He received his B.A. in linguistics and English from UCLA and is currently working toward an M.A. in applied linguistics at Columbia University. His writing has been published in Language Magazine, Sactown Magazine, and The Takeout.

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