The recent declaration by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) that every mother tongue is vital to the acquisition of literacy and numeracy skills especially during the first years of schooling is not in doubt. The UN agency, which stated this during the marking of the 20th International Mother Tongue Day, also made case for the recognition and enforcement of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The celebration was anchored on the theme: “Indigenous Languages matter for development, peace building and reconciliation.”

According to the agency’s Director-General, Ms Audrey Azoulay, “For UNESCO, every mother tongue deserves to be known, recognised and given greater prominence in all spheres of public life.” However, the UNECSCO boss is aware that this is not always the case because “mother tongues do not necessarily have national-language status, official language status, or the status as the language of instruction.” We agree with her that this type of situation can lead to the devaluation of a mother tongue and to its ultimate disappearance in the long term.

All the same, the UNESCO position on the importance of mother tongue in the education of children is, indeed, a confirmation of most research outcomes by experts in early childhood education. Most of these studies have established that learning in mother tongue rather than in second language provides a more effective means of education for children. This linguistic fact has also been established in some studies in Nigeria. In his study, “Education in the Mother-Tongue: A Nigerian Experiment—the Six-Year (Yoruba Medium) Primary Education Project at the University of Ife, Nigeria,” the late former Minister of Education and renowned educationist, Prof. Babs Fafunwa, established that a child learns best in his or her mother tongue. He regretted that of all the continents and peoples of the world, it is only in Africa and perhaps in a few ex-colonial countries that formal education is offered in a language that is foreign to the child.

We commend UNESCO for advocating the use of indigenous languages in the teaching of children in their early years. Its advantages cannot be over-emphasised. It is good that the nation’s language policy on education is in line with the UNESCO philosophy. However, there is the need to include more indigenous languages as language of instruction in early years of children’s education so that some ethnic groups won’t feel marginalised by the major ethnic groups whose languages are in the school curriculum. This is perhaps the best way the government can ensure that all mother tongues in Nigeria count and that they are essential to building peace and supporting sustainable development. Therefore, we call on the state ministries of education to invest more in the standardization of more indigenous languages and make them suitable for instruction in schools. There is need for more trained teachers in these languages. Using these languages as mediums of instruction in schools would go a long way in preserving them and save them from extinction.

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Nonetheless, all Nigerian children should be encouraged to learn other Nigerian languages outside the language of their ethnic origin. This will engender peace and unity. Besides, it has been proved that children have the capacity to learn and acquire many languages at the same time. What this means is that the children can be instructed in a chosen mother tongue and at the same time be allowed to acquire and speak any other language.

The selection of a particular indigenous language as the means of instruction to children in a particular locality or region does not preclude them from acquiring any other language that their parents may prefer or indeed treasure. The long-term goal of the suitability of the mother tongue as language of instruction for children in their formative years is for their overall development. 

Interestingly, there are models of the imperative of the mother tongue as a language of instruction for children in their formative years. In India and most of the Asian continent, this model has been implemented successfully with positive results for their national development and educational advancement. Other countries, especially developing countries in sub-Saharan Africa must follow suit.