Bilingualism in education: the Nigerian experience re-examined Chuka Eze Okonkwo
Bilingualism is so complicated a phenomenon that one has the giddy feeling that in speaking of it one speaks of all things at once.
John Maenamara1 The nations of sub-Saharan Africa are faced with educational and linguistic problems on a scale quite outside the experience of most European countries within historical times. This is particularly so since most African children are expected to acquire the fundamentals of education in a language they do not understand. Hence, the failure of most education in Nigeria, particularly at the primary-school level, can undoubtedly be attributed to lack of communication or meaning-sharing. This article is one small part of a continuing exercise directed at pointing out the complexity of the linguistic problems facing Nigerian education.
Attitudes to language In the first place, in the process of undertaking one studyfl the present author was quite surprised to discover that less than 8 per cent of all
C h u k a Eze O k o n k w o (Nigeria). Principal lecturer in comparative education and co-ordinator of the School of Education, Alvan Ikoku College of Education (AICE), Orlu, Nigeria. Has written extensively on tn'lingualism, language policies and problems in Africa and education in Nigeria.
candidates of Igbo origin ~ who entered for the West African School Certificate (WASC) or the General Certificate of Education (GCE) examinations each year for the past ten years, included the Igbo language as one of their subjects. Secondly, in yet another study, the present author administered a test to t,zoo Igbo pupils in elementary six to find their attitudes towards the Igbo and English languages. 9 It was found that 93 per cent of the pupils said they prefered English to Igbo. All of them said their teachers and parents encouraged them to study English, while only 52 of them (4.3 per cent) said their teachers also encouraged them to study Igbo and 56 (4.7 Per cent) said their parents also encouraged them to study Igbo. In fact, 8o5 (67 per cent) of them said their parents taught them English at home as against 41 (3.4 per cent) who said their parents taught them Igbo at home. It is pertinent to note that 785 pupils (65.4 per cent) said their parents were literate in both Igbo and English; 2Ol (16.8 per cent) said their parents were literate in Igbo only; II2 (9.3 per cent) said their parents were literate in English only; while lO2 (or 8.5 per cent) said their parents were not literate in any of the two languages. In answer to another question, 95 per cent of the pupils said they would like all classroom teaching to be done in English. Again, all the 1,2oo pupils said they would not want the one hour per week officially alloted to the teaching of Igbo on the school time-table to be increased. In addition, all the pupils reported that their
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teachers encouraged them to speak English in class and discouraged them from speaking Igbo. In fact, some said that fines and other forms of punishment were imposed on them for speaking Igbo within the school premises. When the pupils were asked which of the two languages they spoke more regularly at home with their families, 903 (75 per cent) replied that it was Igloo, while 297 (25 per cent) said it was English. Finally, while 2o5 of the pupils (I 7 per cent) wish to read English up to the university level, only Ir of them (I per cent) want to read Igbo. The results of these attitudinal tests led the author into doing two things. First, I asked these pupils to list three of their most favourite school subjects in the order of preference. It was interesting to observe that not even one single pupil included Igbo among his three most favourite school subjects. This is against 253 pupils who listed English as their most favourite school subject, 23x of them listed it as their second-best school subject, while 225 of them listed it as their third best. Put differently, two out of every three pupils chose English either as their best, second-best or third-best school subject. 5 Secondly, I subjected the pupils to a battery of tests to find out which of the two languages is in fact their stronger language. The tests involved the pupils' ability to recall what they saw in both languages; story completion and completion of sentences and dictations in both languages. It turned out that in all three tests, the pupils performed far better in Igbo than in English.
within the child's imaginative cultural experience, whereas the tests in English, though taken from the child's classroom texts, contained some vocabularies which defined an abstract world that had no immediate appeal to the child. In fact, another study showed that there are not only differences in the conceptualization of events in the Igbo and English languages, but also that there are certain situational features which are functionally relevant to English language and culture but which are completely absent from Igbo language and culture, and vice versa. 7 This suggests that there may exist a situation of linguistic and cultural untranslatability between both languages; more so, since the structure of the Igbo sentence, the manner of its pronunciation, its linguistic associations and the flavour of each individual word are very remote from those of the English language. It is obvious therefore that the world expressed and implied in both languages are different, so also are the modes of thought and behaviour of people using them. It is not surprising then, that the children performed very well in Igbo tests and not so well in English tests in spite of the fact that teachers and parents would have preferred the results in the reverse order. Besides, the attitude of teachers and parents in encouraging the study of English and discouraging that of Igbo is quite understandable. It is an established fact that one of the primary objectives of colonial African education was to get the African to view the colonial language as the language of salvation, civilization and worldly success.8 In fact, while writing a report to the Church Missionary Society headquarters Language and cultural identity in London in i862 on the progress of education at Abeokuta (Nigeria), one missionary had The outcome of these tests were not unexpec- described English as r language which seems ted. An earlier study in which the present to raise the African person who is acquainted author analysed the content of school texts writ- with it in the scale of civilization'? It is not ten in English and Igbo revealed that there was surprising therefore that even today modernity such a wide gulf of difference between what and prosperity in Nigeria are only defined texts in each language taught that a change from through English and couched in terms that are one to the other as the medium of education by no means relevant to Nigeria. will inevitably involve also a change in content, e Moreover, i t is pertinent to point out here Following from this conclusion is the fact that that if any theme dominated the content of the the tests in Igbo dealt with a store of vocabularies English language curriculum to which Nigerian
Bilingualism in education: the Nigerian experience re-examined
children were exposed (and are still exposed), it was the reiteration of Nigerian imperfections. The course materials mainly exposed flaws in Nigerian ways of doing practically everything--from being parents, taking care of their babies, working and studying, tribal and ethnic conflicts and differences, to building houses, preparing food, thinking unscientifically and undemocratically and using outmoded means of transportation and trade. There is little doubt that this was deliberate and directed at undermining the confidence of the child in Nigerian cultural institutions and in the ability of Nigerians to progress, improve or change on their own. There is little wonder therefore that in present-day Nigeria, the more a young man sees himself as a man of culture, the less he will wish to be called a Nigerian. This probably explains why the Igbo child would want to convince himself that English is this stronger language even though he knows that the contrary is the truth.
surrounding bilingualism The implications of the fears expressed so far on the debilitating effect of bilingualism in Nigeria's educational system are obvious. Problems confronting children exposed to bilingual educational environments have been stated and restated several times over by researchers, theorists and educators in the fields of language and linguistics. For example, some researchers attributed the permanent phenomenon of innate inferiority said to have been exhibited by African children they interviewed or tested to, among other factors~ their inexperience with materials presented; the existence of a teaching system which fosters reliance on memory work and, the problem of language, since the tests and interviews were administered in a foreign language. ~~ In fact, Doob (I96I) insists that one of the greatest difficulties in interviewing Africans is the inability of many of them to report their own impressions~ feelings and even actions. They may be willing to provide infor-
mation but simply be unable to express themselves. Moreover, several intelligence tests and studies carried out in the United States from the early I92OS showed that bilingual children are intellectually inferior to their monolingual counterparts and, in addition~ often suffer from problems related to personality adjustment. ~1 And~ studies like those of Macnamara (I966, I967) show that bilinguals fail to reach native norms in either language. The reason for this is not far-fetched. The general experience in bilingual school environments is that instruction for the first two years is carried out in the vernacular. In the third year, there is an abrupt change-over to the foreign language medium. And, since it is not easy, as Verma (r974) argues, to learn a foreign language well enough to acquire the degree of ease, flexibility and effectiveness that will be necessary if it is to be used actively and creatively for all the various aspects of educationmclassroom instruction, reading books, answering question papers and writing original creative terms papers--pupils in bilingual school situations usually leave the primary school unable to express themselves in any of the two school languages. Furthermore, Twaddell's statement in favour of education given through the learner's mother tongue particularly at the primary-school level, is very pertinent. 1~ He is convinced that the native speaker of a language (including the native-speaker teacher) is unaware of the deep grammar--phonology~ morphology and syntaxmwhich he possesses and the extent to which the native-speaker child brings virtually complete, thoughtless mastery of the systems to school with him at the age of 6. The teacher's job in this situation is easy and merely concerned with the niceties of usage. To this Gaarder (i967) adds, 'usage~ nomenclature and orthography, whatever their importance, are of the surface alone since they merely serve as a sort of polish applied on top of the deep, thoughtless mastery which the native-speaker child acquired at home'. To children who are not native speakers of the language used as the medium of school instruction, the situation is different.
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Since they have no deep grammar in the language of instruction, there is no surface to be polished. This perhaps explains why Nigerian children in particular, and African children in general, in their first day at school are usually treated as tabula rasa. Their mastery of the official colonial language is negligible and cultural content of education imposed through that language is meaningless to them. It is not surprising, therefore, that after an X-ray of the problems of education in India, Ghandi (I962) complains that the use of a foreign language as the medium of education creates insurmountable difficulties for students. The result of such difficulties is that it takes about twelve years to obtain the matriculation certificate, and even then, the general knowledge acquired over the period is pitifully inadequate. Secondly, the students develop the habit of learning whole passages of required textbooks by heart. Thirdly, a foreign medium did not merely occupy time in the curriculum but limited what could be learned and how it could be learned. Views similar to Ghandi's were expressed earlier by Tagore (x96x) who saw the influence of a foreign language on the content of education as rather pernicious. Schools in culturally backward societies far from being integrated in the societies they are meant to serve, are imposed on them from the outside. The courses they teach are dull and dry, painful to learn and useless when learned. He maintained that there is nothing in common between the lessons pupils cram up from ten to four o'clock and the country where they live. No agreement but many disagreements between what they learn at school and what their parents and relations talk about at home. The schools, according to Tagore, are little better than factories. Put differently, Tagore simply says that education in a non-vernacular language does not merely generate all the difficulties of learning through the medium of a foreign language but imposes a wholly foreign education. Foreign, that is, to the culture of the child who is exposed to itusince education in a foreign language bears no relation to the objective
reality of the child's world. The books he reads paint no vivid picture of his home, and extol no ideals of his society. His daily pursuits of life find no place in those pages, nor does he meet there anybody or anything he happily recognizes as his friends or relatives, his sky and earth, his mornings and evenings, his cornfields and rivers. Education and life can never become one in such circumstances and are bound to remain separated by a barrier. 13 Sharma (I957), on his part, insists that no language can take the place of the mother tongue in education and no educational system can afford to disregard it without serious detriment to the mental and social development of the child. Thought and language go together as body and soul. One is dependent on the other for existence. They grow and decay together. The child thinks and dreams in the language that was used at the time he walked his way from the infant state to that of a member of a language community. This, naturally, is the mother tongue. And, for this reason, the mother tongue happens to be the first condition of schooling for the intellectual development of the child. To the views so far expressed, Resnick (I968, p. I7) adds that Ceducation in the mother tongue is important because it is one of the chief means of preserving whatever is good in native customs, ideas and ideals, and thereby preserving what is more important than all else: namely, native self-respect'. He goes on to state that no greater injustice can be committed against a people than to deprive them of education in their own language. Finally, biographical literature has shown that even within the smallest social u n i t u t h e family--the use of a foreign language in education erects a barrier between the student and his home. For example, Haugen (I956, p. 7o) quotes the Italian American Mangione as having commented as follows on the attitude of his mother to the English her children brought into the home: 'My mother took no notice of such childish snobbery. As long as I remained under her jurisdiction~ she continued to cling to her policy of restricting the family language
Bilingualism in education: the Nigerian experience re-examined
to Italian. " I might as well not have any children i f I can't talk to them," she argued.' The most interesting classroom experience depicting the situation verbalized in this article was narrated by Engholm (I965). She was teaching in a primary school where the habit of using the wrong tense was already ingrained in the pupils. While her lesson was going on, she noticed that a girl sitting at the back of the room was distracted and in trying to find out what the trouble was, she asked the girl: 'Noami, what are you doing?' This question immediately triggered off the conditioned reflex: 'I am sitting down.' Then the teacher retorted irritably: 'Don't be silly, I can see that. I want to know what you are doing.' At this point, a complete impasse of noncommunication was established and the teacher was forced to resort to asking the question in vernacular, where upon she immediately received an intelligent answer also in vernacular: 'I have lost my pen.' The significance of this experience is important for, it is clear that this pupil associated sense and meaning with the mother tongue, whereas only meaningless drills were associated with English. It is quite understandable then, why the Banjo Commission had deplored the teaching of English in Western Nigerian schools. The Commission's report observed, inter alia, that one of the most valid complaints has been in the standard of English acquired by the end of the sixyear primary course. The teaching of English is allocated no less than ten periods of the whole fortyperiod week for six years, but it seems that the standard which is reached by the end of it is very low.t4
Reflections and recommendations I have tried to say in this article that there is fit-de doubt that the systematic but frequently ignored differences between the language and culture of the school and the language and culture of the learner's community have often resulted in educational programmes with only
marginal success at teaching anything except self-depreciation. Whatever the circumstances, the educational and psychological consequences of bilinguaIism are often profound and longlasting. It is not surprising that one Algerian leader poignantly stated the problem thus: 'One feels in Arabic, thinks in Arabic, but one often expresses oneself in French. The danger is that the personality suffers from a disequilibrium which might become irrevocable.' Rather saddening is the fact that in one Igbo class I observed, the teacher ended up speaking English for most of the lesson. When I confronted him after the class as to why he did this, he explained that unless he did so, his pupils would not believe he was 'educated'. He said that there was a general tendency among the pupils to suspect Igbo teachers as those who could not make it in other more 'civilized' academic subjects. For how much longer this situation will persist is anybody's guess. However, if it is true as linguists and language educators claim: that a language influences the minds of these who use it and that consequently people using different languages classify their experiences differently and have different worldviews and outlooks; that all meaning is cultural and that any utterance is a message which the receiver has to decode culturally according to the rules of the language; that every culture has a typical personality which is characteristic and distinctive of that culture and which is produced or conditioned by the language of that culture; that a bilingual child hardly learns either of his languages as perfectly as he would have done if he had limited himself to one, and that the mental effort required to master two languages instead of one surely hampers the child's learning of other subjects; ~s that the bilingual child has two strings to his bow, both rather slack; that bilingual schoolchildren are most often behind their monolinguai contemporaries in language skills (reading, spelling, writing, etc.) in both their languages during their school career; and, finally, that there are more maladjustments among bilingual children and bilinguals generally than among mouolingual children and monolinguals, since, according to Christopher-
Chuka Eze Okonkwo
son (1973), 'the strain on somebody belonging and yet not fully belonging to two worlds, the conflict of behaviour and the stigma of inferiority that this situation engenders, brings about undesirable personality traits'; then, one Call only conclude that meaningful education can only be effected in the child's mother tongue. One recommendation is apparent from all the discussions in this article. It is that education in Nigeria at the primary-school level should be given in the child's mother tongue. I~ The importance of this recommendation cannot be overstated. For, apart from the reasons already stated above, bilingualism in Nigeria (and, in fact, in most countries of sub-Saharan Africa) is a one-way affair. The learner has no choice. He has to learn either English, French, Portuguese or Spanish. The vernacular languages are introduced in the early primary grades as a mere bridge to the eventual exclusive use of the colonial language. Thereafter, the vernacular is either completely removed from the time-table or just taught as any other school subject. One advantage of this recommendation is that it will be easy to recruit teachers for the schools who can teach in the vernacular. All that is necessary is that he should know the language and be able to read and write it well, otherwise, his educational 17 level is relatively unimportant. This is not the case with English or any other colonial language where a certain amount of formal education is necessary to avoid creating new languages like creole~ petit nkgre, or pidgin which will make communication and meaning-sharing between the teacher and the learner difficult. Secondly~ such a practice will help remove the psychological tag of inferiority currently placed on the child's mother tongue which is often accused of lacking certain kinds of technical vocabulary. Is In addition, it may help improve the present situation in which there is overemphasis and exclusive use of texts based on foreign environments which divorce the school from the reality of the child's home and community and build expectations in him for things that are far away. Put differently~ by
using the vernacular in primary education, it will be possible to use the child's environmental experiences directly both to organize the knowledge already acquired and help him acquire new knowledge. Thirdly, the use of the vernacular in the education of the child is a powerful means of enriching the language, thereby bringing about the birth of linguistic self-respect and cultural identity which will help destroy the disruptive influence of bilingualism. Finally, since the school life of most children ill Nigeria is short~ it is important that what schooling is received should be as effective as possible. 
Notes I. John Macnamara, 'Problems of Bilingualism', The Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 23, No. 2, April 1967, pp. 1-8, 121-35. 2. See ~Mixed or Single-Sex Schools: One National Priority :Re-examined', African Journal of Educational Research, Vol. 3, No. 2, December 1981. 3- T h e Igbo are the third largest ethno-linguistic group in Nigeria with an estimated population of about 15 million. 4. See 'Bilingualism and Bilingual Education: A Note to Nigerian Educators', paper presented during the Education Week at the Alvan Ikoku College of Education, Owerri, Nigeria, 17-21 May 1982. 5. It turned out that social studies (listed by 38I pupils as first choice, by 393 as second choice and by 372 as third choice) is the most favou.rite school subject~ followed by religious knowledge (which was listed by 285 pupils as first choice, 267 pupils as second choice and 294 pupils as third choice). 6. C. E. Okonkwo, 'Language in African Education: A Comparative Analysis of the Curricular Elements of School Texts', Buffalo, N.Y., State University of New York, Council on International Studies, 1979. (Special Studies No. lO9.) 7. See 'Educating the Igbo Child: T h e Language Question', Alvan School of Education Journal, Vol. 1, No. 2, October I981, pp. 79-89. 8. John Spencer (ed.), The English Language in West Africa, p. 13, London, Longman, 1971. 9. C. E. Okonkwo, ~The Igbo Language in Nigeria's Bilingual School Situation: An Historical Examination', 1982 (unpublished MS.). IO. See, for example, Oscar Ferron, CThe Test Performance of "Coloured" Children', Educational Research, No. 8, 1965, pp. 48-57-
Bilingualism in education: the Nigerian experience re-examined
I1. See V. J. Jensen, Bilingualism: Effects of Childhood Bilingualism (reprinted from Elementary English, February I962, pp. 132-43; April 1962, pp. 358-66), Champaign, IlL, National Council of Teachers of English, 1962. 12. W. P. Twaddell, CDoesthe Foreign Language Teacher Have to Teach English?', PMLA, Vol. 57, No. 2, May 1962, p. 2o. 13. R. Tagore, 'The Vicissitudes of Education (1892)', Towards Universal Man, Delhi, Asia Publishing House, 1961. 14. Western Region, Nigeria, Report of the Commission on the Review of the Primary Education System in Western Nigeria (Banjo Report), Ihadan, Government Printer, 1961. 15. Otto Jespersen, Language, p. 148, London/New York, Allen & Unwin, 1922. 16. What happens after primary school has been exhaustively dealt with elsewhere: see Okonkwo, 'Language in African Education.. 2, up. cir. 17. Defined in terms of the number of certificates possessed. 18. Prosper Abega, 'Langues africaines et d6veloppement', ABBIA, No. 4, January 1974, pp. 121-3o.
References CHRISTOPHERSEN,Paul. 1973. Second-Language Learning: Myth and Reality. Baltimore, Md., Penguin. DOOB, Leonard. 1961. Communication in Africa: A Search for Boundaries. New Haven, Conn., Yale University Press. ENGHOLM, Eva. 1965. Education Through English: The Use of English in African Schools. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. OAARDER, A. B. 1967. Organization of the Bilingual School. In: John Macnamara (ed.), Problems of Bilingualism: Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 23, No. 2, April, pp. 78-9o. GI-IAI~I, M. M. 1962. The Present System of Education. In: M. K. Ghandi (ed.), The Problems of Education. Ahraedabad, Nauajivan Press. HAIYGEN, Einar. 1956. Bilingualism in the Americas: A Bibliography and Research Guide. University, Ala., University of Alabama Press. (American Dialect Society Publication, 26.) MACNAMARA, John. 1966. Bilingualism in Primary Education. Edinburgh, University Press. MACI~AMARA,John. 1967. Problems of Bilingualism. The Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 23, No. 2, April. RESl~ICK, I. N. (ed.). 1968. Tanzania: Revolution by Education. Arusha, Longman of Tanzania Ltd. SI-IARMA, S. R. 1957. The Teacher of Hindi. Shiksha, No. 4, April, pp. i43-52. TAGORE, R. 1961. The Problems of Education (19o6). Towards Universal Man. Delhi, Asia Publishing House.
VERMA, M. K. 1974. English in Indian Education. In: A. Single and P. G. Altbach (eds.), The Higher Learning in India, pp. 268-75. Delhi, Vikas Publishing House, Pvt, Ltd.