Volume:6, Issue: 3

Dec. 15, 2014

The importance of promoting mother tongue in Nigeria
Okonkwo, Basil Amarachi [about]

KEYWORDS: Language shift, linguistics, mother tongue, education, environ-mentality, Nigeria. 
ABSTRACT: The concept of mother tongue in school education has attracted the attention of many scholars from different areas of studies especially in linguistics and education. It is understood that mother tongue is a means through which people express and preserve their culture. No doubt that a child learns better and develops faster if he or she is taught in his or her mother tongue in early stages of infancy. It is disheartening that people, especially Nigerians, no longer appropriately use, speak or teach native languages in schools. This happens because many still live in the mentality as if they were colonized. It is, therefore, the concern of this work to x-ray the importance of mother tongue in school education. The researcher is convinced that teaching in students’ mother tongue will not only promote children’s success in schools, but also increase their self-confidence, self-assurance, self-respect, and personal identity.


Mother tongue is the language a child hears or learns first either from his father or mother or a nanny. Specialists in languages call it ‘the first language’ (LI). It also connotes a very emotionally charged sense of belonging to a group and of one’s linguistic identity. The need to promote mother tongue in Nigeria calls for urgent attention. It is truism that a good education is one that develops the power and character of the leaner and makes him or her able to master the surrounding environment. Language is the primary medium of education, and every educational process takes place through it.

Our major problem in Nigeria is a problem of the mentality of the colonized. We value anything that comes from a foreigner but we do not value our own heritage. This is the problem facing the use of mother tongue or local languages in Nigeria where English, the colonialists’ language, happens to be the only official language of education. This paper, therefore, suggests that it is high time to start valuing and promoting our local languages and to insist on using them as the language of institution in schools.

Mother tongue: its origin and concept

Mother tongue is the language a person has learned from birth. In some countries the term native language or mother tongue refers to the language of one’s ethnic group rather than one’s first language. The term mother tongue or mother language is used for the language that a person learned as a child at home (usually from their parents). According to Beban S. (1990, p. 63), mother tongue serves “as the means by which orientation in the cultural environment is made.” It is presumed that “the origin of the term mother tongue could be traced back to the notion that linguistic skills of a child are honed by the mother and therefore the language spoken by the mother would be the primary language that the child would learn.” The term was employed by Catholic monks to designate a particular language, the one they used instead of Latin, when they were speaking from the pulpit (www.wikipedia.org/wiki/firstlanguage). That is, the Church introduced this term and colonies inherited it from Christianity as part of their colonial legacy.

  1. Based on the origin of the mother tongue, it is the language one learned first (the Language(s) in which one has established the first long-lasting verbal contacts).
  2. Based on internal identification – the language one identifies with/; as a speaker of.
  3. Based on external identification: the language(s) one is identified with/as a speaker of, by others.
  4. Based on competence: the language one knows best.
  5. Based on function: the language one uses most.

A native speaker is defined, according to the guidelines, as the following:

  1. The individual acquires the language in early childhood.
  2. The individual has intuitive knowledge of the language.
  3. The individual is able to produce fluent, spontaneous discourse.
  4. The individual is competent in communication.
  5. The individual identifies with or is identified by a language community.
  6. The individual does not have a foreign ascent.

According to Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, it is the language a person has grown up speaking from early childhood. In the light of this, Okonkwo (2000, p. 42), quoting Achebe says: “Asusu nwata putalu uwa nuba bu asusu Chie,… Oyibo na akpo ya ‘mother tongue’ onu nne” meaning a language which a child learns when he or she is born, is his or her divine giving language… which the English calls mother tongue.

This will immediately take us to the next level of insight that is the shift in language.

Mother tongue and language shift

It is a known fact that a dead language is one that has lost its speakers. Language is what identifies people as a nation. Language has the propensity to transmit culture and once an individual loses his/her language, it is no doubt that he/she will be in disarray. To support this, Okonkwo (2000, p. 43) says:

When language shift occurs, it is always a shift towards the language of dominant group that has no incentive to adopt the language of a minority. The dominant language is associated with status prestige and social success. It is used in ‘glamour’ context in the wider society – for formal speeches on ceremonial occasions, by news readers on television and radio, and by those whom young people admire – pop stars, fashion models and disc jockeys. It is scarcely surprising that many young minority group speakers should see its advantage and abandon their own language.

The language shift due to the dominance of European colonial language(s) over the traditional language of our people is what I call the ‘defeatist mentalist’. Babaci-Wilhite (2013) reflecting on the same issue, says:

The reasons for this have to do with misplaced associations of development with modernization, where emulation of western development and western educational systems are regarded as the way forward for Africa.

For example, the Igbo families try to be more English but find it difficult to value our language, culture, and tradition. In recent times only an insignificant number of school children can express themselves adequately in the language of the native environment (mother tongue). A key factor to this is the use of foreign languages especially at the pre-primary and primary levels of education (Nwajiuba, 2008, p.184).

Based on the above, we are more European than African. Every language shift is a general killer of one’s mother tongue, says Okonkwo (2000, p.44). Therefore, we support the opinion of Okonkwo who suggests that the major task for us is to emancipate ourselves from the linguistic mentality of the colonized.

Importance of mother tongue in Nigerian education system

Educational researchers admit that the implementation of mother tongue in Nigeria will not only increase the level of education but also the literacy level of school children to a better grasp of academic concepts and philosophies. Nigeria has always paid deaf ear to this clarion call of adopting an education system that emphasizes the importance of mother tongue in teaching Nigerian students. The benefits of this language innovation can never be less de-emphasized. 

On the part of the teacher, who is the principal communicator, the use of mother tongue makes it easier to convey basic concepts to students in ways that are unambiguous to them. In this situation, the teacher is free with his/her choice of words and not limited with ways of expression that means communicating with the students in ways that are basically understandable by all native people. Mother tongue makes it easy for the teacher to bring  knowledge to students without going through the rigorous process of explaining concepts. It is also time saving for the teacher who needs to cover up a curriculum of studies for the students.

Fafunwa et al. (1989) observed that education of people in their mother tongue is an effective tool to enhance their learning process. Not only the learning process will be enhanced, but also social communication skills will be encouraged. Students who are taught in their mother tongue are exposed to the unambiguous nature of education, which has driven many out of the school system. One may even say that the low literacy level could be a direct result of the use of foreign colonial languages to communicate to people. In such situations students consider studying foreign languages their primary responsibility. Therefore, mother tongue presents the originality of expression in educative communication skills.

Education in one’s mother tongue will go a long way to preserve the culture and identity of a people. The only reasonable identity of any culture lies in the language spoken by the people. For example, you cannot identify an Igbo man by the way he looks but simply by the way he speaks or most of all his language. There is then the need for the preservation of language and this can only be done through education. The use of mother tongue as the lingua franca of academics in Nigeria will go a long way in helping to sustain the indigenous culture of Nigerians. What happens today is that most Nigerian youths lose their language and even worse still, fail to gain mastery of the colonial language they are taught in schools. Trying to make this English language homely to the peoples, most people now resort to speaking what is popularly known as ‘Pigeon or broken English’.  This form of English I will choose to call Nigerian English because it is an adaptation of the local languages to English. Most Nigerian people also resort to speaking English in the name of speaking their local language. People in Igbo Land for instance, will call this ‘Ingili-Igbo’ that is an anglicised Igbo. Examples of these expressions are: ‘a gam eje school tomorrow’, ‘that man bu an armed robber’, and many more like that. In these two sentences we can observe that only one Igbo word appeared in the sentence and very often it is the verb in the sentence.

Urgent attention in the education sector should be paid to how to preserve and use mother tongue as the language of education in Nigeria. The use of mother tongue will ensure originality of thought, free flow of communication, advancement of the local content, and a total preservation of the indigenous language and culture.

Education and language

It is indisputable that education has to do with knowledge, both formal and informal education, and each of them cannot do anything without using the language. Even the deaf and the dumb communicate through language. Communication can come in many ways. Hence, there are different types of communication procedures, namely: speaking and writing, through sign and body language. Education in a very general sense is a form of learning in which knowledge, skills, and habits of a group of people are been transformed and transmitted from one generation to another via teaching, training or research.

Etymologically, the word ‘education’ is derived from the Latin word ‘educatio’ which has to do with ‘breeding, bringing up, rearing’ from ‘educo’ (I educate, I train).

Formal education takes place in an environment whose explicit purpose is teaching students that is a school environment. On the other hand, informal education has to do with character training in places like home, work, and through daily interactions and shared relationships among members of the society. This is a place where children are first groomed in truthfulness and acquire other important human traits. All these cannot happen outside the language. Therefore, without one’s language education cannot happen at all because whatever is taught must be communicated through language. Since language is the method of human communication, either spoken or written, our local language must be incorporated into the business of education.

Speaking of the importance of mother tongue, Babaci-Wilhite (2013) opines that “one’s mother tongue is an education in itself and brings quality learning. The language carries with it a way of thinking, a way of doing, and a way of feeling that cannot be obtained in another language.” According to Okonkwo (2009, p. 35), we are in the world through being in language. Language helps to comprehend anything that is intelligible. We use language to express our inner emotions and inner thoughts.

Language and environ-mentality

One cannot talk about the language outside his/her environment. The language of the immediate environment plays a very useful role in one’s life. According to Okonkwo (2008, p. 253), “language is an environ-mentality”. Environment shapes, natures, and nurtures one’s mentality. For him, language is “Dasein’s eventful disposition for intelligible disclosure and determinant equipment for the constitutive structural ontology of the world”. The environment plays a vital role in studying mother tongue. When a child is exposed to the language spoken in his/her environment in the early stages that language is easier mastered and learned. Supporting this idea Beban (1990, p. 63) says:

When it is considered that language is closely related to cultural experience of the members of the linguistic community who speak it... the use of mother tongue in school in the first years of schooling enhances continuity in the child’s learning process and therefore maximizes his intellectual development.

It is no doubt that the world a child sees is the world presented to him or her by the language spoken in his or her environment.

Furthermore, Nwajiuba (2008, p. 184) believes that “in a child’s environment, key factors play major roles in language use and proficiency. These factors include: the child’s playmates, language spoken to the child by parents and relatives, and learning in schools during the early stages of child’s development.” The world manifests itself through the facts of the language I understand, and this world and my life are one and I am therefore my world – the microcosm (Okonkwo, 2003, p. 272).

He further maintains that world-hood is the after-effect of the environ-mentality, historicity, cooperative engagement, relationship, and interplay of activity commonly shared in the family (Speech Community) focus. For Babaci-Wilhite (2013), “identity is strongly connected to parents’ attitudes, to the language spoken at home and to cultural understanding.” This implies that from the language one speaks, it is easier to know the environment he or she hails from. Hence, the environment enhances one’s mentality, and this mentality entails language culture and tradition of a given society or people.

A little worry: a reason for the dearth of mother tongue in Nigeria

The major problem we are facing in Nigeria, especially in regards to the language usage, is the problem of keeping the mentality of the colonized. This defeatist mentality makes a formerly colonized country overvalue foreign ideas than the local ones. It is especially true about the Igbos than any other tribe in Nigeria. When having visitors at home, an average Igbo parent would proudly introduce them to his/her child studying medicine, engineering, accountancy, Law, English or any European language, but there is always a noticeable reservation if the child is studying Igbo language. It is no doubt that the negative attitude of our people especially, Ndi-igbo (Igbo people) towards indigenous languages accounts for why most departments of Nigerian languages in the local Nigerian universities and colleges of education have only few students. Most Igbo people show little or no interest in studying native languages. It is the matter of great regret that our people still live with the mentality in inferiority.

Nwigwe et al. (2010, pp. 13-14) assume that “the language situation in Nigeria has generated a lot of controversy particularly with reference to the indigenous languages and the English language.” The interaction between English and indigenous languages has got to the point when we clearly observe a tendency for a language shift in favour of English in Nigeria. Presently, Igbo is described as an endangered language and there is a strong fear of possible extinction of the language in the next fifty years according to the UNESCO report (1953) unless some positive steps are taken to reverse the situation (Nwigwe, 2010, p.14).

One will wonder why is it that when Africans travel to foreign European countries they tend to learn the language of the respective country, and they do it with great joy and honour. But in a reverse situation, when it comes to learning our own languages, we feel inferior, and feel we have devalued ourselves. The question we should ask ourselves is, ‘do foreigners to our land feel the same as we feel in studying their language?’ When we try to pronounce foreign names, we make every effort to do it correctly so that the people will not laugh at us but when in turn they pronounce and spell our own names, they easily make a number of mistakes. For instance, my last name is Okonkwo but a German will often pronounce it as Okonkovor. Usually before we travel to German- and/or French- speaking countries, we learn at least the basics of German or French but before Germans and the French come to Nigeria do they really learn any of our native languages? These are the issues we should put into serious consideration for the triumph of our languages.

On this matter Babaci-Wilhite (2013) says:

It is time to recognize the wealth of African knowledge and to promote its languages in education. This would make a significant contribution to African development in general and will benefit the majority of Africans.

It is known and proved that the vital aspect of people’s identity is their language. The language remains a relevant asset for sustaining self-reliance. According to Okorie (2008, p.123), if language is part of human culture, it means that without language it would be practically impossible for the human society to exist as presently constituted. Language is an indispensible prerequisite for education, and education is what prepares or empowers people for greater roles or responsibilities in their social environment. Therefore, we need to keep in mind that:

  1. Disappearance of any language is always a loss, and its preservation is the consequence of the struggle for basic human rights.
  2. The ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built upon the language habits of the group. We see and hear, and otherwise experience as we do primarily because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.
  3. The world and peoples are registered and known through their languages. Despite all language and linguistic strategies and ideologies of dominance all world languages are equal based on the facts of their value for the users.
  4. A language remains a social and functional phenomenon that shapes the essence of every human being.
  5. All languages are perfect as long as they succeed in expressing human feelings and thoughts in a clear and appropriate manner.


It is evident that the English language is emphasised, as it has become one of the crucial conditions for university entry. It is also a known fact that people who can communicate in English have more chances of being employed then those who cannot. Though, Nigerians should remember that all languages are equal. Majority of Africans think that their languages are inferior to European ones; hence, they try to imitate them in their mind and speech. There is a serious need to purify, revive, and reform our way of thinking as Africans. We must come to value our own language, and parents should do their best to encourage their children to speak and write in their indigenous languages.

Motivation must be put in place in order to encourage children. Rewards and incentives should be given to those who distinguish themselves in the study of indigenous languages. Therefore, our education authorities as a matter of urgency should make the study and excellence in Nigerian indigenous languages a prerequisite for entrance into the tertiary institutions.


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  8. Okonkwo J., (2003). Worldhood competence and performance: The site for Wittgenstien’s religious language. In: 26th International Wittgenstein Symposium, (XI), p.272.
  9. Okonkwo J., (2008). Environ-mentality: Heidegger’s relational worldhood in ‘Being and Time: Revisited. Amamihe: Journal of Applied Philosophy, (6) p.253.
  10. Onwuchekwa O., (2008). Language, culture and power: Tripartite assets for developing human capital and self-reliance in Nigeria. Journal of Nigerian Languages and Culture (Jonlac) (10) 2, p.123.
  11. First Language, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopaedia, www.wikipedia.org/wiki/firstlanguage, last modified on 17 October 2014.

Okonkwo, Basil Amarachi, PhD candidate in Theology, Imo State University, Nigeria.

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