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Using Nigerian Languages


Science and technology are a sin qua non to the development of any modern nation. Science forms the bedrock for technological take-off. In another vein technology can be seen as applied science. While science studies nature and seeks meaningful explanations to natural phenomena, technology deals with the application of such knowledge obtained through science in order to make life more comfortable for man. Knowledge of principles, facts and processes in biology have been applied in agriculture to produce high quality food in large quantity for the ever increasing population of the countries in the world as well as in the medical field. Similarly, knowledge of chemistry and physics are basic to engineering and its allied fields. This illustration has been made for the purposes of showing the relationship between science and technology as day-to-day experiences show that engineering is applicable in the various scientific fields - biological, chemical, physical, etc., - and even in agriculture and medicine too. Thus, a good grounding in science is necessary for technological take-off. Japan has become one of the world acclaimed leaders in the production of electronic equipment. This is not just an accident of history but it is the result of a well-planned and implemented science education programme.
The influence of the United States of America on the technological advancement of Japan notwithstanding, Ogunniyi (1986) has identified two very important factors for her present technological status. These are (i) the existence of an intellectual tradition and (ii) the presence of an enlightened political leadership.
He went on:

By mid-eighteenth century small private schools known as "tera-koya" (i.e. temple house because the classes were usually held in Buddhist temple) were established. Here both adults and children (particularly the lower social class) learned how to read and write. To the masses, education was the gateway to freedom, social justice and development. One can imagine a situation as described above in which adults and children (mostly from the rural areas) sit down together to learn how to read and write.

In what type of language will such a heterogenous group be taught? Of course, it is has to be in the mother tongue or language of the immediate environment which is common to the young and the old. Under this condition, it will be easy to understand the process of science (Olarenwaju, 1986) and hence application of these processes of science to solve problems confronting man will not be too difficult. Evidence from the Second international Science Study showed that Japanese primary school children came first in primary science among the countries of the world with the Nigerian pupils coming last (STAN, 1992). Bamgbose (1987) observes that: most technologists in that country (Japan) were taught right from their youths in their own language and hardly would one find an average Japanese on their street who understands English. This seems to establish the fact that science and technology can flourish in language other than English. Similar technological break-through in Brazil, Taiwan, Holland, India, China, Russia, France, Germany (the nations don't speak English as a national language and yet have developed scientifically and technologically) bear eloquent testimony to this fact.

There are two major roles that any national language can play. It can feature as a subject in the school curriculum and also as the medium of instruction in other subjects (Awobuluyi, 1992). It is in the latter sense that language is being used here. Such language therefore, verbal or nonverbal is a means to an end. It is used to communicate ideas, thought, events etc.,from one person to another. For the language to be useful the person to whom it is spoken should be able to internalise it and understand the message which is central. To the extent that he cannot express his thoughts or ideas neither can he understand most of the messages passed to him through that medium, then such a language can be deemed to be of limited or no use to the person. Imagine what will happen if that person is forced by circumstances to learn another subject matter in this language! Scientific and technological developments are in currency all over the world and any language (like any nation) that fails to acknowledge this fact and thus develop capacities to absorb scientific terms, concepts and expressions is doomed to obsolescence. Such language will gradually phase out. English language, for example has been able to accommodate scientific terms that are of Latin and Greek origin in addition to inventing other words to meet the demand of scientific development. Such invented words include infra-red, ultra-violet, ultrasonic, supersonic, ultra-modern, anabolic, katabolic (catabolic) intracellular, extra-cellular (Savory, 1967).
There are many words, expressions etc., which were not hitherto known in English langauge but have been incorporated and widely used as a result of its contact with science langauge. Thus it can be said that language can be learnt through science and technology. A similar chance for development as is described for English language can also be made to come the way of the three Nigeria major languages i.e, Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba. These languages, including Igbo, the least developed of the three (Okonkwo, 1983), have capacities for assimilating words, terms and expressions from other languages and other cultures. In Yoruba langauge, for instance, there are such words as redio, komputa, suga, baluu or oko ofurufu, keke, biro, rula, which were originally unknown in the language which are now in relatively common use because of the influence of modern technology.

In many developed countries of the world, children are afforded the opportunity of learning science in school at all levels in their mother tongue or the language of the immediate community. In Nigeria, however, the situation is different. The National Policy on Education (1981) stipulates that the mother tongue of the child should be initially used as a medium of instruction in the early years (first three years?) of his primary school and subsequently English language should be the medium of instruction. This is probably based on the assumption that a child of nine years (assuming that he starts schooling at six) should have acquired enough knowledge and competence in English language which will enable him to use it as a medium for learning other subjects. This assumption may have been based on the premise that a child of nine years should have mastered enough of the mother tongue to the extent that such mastery can positively influence his learning of English langauge in subsequent years (Awoniyi, 1974). Or better still, there is evidence that when a child is properly grounded in the mother tongue, he stands a better chance of understanding another or foreign language. The Ife Six Year Primary Project (Fafunwa et al., 1989) clearly bears this out. The situation, therefore, is that the child has to start learning science in English language right from the primary school. Throughout his stay in the secondary school, English langauge is the medium of instruction. This is inspite of Unesco's(1953) action that using any other language other than the mother tongue as a medium of instruction damages the development of the child "whose personality and ability should be integrated with the society to which he belongs" (Okonkwo, 1983s). English language is probably introduced at such an early age in order to ensure that the standard of written and spoken English of students is relatively high. Reports have, however shown that the students neither do well in English language nor in science, technology and mathematics when results of the GCE `O' Level conducted by WAEC are considered. On English language, Aboderin (1986) writes: "An analysis of available results from 1964 to 1972 reveals that the percentage of candidates who gained distinction or credit fluctuates between 19% and 24% while more than 30% of the candidates failed in the English langauge examination each year. The distinction credit pass fell to about 16% in 1979 while more than 50% failed. Available reports for 1983 to 1985 also show that performances range from 5.14% to 14.49% at distinction/credit level while failure range from 59.08% to 82.49% as shown in Table I.

Table 1: English Language Results in the GCE `O' Level Examination May/June 1983-85

Year Total No. % of pass with % of pass and % of fail
credit (1-6) and above (1-8)

1983 355.163 10.96 34.24 65.75

1984 398.767 14.49 40.91 59.08

1985 463.567 5.14 17.50 82.49

Source: 2nd meeting of the Nigeria Examination Sub-committee Page 20, February 25, 1986 (Okanlawon, 1987). The poor performance reached its lowest ebb in 1985.

The situation is not in any way better in the science technology and mathematics as shown in Table 2 where performance reached a very low level of 4.13% in Chemistry in 1990, 8.76% in mathematics in 1989, 8.89% in mathematics in 1983 and 8.93% in biology in 1983. It is worthy to note that students performance in biology, chemistry, mathematics, physics and technical drawing does not show much consistency but continues to fluctuate over the years.
The condition of students' performance in English language, subject as depicted in Table 1 seems pathetic. The percentage level of performance was below 50%. It was only in 1982 that 60.08% of them passed at credit level. The cumulative effect of students deficiency in English language coupled with the deficiency in understanding scientific processes, principles, concepts and terms has resulted in what Bakare (1979) called "Cumulative Deficit Syndrome", Eke (1986) further explained: It is believed that scientific concepts, terms and thinking are difficult enough by themselves and the fact that Nigerian children have to learn these in a second or third language confounds the problem. The pitiable side of the problem is that the enforcement of English language as a medium of instruction has probably contributed immensely to making Nigerian students perform woefully in examinations both in English language as a subject and in the sciences thereby making them jack of all trades, masters of none.

The situation described above is redeemable if conscious efforts are made towards teaching the science and technology subjects in students' mother tongue. Such a venture will not only help students to understand the mother tongue and English language better, as Awoniyi (1974) has argued, but will simplify their problem in learning science and technology in that they will have to learn the content of the subjects rather than first contending with the medium of instruction.
Reference to the Ife Six-Year Primary Project is also very relevant here. Fafunwa et al. (1989) assert that evidences abound that the products of the project who turned to technical pursuit have proved more resourceful than their counterpart from other schools whom they met on the technical plane. They went on: "The Six-Year Primary Project children have demonstrated greater manipulative ability, manual dexterity and mechanical comprehension all of which they had acquired at the primary school level through mother tongue as the medium of instruction". Peoples' arguments against the use of Nigerian languages as media of instruction for science and technology centre around the point that scientific terms cannot be expressed in these languages. It is pertinent to state here that Nigerian three major languages - Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba and even others not mentioned - have vocabularies for some scientific words, terms, concepts etc. which are comparable to the language of some other parts of the world.
For example in Yoruba, there have been some attempts (Fafunwa, 1975, Alabi, 1976, Bamgbose, 1984, Olanrewaju, 1988, 1991a) to develop scientific words in Yoruba through borrowing, coining and changing the coverage of words in addition to finding out some words in Yoruba which can be effectively used in science. Olarewaju (1991b) has also shown how expressions in Yoruba can be used to enhance the learning of science and technology in schools. Savory (1967) presented a sample of comparative scientific nomenclature in the following languages: English, German, Swedish, French, Spanish and Italian. An attempt is made in this paper to add the equivalents of some of these scientific words in Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa languages as shown below:

Copper Kupfer Kopper Cuivre Cobre Rame Kupa Kopa Azirfa
Gold Gold Gold Or Oro Oro Wura Olaedo Zinare
Iron Eisen Jam For Hierro Ferro Irin Igwe Rarfe
Lead Blei Bly Promb Plomo Piombo Leedi Igwearo Darma
Mercury Queck Kuick Mercure Mercuric Mercuric Makiuri Mekudri Zaiba
Silver Silver Silver Argent Plata Argento Fadaka Olaocha Tasa

Chalk Lehm Krika Creie Creta Creda Efun Nzu-edmede Alli
Clay Lehm Lera Argile Aroilla Argilla Amo Uro Tabo
Glass Glas Glas Verre Vidrio Vetro Diigi Ugugb Galaabi
Marble Mermor Mermor Marbre Marmol Marmo Mabu Okwutenchulomma
Salt Salz Salt Sel Sal Sale Iyo Nnu Gishiri
Vinegar Bssig Arrika Vinaigre Vinaigre Aceto Finiga Nsinwu

Ant Ameise Myra Foumni Hormiga Formica Era Aruru Tururuwa
Bee Biene Bi Abeille Abaja Ape Oyin Anu Zuma
Fly Fliege Fluga Muche Mosca Mosca Esinsin Ijiji Kusa
Snail Schunekoe Snigel Colimcon Caracol Chiocciola Igbin Ejula Dodon-kodi
Spider Spinne Spindel Araignee Arana Bagro Alantakun Ududo Gizogizo
Wasp Wespe Geting Cuepe Avispa Vespa Agbon Ebu Zanzaro


Cat Katze Katt Chat Gato Getto Ologbo Nwaologbo Kyanwa
Dog Hund Hund Chien Pemo Cane Aja Nkita Kare
Horse Pferd Hast Cheval Gabar-Ilo Devallo Esin Inynya Doki
Rabbit Kaninchen Karin Lapin Coneje Conigbio Ehoro Ewi Zomo
Sheep Schaf Ear Monton Qveja Pecora Agutan Aturu Tunkiya

The above list shows how flexible the languages are in accommodating new words in addition to the fact that the languages also have equivalents for some of the scientific words. These words are in common use at home, school, market and every where such that when students come across them, they do not present much difficulty. Another important thing is the use of everyday Nigerian languages to communicate these words and other scientific ideas. In compiling the scientific words in different languages, Savory (1967) observed that the scientific words do not present the chief difficulties but "the words that carry such meanings as `although' or `underneath' or `probably' that make a sentence strange or obscure". And there lies the crux of the matter. It is the use of such words as described by Savory (1967) that is making the learning of science and technology difficult and consequently, students are just not performing to expectation.

Teaching science and technology in the mother tongue e.g. (Yoruba) requires that a large body of scientific literature be developed in such a mother tongue using the appropriate scientific words, terms and phrases. This problem is being handled by the Language Development Centre of the Nigerian Educational Research and Development Council. In addition science teachers must be well versed in the mother tongue to enable them use it effectively in communicating with the students. The learning of the mother tongue as a school subject should also be made compulsory for all students. This implies that it should be made a core subject for JSC and SSC students.


Bearing in mind that language influences the thought process of the learner, this understanding of his environment and thus the learning of science, deliberate efforts should be made to enable students learn science in their mother tongue as much as possible. The idea of forcing students to think in the foreign language as advocated by Dikshit (1974) is unproductive. It does not help students to be creative but reduces them to "robot" who merely memorize the notes given to them by their teachers and reproduce same when required without demonstrating appreciable degree of understanding of the scientific and technological information and process under consideration. If students merely memorize facts, principles and generalizations only to be regurgitated during examination, they will not be in a position to use the knowledge acquired since it has not been intemalized.
The lack of internalization of scientific knowledge, process and skills by Nigerian students seems to have been largely responsible for Nigeria's inability to make a major breakthrough in scientific and technological development. The situation is unacceptable and needs urgent redress.


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The author is grateful to Messrs Ibikunle, Nweke and Aliu for their useful contributions.