Sunday 7 May 2023

Why Can’t Science Speak ‘Vernacular’? by Wole Olaoye

Cast your mind back to your secondary school days. English was the only legitimate language of communication. There were students from the hinterland who couldn’t measure up to the requirement and so had to run afoul of the law and face the inevitable sanctions. 

There was the case of one such student who had a problem with pronouncing any word with the fricative sound, ‘sh’. So, he would pronounce education as educasonn and attention as attensonn. Only God knows how many times he had been made to pay fines for expressing himself in  ‘vernacular’, as the local language was derisively tagged. 

On this fateful day, the long-suffering teacher decided that he would do whatever it took to cure our friend of his phonetic disability. He wrote ‘tion’ on the blackboard and ordered the student to say ‘shun’. 

The student said, ‘Tayon’

The teacher wondered if the student had gone bunkers. “Where did that come from? Where did you get ‘tayon’?” He asked the distraught boy.

“Sir, t-i-o-n is tayon. Sorry sir”. 

The teacher hit the ceiling. He called down all the terrors of Hades on the hapless native at the end of which the boy’s problem had become compounded with terror-induced stuttering. “Ta-ta-ta-yon!” 

Wherever he is today, I’m sure he wouldn’t be giving his grandchildren the full details of his linguistic apprenticeship. Suffice it to say that he graduated with his fricative affliction and went on to make something admirable of his life.

Today, the raging discussion in many intellectual circles, especially online, is how to deploy more native resources into the development of our children with the ultimate aim of producing surefooted achievers who can hold their own against the best from other parts of the world. Would it be worth our while to try to implement Prof Babs Fafunwa’s recommendation of using our various local languages as the medium of instruction in schools, especially at the primary level?

Fafunwa actually conducted an experiment to validate his thesis that the use of mother tongue in the education of young people is necessary for cognitive, cultural and nationalistic reasons. His famous Ife Six Year Primary Project (SYPP), carried out between 1970-1979, established that the Nigerian child will benefit immensely if schooled with mother tongue. Fafunwa’s findings ran against the accepted wisdom of the times that the English language was the only possible language that could handle the sophisticated process of imparting education.

When he was appointed as Minister of Education during the Babangida years, Prof Fafunwa tried to practice what he preached by encouraging the use of the mother tongue for teaching in primary schools to enable the children glide painlessly from the local language they were used to, and the colonial one they were being forced to assimilate. The issue was beyond patriotism, explained the celebrated don. It was how nature had ordered cognition. If children are taught in the same language their parents speak to them at home, they learn in a relaxed atmosphere without the obstacle of transliteration.

Several other scholarly studies have since been conducted to validate Fafunwa’s postulation. The renewed interest in the subject will further help in redefining our approach to education and the cognitive tools we deploy. 

Patrick O. Akinsanya and Damilare G. Tella, in their scholarly presentation quoted Fafunwa as saying that since the English child still had problems in understanding his or her language, the Nigerian child suffered double jeopardy because he or she had to learn the second language first, before using it as a tool for learning, and this hampered his or her mental and social development. 

When you separate home language and school language you trigger what has been described as an “epistemological torture” for the African child who is first exposed to his mother tongue at the early stage of his education, whose in-built learning mechanism is internalizing and structuring the grammar and technique of his mother tongue, but he is all of a sudden introduced to a foreign language as he begins schooling. This will  maim him emotionally and have ripple effects on his mental and social development.

I once had the privilege of asking Prof Fafunwa about the feasibility of his campaign for the use of the mother tongue in education. Ever genial and ready to share ideas, he asked if he could shock me. I told him to try. He then said, “Do you know that those village children you’re talking about will learn English faster if English as a subject is taught to them in their mother tongue?” That shocked me. How do you learn English from a Hausa-speaking teacher, for example? But the good professor went on to explain the results of his experiments which had been replicated by other scholars with similar results

The first nine years of formal education (Primary 1-JSS3) are crucial for the educational development of a child. The problem in Africa is not just the structures established by the colonialists to serve their own purpose during colonialism but the sustenance of such archaic structures by African political elite who erroneously think that multilingualism is a weakness rather than a strength.

All that could be traced to inferiority complex or the black-skin-white-mask syndrome which makes the African elite deify the chains that have been holding him down for centuries while despising his own umbilical linguistic ties. According to T. Ngugi, colonialism taught African children “to associate their mother tongues with stupidity, barbarism, humiliation and low status, and the language of the colonisers, English, with intelligence and success. This has made the educated African think that only the language of the colonisers is strong enough for imparting knowledge.”

A further development of this faulty thesis is the contention that African languages are not sophisticated enough to convey scientific ideas. That is a fallacy that should be laughed at, as evidenced by Leopold Senghor’s translation of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity into Wolof, a lingua franca of Senegal. Other African languages which have a long history of orthography can easily be used for teaching the most complex of concepts.

Another expert, Prof Bamgbose, believes that one of the reasons for lack of belief among Nigerians is the failure to implement the three years use of indigenous language policy, as most people have never witnessed or experienced the use of mother tongue in instruction in a formal setting and have unconsciously downplayed it in the informal setting where they have witnessed it. “Whereas, they entrust their vehicles, electronic appliances and gadgets to artisans who have acquired the skills through the use of mother tongue and purchase furniture, shoes, etc, made by these sets of people with their money. Yet, they argue vehemently against the use of mother tongue in class…”, he notes.

In 1953, UNESCO endorsed he use of mother tongue, stating that, “It is axiomatic that the best medium for teaching a child is his mother tongue. Psychologically, “It is the system of meaningful signs that in his mind works automatically for expression and understanding. Sociologically, it is a means of identification among the members of the community to which he belongs. Educationally, he learns more quickly through it than through an unfamiliar linguistic medium”.

There is now a treasure trove of literature on the similarity between Ifa divination of the Yoruba of Southwest Nigeria and the computer. Ifa predated Christianity, Islam and the computer age by thousands of years. Although the alienated modern African may treat it as an obsolete relic of our savage past, its relevance to modern technological advancement is now being propagated by outsiders. If foreign languages can be used to explain Ifa’s binary system and geomantic revelations, why can’t Yoruba language be used to teach Chemistry?

The Chinese, Indians, Japanese and others in Asia have shown us that there is no single route to development. They unashamedly use what they have to navigate their way to their developmental destination. Nearer home, Ethiopia and Eritrea are two African countries noted for their own alphabet which predates many civilisations. If Russians can educate her children in Russian, why can’t the Ethiopian use Amharic? 

I suspect that our reluctance to take the first meaningful step in liberating our future generations from the shackles that have held their forebears down can be traced to a lack of political will. There will be challenges, not least among which are the battle against the mono-lingual tendency of the central government, perception of English language as the global language; inadequacy or lack of trained teachers in the use of indigenous languages; under-development of orthography of some Nigerian languages; etc.

But, firstly, you have to believe in the dream. You won’t know that science can understand vernacular until you summon the political will. 


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