#ThoughtivityOpinion: Teaching Science Subjects in Native Languages


During the week, Nigeria’s Minister of Science and Technology, Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu announced that moves are being made to ensure that Science subjects and Mathematics are taught in native languages.  This announcement is good news at the time we are literally scraping the bottom of the barrel for positives about the Buhari government. If the current APC Government manages to implement this policy, and put it on a sound footing, so that it does not end up like so many other Education and Language policies that successive Nigerian governments have paid lip service to and then dumped in the trash bin, then it could be one of the greatest achievements of the Buhari government.

The idea of teaching science and mathematics in native languages is an excellent idea that has a lot of advantages and no downsides. I like that the minister mentioned  Nigeria’s willingness to import everything, including sciences and technology from foreign powers, and our willingness to neglect our own native languages, as the reason why we are not developing. Also that countries like China and India, which were once at par with Nigeria but have now gone ahead of us, developed at such a rate because they initiated their science and technology in their own native languages, and that Nigeria would do well to emulate them.

 First of all, it would create employment for local language speakers, readers, and writers. Science dictionaries in native languages would have to be created to unify meanings of foreign scientific expressions in native languages.  Linguists, translators, and writers would surely be needed as consultants to work together with mathematicians and scientists to create language curricula for schools at every level so that the languages are properly deployed to solve scientific problems. That, in turn, means that once people realize that understanding a native language is a veritable meal ticket, the enrolment of students in the Departments of African Languages in Nigerian Universities will increase. That will make those departments viable again, creating successive generations of modern native language experts, who are also conversant with language evolution in a modern age.

The second great thing that this policy will achieve, is that it will finally give Nigerians that are unable to speak English access to education (the number was about 60 percent around 2015, which makes one wonder how a country can develop when more than half of its citizens are excluded from the process of decision-making).  English, the  language of communication in Nigeria, even though it is the most widely spoken language in the world today (a reason why people want to learn it so that they can get ahead in today’s global economy), it is just another language. Its prestige is not due to the language itself, just the people who speak it. For instance a lot of Germans, Russians, Spaniards, Japanese have zero literacy in English, yet they live fulfilled lives and certainly don’t get labeled “illiterate”. So why should Nigerians be “illiterate” because they are not literate in English even they know at least native language? It is because those aforementioned languages cover all the needs of their speakers, their culture needs, their communication needs and their technology needs. Thus a German speaker only learns English because they want to broaden their horizons and communicate with English speakers, not because they would be shamed or remain downtrodden and oppressed if they don’t learn it. Today if you mention the word “Honda” or “Toyota” in any language, you have spoken Japanese. Those two words, among others, are part of Japan’s contribution to technology. We have technologies in Nigeria too that we can contribute to world technology, but we will never find those technologies until we make our own languages viable as the Japanese did to theirs, and we will never be able to achieve that until we make our languages rich enough to cover all our linguistic needs.

 Furthermore, as the Minister himself mentioned, nobody is going to develop their country by preferring another person’s language to their own. English should become the second language in Nigeria because we don’t need to be Euro-centric in our education anymore. Of course, people will raise the argument that if we remove English as our official language of communication, which language among the more than 250 languages would we replace it with? The obvious answer to that question is that in Canada for example, English is among the languages of official communication, but do all Canadians have English as their mother tongues/first language? Obviously, they don’t.

That brings me to the fallacious arguments that I have seen some people raise about this issue since the minister announced it. Those arguments are mostly about how native languages do not have terms for mathematical and scientific concepts (They will say Pythagoras Theorem, Polynominals, Quadratic Equations etc) which are already in English and thus the experiment to teach those things in Nigerian languages will never work. They often forget that most mathematical and scientific concepts (Pythagoras Theorem, Archimedes principle, Polynominals) are not even English to start with. They were mostly either assimilated or borrowed (in some cases even stolen) from Greek and Latin. Yet the English language has assimilated those terms so perfectly that it is difficult to tell which one is English and which one is not. So the question is if the English linguists can do it, why can’t our native linguists do it too?

Ironically one piece of evidence that people who propound the “it can’t be done” argument often forget or just ignore and which is right in front of them- the Bible. The Bible was mostly written in Aramaic and Hebrew, with some Greek thrown in, yet it was translated into English and then into Nigerian languages without any issues. Nowadays you can pick up a Yoruba or Igbo Bible and read it without missing the message that was originally written in Aramaic. Yet some people will argue “it is a useless venture” because they feel they can’t translate some Greek words. Yes there is no concept for the “Hypotenuse” in Nigerian languages, but then there was no concept of “Jesus Christ” or “Jehovah” in any Nigerian language as well, until some people decided to bring them in. Language is flexible, it can accommodate anything linguists want it to accommodate, and that’s it. And to the question of if materials for scientific concepts exist in native languages, the answer is yes they do. I personally know a  technologist that created a dictionary of technology terms in Yoruba. It is very small and inadequate, but give that technologist a decent grant and let us see if he would not do better.

  In closing, this policy from Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu is a breath of fresh air. What is more, learning science and technology in native languages will not hamper the study and learning of English language or any other language for that matter. That theory has been tested in Denmark for kids, and it has had a positive effect in increasing intelligence and comprehension as they know at least 3 languages by the end of secondary school.

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