Indigenous Languages as Medium of Instruction in Nigerian Primary Schools: Significance and Implications

Citation: Tsaure, M.B. & Sani, A-U. (2024). Indigenous Languages as Medium of Instruction in Nigerian Primary Schools: Significance and Implications. Tasambo Journal of Language, Literature, and Culture, 3(1), 32-39. www.doi.org/10.36349/tjllc.2024.v03i01.004.

Indigenous Languages as Medium of Instruction in Nigerian Primary Schools: Significance and Implications


Muhammad Badamasi TSAURE
Principal Government Senior Secondary School Tsaure
Shanono LGA, Kano, Nigeria
Email: bbadamasi49@gmail.com
Phone: +234 8140276592  


Abu-Ubaida SANI
Department of Languages and Cultures
Federal University Gusau, Zamfara, Nigeria
abu-ubaidallah@fugusau.edu.ng | abuubaidasani5@gmail.com
Blog: https://www.abu-ubaida.com | https://www.amsoshi.com
WhatsApp: +234 81 33529736  

Abstrac t

This paper critically explores the intricate relationship between language policy and primary education in Nigeria, addressing the challenges posed by the country's linguistic diversity. As Nigeria navigates the complexities of effective educational strategies within its multilingual society, the study delves into the historical evolution and current state of language policies, emphasizing their impact on educational practices and outcomes. The focal point is a recent paradigm shift, championed by Nigeria's Minister of Education, advocating for the use of indigenous languages as the primary medium of instruction in primary schools. This departure from previous practices holds profound implications for the educational sector, prompting a detailed analysis of its pedagogical effectiveness and broader effects on cultural preservation and national identity. Drawing on Jean Piaget's Constructivism Learning Theory, the paper underscores the role of learners' experiences in shaping cognitive development, aligning with the theoretical framework of language acquisition and learning. Beyond policy analysis, the study addresses practical implications, challenges, and offers recommendations for successful implementation, aiming to contribute valuable insights to the ongoing dialogue on educational reform in Nigeria.

Keywords: Language of Instructions, Mother Tongue, National Policy

1.0 Introduction

The impact of language on overall learning and academic performance is a critical aspect that cannot be overlooked as emphasized by Ozoemena et al. (2021) and Adedigba et al. (2023) . Language serves as the fundamental medium through which information is shared, playing a pivotal role in shaping learning experiences. Recognizing the significance of language, recent national language policies, such as the directive for primary school pupils to be taught in the language of their immediate environment, underscore the importance of linguistic considerations in education.

However, the historical landscape reveals a series of language-related policies that have often been subjected to abuse or misuse, leading to substantial disruptions within the education sector. In light of these challenges, the Ministry of Education in Nigeria has recently introduced a new policy. This article seeks to explore and dissect both the old and new language policies, shedding light on their impact on teaching and learning activities, particularly at the primary school level.

Arguably, the multitude of Nigeria's indigenous languages, diverse as they may be, should be strategically positioned as mediums of instruction in primary schools. Drawing inspiration from Jean Piaget's Constructivism Learning Theory (1896–1980) , which posits that students actively construct their own learning based on previous experiences, this research aims to delve into the implications of adopting indigenous languages in primary education.

The paper contends that revitalizing and resuscitating indigenous languages is imperative for fostering effective teaching and learning environments. It is within this context that the article concludes by urging government authorities at all levels to prioritize the revitalization of indigenous languages, recognizing them as essential tools for addressing the educational challenges currently faced. The timely execution of such measures is seen as crucial in ensuring that the educational system aligns with the dynamic needs and aspirations of the society it serves.

2.0 Literature Review

Recent research underscores the pivotal role and effectiveness of incorporating learners' native languages in educational instruction, particularly at the primary level. Seminal studies by Taiwo (1976), Obanya (1992), Emenanjo (1996), Olanrewaju (1996), Osborn (2007), Oluwole (2008), Olagbaju & Akinsowu (2014) , Akintola & Adetunji (2020), Ozoemena et al (2021) and Adedigba et al. (2023) collectively highlight this significance. Notably, Olagbaju & Akinsowu (2014) emphasize that learners grasp, transfer, and apply concepts more effectively in their mother tongue. This perspective aligns with religious teachings, as seen in the Qur'an (12:3, 30:113, 41:3, 42:7, 43:3, 16:103) and the Bible (Exodus 34:27, Isaiah 19:18, 2nd Kings 18:26, Chronicles 32:18), where divine messages were often conveyed in the native languages of the recipients.

The choice of instruction medium significantly influences learners' comprehension and academic achievement. Murray (2012) addresses the growing concern over students' weak language skills impeding their learning, suggesting a potential correlation between the medium of instruction and student performance at the primary level, as Kumar (2015) further investigates.

Academic literature is replete with discussions on how students' academic performance is intricately linked to the language of instruction. The Ife Six-Year Primary Project (SYPP) demonstrated that students achieve higher proficiency when instructed in their mother tongue or the language predominant in their immediate community. This finding was echoed by the National Policy on Education (2004), which advocates for initial instruction in the mother tongue, transitioning to English at later stages. The policy also emphasizes the importance of language in the educational process and cultural preservation, advocating for children to learn one of the three major languages apart from their mother tongue, in the interest of national unity (Olagbaju & Akinsowu, 2014).

Contrastingly, there is evidence showing the adverse effects of English-medium instruction on academic performance. Mekonnen (2005; 2009) discovered that primary students educated in their native language outperformed their peers taught in a non-native language in subjects like Math and Science.

In a similar vein, a study by the Education Department of Hong Kong (1994) revealed that students taught in Chinese excelled over those instructed in English in disciplines such as science, geography, and history. Marsh, Hau, and Kong (2000) identified a significant negative impact of English-medium instruction on subjects like geography, science, and world history. The Education Bureau (2006) further corroborated these findings across various subjects including Economics, Geography, History, and the Sciences.

3.1 Language Policy in Nigeria: The Dust Behind

Effective language planning plays a pivotal role in the success of primary education within a multilingual context. However, challenges often arise due to the lack of coordination between the mother tongue and the language of instruction in schools, leading to significant issues in medium transition as noted by Olaoye ( 2002).

Olaoye (2002) has expressed concern over Nigeria's inconsistent language policy, which has witnessed a cycle of adoption, rejection, and re-adoption over the years. This inconsistency has fueled debates on language-related policies in primary education. Some educationists advocate for the use of Early Childhood English Medium (EEM) throughout primary education, where English serves as the medium of instruction, and Nigerian languages are relegated to being taught as subjects. Olaoye (2002) contends that linguistically diverse states such as Benue, Cross Rivers, Kwara, and Rivers are more likely to embrace EEM, inadvertently promoting monolingualism in the educational process.

With recent federal government bills endorsing a new language policy, stipulating that the language of the immediate community be used as the language of instruction from primary 1-6 in Nigeria, concerns have been raised by critics, particularly those leaning towards the left side of the ideological spectrum. Their apprehensions include:

  1. Divergence in Teacher-Pupil Language: There is a worry that the language spoken by teachers may differ from that of the majority of pupils, particularly in urban areas.
  2. Linguistic Diversity among Pupils: In classrooms, pupils may represent a variety of linguistic backgrounds, making it challenging to establish a single language of instruction that caters to all.
  3. Lack of Universality in State Languages: None of the languages widely used in many states seems universally suitable as the official language for primary education, raising questions about inclusivity.
  4. Literary Development Concerns: Critics argue that none of the languages specified in the new policy are adequately developed for literary purposes, potentially hindering the effectiveness of the language of instruction.

As Nigeria grapples with these challenges, it becomes crucial to navigate a path that balances linguistic diversity, educational efficacy, and cultural preservation in the formulation and implementation of language policies for primary education. See the table 1 below.

Table 1 : Language Policy Specifications





1a (F)

Every school child shall learn at least one of the three ''major'' Nigerian languages, namely, Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba, in addition to his/her mother tongue (NPE, Section 1:8).


2a (F)

English shall be used as the medium of instruction from upper primary education onwards (NPE, Section 3:15(4)).


3a (S)

The mother tongue or the language of the immediate community shall be used as the medium of instruction in early formal education (NPE, Section 3:15(4))


4 (F/S)

Government shall promote the learning of indigenous languages (Constitution, Section 19(4))

Government and Administration

1b (F)

Business of the National Assembly shall be conducted in English and, when adequate arrangements have been made, in Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba (Constitution, Section 53).


2b (F)

(By inference from lb), English shall be the major official language of government and administration (Constitution, Section 53).


3b (S)

Each state shall select one or more local languages, in addition to English, for the purposes of conducting the business of its House of Assembly (Constitution, Section 95).

Source: Adopted from Akinnaso (2015) with little modifications

3.2 Language of Instructions: Why Indigenous Languages Matter

In 1955, Noam Chomsky introduced a groundbreaking concept in linguistics, proposing the existence of a cognitive mechanism known as the Language Acquisition Device (LAD) within the brain of every normal human child. According to Chomsky, this innate ability, present from birth, enables a child to acquire language, particularly their first language. Tsaure & Sani (2016) further elaborate on the significance of language acquisition, highlighting that it is the foremost skill a child develops in the process of communication. Specifically, it serves as the conduit through which societal customs, values, traditions, and essential familial ties are conveyed.

In alignment with these insights, the National Language Centre (1975) emphasizes that for education to be truly meaningful, a child should be instructed in their mother tongue, a language they can both read and write. This perspective underscores the pivotal role of the mother tongue in facilitating a deeper understanding of academic concepts and ensuring a robust foundation for further cognitive development.

Contributing to the discourse on the use of indigenous languages in education, Olagbaju & Akinsowun (2014) offer a practical dimension to the argument. They contend that the utilization of the mother tongue in education is not merely a theoretical stance but a tangible necessity. Students instructed in English, as opposed to their mother tongue, often grapple with the dual challenge of comprehending a foreign language used as the medium of instruction and navigating the complexities of the concepts being taught. This dual challenge can hinder effective learning and may contribute to disparities in educational outcomes.

Thus, the discussions surrounding the innate language acquisition capabilities of children, the importance of mother tongue in education, and the practical challenges posed by the use of foreign languages converge to underscore the critical role that language plays in shaping the educational experiences of students. These insights advocate for a more linguistically sensitive approach to instruction, acknowledging the centrality of language in fostering effective communication and knowledge acquisition.

 Table 2: Some African states using native Languages as medium of instructions


No. of Languages

Language(s) of Instructions



1, Setswana (spoken by 90% of the population)



1, Setswana (spoken by 90% of the population)



1, Kiswahili (spoken by 65% of the population)


12 (above)

1, Chichewa (spoken by 80% of the population)

South Africa


11, official languages with no designated national languages



1, Kiswahili



4, Major indigenous languages


8 (plus)

2, Chishona and Isindebele

  Source: Adopted from Tsaure & Sani (2016: 5)

The data presented in Table 2 offers a revealing comparison of language policies in educational systems across various African countries. Notably, it highlights that several African nations, some of which are younger in their independence and less economically developed than Nigeria, have implemented their indigenous languages as the primary mediums of instruction in schools. This strategic choice contrasts sharply with Nigeria's current reliance on a foreign language for educational instruction, particularly in primary schools.

The adoption of indigenous languages in these countries is not merely a symbolic nod to cultural heritage; it is a pragmatic approach aimed at enhancing educational outcomes. When students learn in their native tongue, they are more likely to grasp complex concepts, participate actively in class, and develop a deeper connection with their learning materials. This approach also supports cognitive development in young learners by building on their existing linguistic and cultural knowledge.

For Nigeria, following the example set by these African counterparts could offer a pathway to rectifying some of the challenges faced in its education system. The use of a foreign language as the medium of instruction in primary schools has been linked to various issues, including lower comprehension levels, reduced student participation, and overall diminished educational outcomes. By transitioning to indigenous languages, Nigeria could create a more inclusive and effective educational environment, one that respects and leverages the linguistic diversity of its population.

Furthermore, this policy change could have far-reaching impacts beyond the classroom. It can serve as a tool for cultural preservation, ensuring that Nigeria's rich tapestry of languages and dialects continues to thrive in future generations. It also has the potential to foster national unity and identity, as students from different ethnic backgrounds gain exposure to and appreciation for Nigeria's linguistic heritage.

Table 3: shows some developed countries of the world that use indigenous languages as their languages of instructions:


 Language(s) of Instructions


















Norwegian, Nynorsh, Bokmal














Dutch, French, German

T he insights from tables 2 and 3 above strongly advocate for Nigeria to reconsider its language policy in education. By adopting indigenous languages as mediums of instruction, particularly at the primary level, Nigeria stands to enhance the quality and accessibility of its education, safeguard its linguistic diversity, and address some of the systemic challenges that have arisen from the use of a foreign language in its schools.

4.1 Findings

The following points encapsulate the key discoveries of this research:

i.                       Inconsistent Implementation of Language Policies: Previous language-related policies within the Nigerian education sector, as part of the National Policy on Education, have often been inconsistently implemented. This finding has observed instances of misuse, abuse, and disregard of these policies by various stakeholders.

ii.                    Government's Decisive Action on Language Policy: The Nigerian government has recently taken a significant step by passing a bill that focuses on the use of indigenous Nigerian languages as the primary medium of instruction in primary schools. This decisive action represents a major shift in language policy.

iii.                 Potential for Long-Term Implementation: The research suggests a strong belief that the new policy on the use of indigenous languages in primary education is not a transient solution but a lasting reform. It is poised to become a permanent feature of Nigeria's educational landscape.

iv.                  Impact on Educational Outcomes and Cultural Preservation: The findings indicate that this policy could substantially improve educational experiences and outcomes for Nigerian children. By aligning educational content with students' linguistic and cultural backgrounds, the policy is expected to enhance understanding, participation, and overall educational effectiveness.

v.                     Enhancement of National Identity and Cultural Heritage: The adoption of indigenous languages in education is seen as a critical step in preserving Nigeria's rich cultural heritage and strengthening its national identity. This aspect of the findings emphasizes the importance of language in maintaining cultural continuity and fostering a sense of national unity.

vi.                  A Hopeful Future for Education in Nigeria: The implementation of this policy is perceived as a beacon of hope for the future of Nigeria’s education sector. It is anticipated to not only improve the quality of education but also make it more relevant and inclusive for children across the nation.

4.2 Recommendations

To effectively integrate indigenous languages into the Nigerian education system, a concerted effort is required in the codification and development of these languages. This includes producing comprehensive reading materials that are both accessible and culturally relevant. Furthermore, to ensure adherence to the multilingual provisions across all areas of study, a dedicated team of language experts should be established. This team would visit schools regularly, not just to monitor compliance but also to assist and guide educators in the effective implementation of these provisions.

The development of indigenous language competence in a school environment necessitates a collaborative approach between teachers and students. This partnership is essential for fostering a learning atmosphere where indigenous languages are not only taught but actively used in daily interactions. Additionally, the government should allocate sufficient funds to support these educational initiatives, as highlighted by Ibrahim & Gwandu (2016). Adequate funding is crucial for the development of language resources, teacher training, and the overall enhancement of language-based educational programs.

The full implementation of the National Policy on Education concerning the use of indigenous languages from primary 1-6 is imperative. To this end, the government should establish a dedicated committee or commission responsible for the oversight of curriculum policy implementation. This body would play a critical role in monitoring and ensuring that educational institutions across the federation adhere to the policy. Furthermore, school administrators should be tasked with regularly updating the commission on the compliance status of their teachers and the overall effectiveness of the policy implementation.

The availability of learning and instructional materials in indigenous languages is crucial for the success of this language policy. Experts specializing in these languages should be tasked with translating existing science and other subject textbooks, ensuring that pupils have access to quality educational materials in their native languages. This initiative would not only aid in the comprehension of complex subjects but also promote a deeper connection between students and their learning materials.

Finally, the promotion of indigenous languages as mediums of instruction in primary schools should be a collective endeavor involving not just the government, but also other stakeholders such as non-governmental organizations, town unions, and community development associations. These groups can play a pivotal role in advocating for and supporting the use of indigenous languages in education. Their involvement could range from funding local language initiatives to organizing community-based educational programs, thereby creating a broader support network for this significant shift in Nigeria’s educational landscape.

4.3 Conclusion

In addressing challenges within the education sector, the government has consistently introduced language-related policies as part of the national policy on education. Unfortunately, many of these policies have been misused or distorted by the Nigerian populace. In a decisive move, the federal government recently passed a bill mandating the use of indigenous Nigerian languages as the primary medium of instruction in primary schools. The researcher s believes that this new policy is a lasting change that will significantly benefit our children and improve the education sector overall if fittingly implemented .


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