First and second languages: exploring the relationship in pedagogy-related contexts department of education

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27-28 MARCH, 2009

Policy Shift, Inconsistency and the Reality of First and Second Languages in Learning Contexts in the West African Sub-Region


Professor Victor Benjie Owhotu

Department of Arts and Social Sciences Education

Faculty of Education

University of Lagos, Nigeria



The West African sub-region presents a mosaic of languages in national education systems, ranging from mother language, official colonial languages, language of the immediate environment as well as other indigenous languages. While the informal learning contexts outside the school system promote considerable multilingualism especially amongst internal migrant groups, problems may arise when a national language policy inadvertently creates ‘artificial’ learning contexts and scenarios for most learners in basic and post basic education. The questions that arise are: (a) Which languages in the school system in multilingual and multicultural contexts of learning, and why? (b) What specific problems do learners in such contexts encounter in L2 classes? (c) What are the implications for the psychosocial and cultural identity of the learner? (d) How should national language planning, the school curriculum and key stakeholders address policy and learning inefficiencies? In order to provide answers to these questions, we carried out a small-scale study of macro level policy trends and micro level realities of first and second languages in basic education systems in selected countries in West Africa, using both conventional and e-survey approaches. Results are discussed in relation to macro and micro issues of language planning, learning inefficiencies and curriculum reform, respectively.

First and Second Languages in pedagogy-related contexts present issues and challenges at two levels:

(a) The macro system- wide policy design level and

(b) The micro system- wide school-based, classroom level

Post-colonial countries of West Africa face significant challenges at both levels; all are multilingual and multicultural contexts where the macro-level policy-related shifts and inconsistencies affect expected outcomes of classroom instruction in first, second and other languages which share a conflicting existence.

The 15 Member States of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) created in May 1975, account for about 1000 languages, of which Nigeria has between 350 and 400 living, spoken languages. While estimates vary, the number of major African languages – excluding dialects and other varieties is put at “some 1500 to 2000 that have been differently classified” (SIL: Ethnologue 2000). In addition, the colonial languages, English, French and Portuguese, still have a vital and dominant status in the national life of all the former colonies, from governance and education to external relations and external trade, over fifty years after political independence. Yet, as research has amply demonstrated, the crucial educational and cultural importance of African languages in post-colonial Africa cannot be overemphasized. Ouedraogo (2000) identifies at least seven major transnational languages spoken by over 68 million people across several countries: Hausa boasts 34 million speakers in 9 countries; Yoruba 12 million speakers in 3 countries; Fulfube (Fulfulde, Fulani), 11 million speakers in 13 countries; Mandika, 2.8 million speakers in 9 countries; Wolof, 3 million speakers in 3 countries; Ewe: 3.3 million speakers in 3 countries, and Djula with 2 million speakers in 3 countries. More importantly, the strong wave anti-colonial agitations of pre- and early post- independence era would be the driving force of several major events that marked the evolution of African language education policy and the first an second language relationships between 1977 and 2007.

The Second Festival of African Cultures and Civilization (FESTAC) held in Nigeria in 1977 brought about the first post-colonial policy shift towards African Languages in national education systems in Africa. Fifty–one countries from around the world participated in the Colloquium on Black Civilization, History, Languages and Cultural Heritage. It also attracted the active engagement of the United Nations Organization, and UNESCO, whose advocacy had in fact begun in 1953 with the publication of The Use of Vernacular Languages in Education. UNESCO’s subsequent roles in this regard would be increasingly significant from the mid 1990s. The Colloquium made several important recommendations to African governments, including:

(a) Use and teaching of African language in education institutions in order to “ensure harmonious and balanced training of African Youth”;

(b) Delivery of literacy campaigns for the masses in African languages;

(c) Publication and media dissemination of literary and scientific works and development of information in African languages; and,

(d) Collaboration in teaching and research in African languages (Amoda, 1998:209).

The second event took place in March 1997, when UNESCO, in collaboration with the OAU (now African Union), the Francophone Agency (ACCT) and the Republic of Zimbabwe, organized the Intergovernmental Conference of Ministers on Language Policy in Africa during which over 50 Ministers and official experts adopted The Zimbabwe Declaration, urging African Governments to:
(a) Make clear policy statements, programme of tasks and time-tables for implementation;

(b) “Train language practitioners in the various professions and produce teaching and learning resources including those required for second languages teaching and learning; and

(c) Give economic and other practical forms value to the languages by specifying language requirements for specific domains such as education, training, employment and citizenship. (
In 2000, the third policy event was the First International Conference on African Languages and Literatures to be held in Africa, at the end of which, the conference adopted The Asmara Declaration on African Languages and Literature. While the Declaration was the informed position of an international community of concerned African academics and scholars of Africans studies- therefore not binding on African governments- its provisions were, nonetheless, relevant to the post-colonial policy reform process at several levels: the linguistic and cultural rights issues and the development of the capacity of African languages to cope with the evolution of Western science and technology. The Declaration reiterated the fact that:

  1. African languages are essential for the decolonization of African minds and African Renaissance;

  2. All African children have the unalienable right to attend school and learn in their mother tongue; and,

  3. The effective and rapid development of science and technology in Africa depends on the use of African languages, and modern technology must be used for the development of African languages.

The fourth and fifth events/ reform strategies were the creation of African Academy of Languages (ACALAN) in Mali, in 2001, followed in June 2006, by the launch by the African Union of the Year of African Languages (YOAL) to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Language Plan of Action for Africa (ILPAA) in order “to provide renewed impetus and commitment of African governments to take practical steps to increase the use of African Languages in…domains, particularly education” and the establishment of ACALAN’s structures (

Despite the policy shift and reform strategies adopted by Member Countries since 1977, implementation at the macro and micro-levels remains generally inconsistent. Ndoye (2003: 4) illustrates the three dominant trends in African counties:

  1. Countries that have opted to maintain the status quo, avoiding any initiative that questioned the existing order. The western language remains the language of instruction and the only official language used to government institutions and the public sector.

  2. Countries which underwent slow, step-by-step change using African languages in non-formal education and adult literacy programmes and experimenting with them in the formal education system, taking policy measures to promote African languages, opening up new, broader contexts for the use of so-called national languages-without challenging the status of the Western language.

  3. Countries that have embarked on a policy of in-depth change curtailing the official use of the Western language to the benefits of African languages, using the latter as the medium for learning in both formal and non-formal education, promoting bilingualism and multilingualism.

In post-colonial multilingual countries, the macro-level policy trends provide a better understanding of the micro-level school-based contexts of teaching and learning first, second and other languages . A major question that arises, therefore, is: why the campaign and the need for African/first/mother language in learning contexts in which second colonial languages -English, French, Portuguese dominate? The brief review of relevant literature which follows provides solid empirical insights into the relationship between first and second languages and learner achievement at the micro or school-based learning contexts.

Learning, but in which Languages? Empirical insights.

Ouedraogo (2000:47) points out that the prevailing language policy trends in African countries, particularly in the so-called francophone countries, practically excludes the use of African languages’…; the recurrent argument being that since there are too many languages to contend with “it could be counter-productive to use them in education (and) that since knowledge, science and technology are transmitted in English, and French…,children would acquire them better and faster if they are taught English and French early….” Bamgbose’s (1991:71) comments add an interesting perspective:

When the role of the language of wider communication as a language of science and technology is added to the picture, historical constraint is further reinforced by the argument that a language that is going to be needed in any case for higher education, science and technology might as well begin to feature in the educational process as soon as possible.

However, contrary to this widely held misconception, African researchers had first convincingly demonstrated, empirically, some thirty-five years ago, that children taught mathematics and other curriculum subjects using an African language as medium of instruction over a six year experimental period significantly out- performed their control group peers in all related aspects of the school curriculum (Fafunwa, et al. 1989). Several other studies of the relationship of first/mother and second languages in learning contexts carried out in Botswana, Kenya, Mali, Nigeria, South Africa, and Tanzania have arrived at similar findings. Recent experiments carried out in Mali and Burkina Faso between 1994 and 2000 showed significant improvements in learning outcomes and the reduction of class repetition and dropout rates in basic education. Similarly, between 1994 and 2000, it was found that end-of-primary pass rates among Malian children who transitioned gradually from a local language to French were on average 32% higher than for children in French-only programmes (…..)”. In Burkina Faso, “Children with initial literacy in Moore language before beginning instruction in French achieved better results in French and mathematics than students who had only participated in French-language schooling. The use of local languages also ensures that the knowledge brought to schooling is used as a basis for further learning” (ADEA 2006).

Beyond the African continent, similar results were also obtained in the United States of America (University of California) between 1981 and 1991; and the United Kingdom – University of Bradford between 1978 and 1981. The overwhelming evidence clearly established by these investigations is summarized by The Association for the Development of Education in Africa, as follows:
L’utilisation de la langue maternelle comme langue d’instruction dans les premières années d’apprentissage comporte des avantages certains, particulièrement au niveau du développement des facultés cognitives. Par contre, lorsque la langue d’instruction utilisée, en classe est différente de celle déjà parlee par l’enfant, il en résulte des difficultés pédagogiques et cognitives démontrées. (ADEA, 2008).

The implications of these recurrent and convergent findings go beyond the immediate context of learning; it is a global challenge that UNESCO consistently reiterates:

Fifty percent of the world’s out-of-school children live in communities where the language of schooling is rarely, if ever, used at home. This underscores the biggest challenge to achieving Education for All (EFA): a legacy of non-productive practices that lead to low levels of learning and high levels of dropout and repletion. In these circumstances, and increase in resources, although necessary, would not be sufficient to produce universal completion of a good-quality primary school program” (UNESCO 2005)
Since research has consistently shown that the use of the first language of the learner in formal and non-formal learning contexts results in (i) increased access and equity, (ii) improved learning outcomes, (iii) reduced repetition and drop out rates; (iv) social-cultural benefits (of identity) and (v) lower overall costs, a second related question about the policy inconsistencies is: “If it works so well, why isn’t everyone doing it?” (UNESCO, 2005).

The general conclusion is that only a balanced approach to the use of first and second languages in the curriculum would produce better results in learners’ cognitive achievement and a balanced socio- cultural identity. We shall return to such related issues.

Stakeholder inconsistencies and learning inefficiencies in first and second language learning contexts.
There is a growing body of literature that shows that while national governments in general have paid lip- service to the various policy statements, declarations and normative instruments they have been parties to, ironically, learners and parents often prefer second (colonial) languages as medium of instruction to their first or mother language as medium of instruction, often seen as an impediment to social status and mobility. Success in business, industry and the top professions such as medicine, and engineering is closely related to the mastery of the second official/colonial languages (English, French, Portuguese), and a key question often asked is about what lucrative and respectable jobs a graduate of Yoruba or Igbo languages can aspire to beyond teaching? One serious consequence of such attitudes is apparent in the large population of school age children who neither speak nor understand their mother language. In most cases, both parents speak the same mother tongue. The global policy shifts towards mother language education, though slow-paced and inconsistent, is in recognition of the mother tongue as the strongest foundation for academic achievement and further language learning and multilingual education in basic, post basic education and beyond In other words, there is an inverse movement amongst stakeholders towards different goals and the adoption of an unstable second language identity on the part of learners.

Ohiri-Aniche’s (1999: 106-114) study drew the attention of language policy makers and planners to the low esteem in which Nigerian languages were held among secondary school students in five States of Nigeria underscored by their overwhelming preference for English and French over and above their mother language. Whereas, most students (76%) still communicated with their parents using a Nigerian language, only 58% used it with their siblings at home. Furthermore, only 19% of Igbo, Hausa and Yoruba students mentioned a Nigerian language as one of their favourite languages”. In another study, Ohiri-Aniche (2007: 127-140) found similar results in a survey of parents’ opinions, drawn from the three major and other minority Nigerian languages:

Among children under 5 years of age, 76.32 percent understand their parents’ indigenous language (L1) but only 56.58 percent can speak it. In the age group 6 – 11 years, 87.50 percent understand parent’s L1, while only 68.05 percent can speak it. Parents who bring up their children to speak their L1 do so mainly because they feel the children ought to know the language and culture of their people. Parents who choose to bring up their children to speak English say it is because the children need English for school.
Nwige’s (2008) findings present a graphic picture of the interface between first language or L1 and English as a second language among students of Igbo origin in selected Junior Secondary schools in Lagos State of Nigeria. Some critical findings include:

  1. that a considerable number of children of Igbo parents cannot communicate in their mother –tongue;

  2. that the Igbo language instructional materials were unsuitable, difficult and therefore of little use to this category of students;

  3. that the Igbo students studying Igbo as second Nigerian language were at or even below par with their peers- speakers of other mother languages who were studying Igbo as a second Nigerian language.

A remarkable situation of double jeopardy in terms of chronically poor learning achievements has been the grim realty for over three decades now. In spite of the general preference for English and the matching social identity, the performances of students across languages in the secondary school public examinations over the past three decades, have been generally poor. For instance, the results of the West African Senior Secondary School Examinations (WASSCE) in the past three years (Tables 1 and 2) are typical of the trend and challenges of the conflicting co-existence of first and second languages in the curriculum. The statistics for the mean failure rate (excluding non-credit level pass, worthless for matriculation) for all languages from 1976 and 1984 was a mere 55.54%.

Owhotu’s (1987: 46-59) response to the statistics was to suggest a rationalized/functional language curriculum in order to, among others, significantly reduce the overload of 5 languages that between them accounted for about 40% of the Junior Secondary School subjects learners had to cope with. The idea of the rational/functional option is illustrated by the string of questions we raised: it was not so much who needs French or English or Yoruba? But a question of for what purpose? What functions in the school- based learning contexts should each language in the curriculum assume? What should be the expectancy parameters of basic language skills that learners should attain in each language studied?
Recent WASSCE statistics for 2002 to 2008 underscore the chronic problems of poor achievement of L1 students in the West African Secondary School Examination (WASSCE) across the language curriculum.


Total No. Sat


Non-Credit Pass





(B + C)































Source: Computed from West African Examinations Council May/June 2005.


Total No. Sat


Non-Credit Pass





(B + C)































Source: Computed from West African Examinations Council (WAEC), May/June 2008.

The major lesson here is that despite the preference of learners and parents for second language identity, their poor mastery of both languages, given the statistics, remains among the greatest challenges for the school curriculum.


Purpose of the Survey.

Against the backdrop of the literature and the need to investigate the current state and related issues of first and second languages at the school -based level, we conducted a small scale questionnaire survey of key stakeholders’ opinions in selected countries in West Africa with a view to evaluate the prevalence or otherwise of the micro level learning shifts and inefficiencies in schools.

Research Questions (RQ)

Four research questions guided the study. They were reflected in each of the three questionnaires administered:

    1. Which languages in the school system in multilingual learning contexts?

    2. What specific problems do learners encounter in L2 (Official) classes?

    3. What are the psychosocial and cultural implications for children who cannot speak their mother tongue?

    4. How should the school curriculum and key stakeholders address shifts, inconsistencies and learner inefficiencies?


Three sets of questionnaire were prepared and administered between August 2008 and January 2009:

  1. A 21- item paper questionnaire for university language teachers and language student teachers in the University of Lagos;

  2. An 8- item paper questionnaire for teachers across the language curriculum in selected secondary public and private school in Lagos Metropolis;

  3. A 3- item electronic questionnaire for stakeholders/applied linguists and language educators in Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast and Mali.


Only the responses from Nigeria are reflected here as there was only 1 response from the Ivory Coast to our e-questionnaire sending us a document on the latest plan of action of the African Academy of Languages (ACALAN) rather than address the questionnaire items directly. Both the direct and related responses to each questionnaire item are presented for each research question (RQ).

Paper Questionnaire I (University language teachers and language student teachers, N = 96) ­
Research Question 1

The frequencies of respondents’ opinions about which language(s) to be learned in school are as follows:

Children have a fundamental human right to be educated, first, in their mother tongue (76.04% Yes; 10.40% undecided; 15.62% No).
Maintain official (colonial languages) and encourage use of African languages in schools (79.16%: yes; No: 8.33%; undecided: 7.29%).
Each country should produce a policy for each language to find its place in the education system (yes: 85.41%; No: 5.20%; undecided: 5.20%).
Paper Questionnaire II (Secondary school language teachers = 55)
Research Question 1:

The majority of language teachers thought that Children should master their mother tongue before English (72.72%, Yes; 9.09%, No).

Research Question 2:

The following problems were highlighted:

Poor mastery of both English and mother tongue (81.81%);

Listening comprehension (16.36%);

Speaking (69.09%);

Reading (43.63%);

Writing (63.63%);

Pronunciation (50.90%);

Intonation (36.36%);

Linguistic/Language interference (38.18%);

Poor attitude of learners to L1 (67.27%).

Research Question 3:

The respondents highlighted the following implications for children who do not know their mother language: Loss of identity since having a local L1 name does not in itself confer L1 linguistic and cultural identity, only mastery of language and culture does. Such an unstable identity creates psychological and cultural embarrassment, social deficiency and inferiority complex, alienation, poor cognitive development, ostracism and cultural stigma.

Research Question 4:

In terms of respondents’ suggestions for reform, respondents reiterated the following : the need to teach children phonics and speaking skill; government and school management should install a well -equipped language laboratory in every school; mother tongue education should be a compulsory subject to be studied before English; that parents should teach their children their mother language and culture; school authority and government should demonstrate more political will, while teachers should adopt motivating teaching and learning activities in the language classroom.


It should be clear from this result that mastery of both English and mother tongue leaves much to be desired even though parents and learners themselves generally prefer English to their mother language. Poor attitude to learning has been highlighted by 67.27% of respondents. The problems of speaking, writing and pronunciation skills development are still very much a challenge in the first and second language learning contexts. Language interference is equally worthy of note in both second official language (English) and second Nigerian language, and foreign language, notably French. In the case of French as a foreign language, the types of problems of interference typical of the Nigerian learner at the crossroad of mother tongue and English, are similar to those investigated elsewhere by Handcock and Kirchmeyer (2005: 17-35) on the relative clause; Schlyter (2005: 36-62) on adverbs and functional categories; Antrim (2008: 42-45) on prepositions and verbal expressions; Howard, M. (2005: 63-87) on the emergence and use of the plus-que-parfait; Myles, F. (2005: 88-113) on the emergence of morpho-syntactic structure in French L2, and gender and number (Prodeau: 2005: 135-163). Learners of English in the multi linguistic contexts of former colonies have their fair share of learning inefficiencies due the influence of the first or mother language. The realities of varieties of English have finally led to the recognition of World Englishes. Today, one accepts readily the existence of Nigerian English, Ghanaian English, Ivorian and Togolese French etc.

An important issue for the macro and micro levels of language learning are those of language rights, the psychosocial and cultural implications for children who cannot speak their mother language, and the perceived order in which languages should be learned. On those issues, 72% of respondents believed that children should master their mother language before English or French or second Nigerian Language; b) 76.04% agreed that it was a fundamental human and cultural rights issue for children to be educated in their mother language, and c) the psycho cultural implications for children who lack mastery of their L1 were said to be far reaching, ranging from inferiority complex to cultural ostracism. First or mother language was appreciated for what it is: a vital and life long vector of self-esteem, cultural identity and informed understanding of multiculturalism and multilingual education. It is within this context of learning that a harmonious, relationship between first and second and other languages and cultures can be further nurtured and institutionalized through national language policy design and planning in African countries.

Tong’s (1997: 43-60) study of L1-L2 relationship beyond the native culture and country reveals, for instance

the existence of some cultural tensions Chinese bilingual and bicultural youngsters experience as they seek to understand the American culture and learn English as a second language. The Chinese language represented a way of maintaining their own identity while adapting socially to the majority culture by developing a cross cultural identity they are able to maintain their ethnic loyalties as they struggle to find a cultural voice in America.
Alexander and Busch (2007: 9-22) also advocate the solid grounding of the learner in his/her indigenous language. Mother tongue education, they hold, promotes indigenous knowledge and cultural identity while multiculturalism promotes relativity, comparative insight into linguistic diversity and balanced global citizenship. They rightly suggest that:

Without a democratic language policy involving the use of first or home languages as widely as possible in all spheres of society and economy, democracy remains a dead letter (…).we know that children can learn to read and write two (and in individual cases, even more), languages at the same time (…) research on biliteracy is one of the most urgent priorities for enhancing the possibility of realizing the goals of promoting and maintaining linguistic diversity and spreading literacy skills as widely as possible.

Last, despite their reservations, 79.16 % of respondents’ views on macro level policy/language planning were in favour of maintaining the official language and encouraging the use of African languages in schools, while 85.41% also agreed that there was a need for each African country to have a policy that would ensure a place for each African language in the school curriculum.

Shifts, inconsistencies and inefficiencies have been examined at the macro policy design and micro school-based levels respectively. In developing countries with a colonial heritage-linguistic and political, both levels have to be considered together becaues they provide a holistic basis for understanding the key sources and challenges of pedagogy-related contexts of first and second languages. If the overwhelming pieces of empirical evidence from several countries around the world, discussed earlier, attest to the critical role of first/mother language in enhancing cognitive and balanced psycho-cultural learning achievements, it has also characterized and delineated the real relationship of first and second official/colonial languages in pedagogy-related context in multilingual countries of sub-Saharan Africa.


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