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Embracing mother language-based education for Nigeria’s multilingual mosaic

Africa’s most populous country’s linguistic diversity, while a source of pride, has also posed a barrier to effective education for millions of Nigerian children, particularly in rural areas. Globally, progress is being made in multilingual education based on mother tongue with growing understanding of its importance, particularly in early schooling, and more commitment to its development in public life.
Infographics that reads 'Language Friendly Schoo'
Photo credit: Rutu Foundation
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Once upon a time in the heart of Nigeria, a young child named Amina sat in a classroom, bewildered and disconnected. The words on the blackboard danced before her, and the lessons seemed like an incomprehensible puzzle.

Her teacher spoke in a language foreign to her, leaving Amina feeling lost and disengaged. This scene is not unique to Amina; it resonates with countless children across Nigeria who grapple with the language barrier in education. This is the story of many young minds in Nigeria, where linguistic diversity is a defining characteristic of the country.

Nigeria’s National Policy on Education provides for a multilingual policy involving the learning of a child’s L1 or language of the immediate community (LIC), one of the three major or national languages (i.e. Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba) and English, this policy has not been effectively implemented.

Nigeria’s Linguistic Tapestry

Nigeria is a country of unparalleled linguistic diversity. With over 500 languages spoken across the country, it stands as one of the most multilingual countries on Earth. This rich tapestry of languages is a testament to the nation’s cultural vibrancy but presents a formidable challenge in the realm of education. The linguistic diversity, while a source of pride, has also posed a barrier to effective education for millions of Nigerian children, just like Amina.

Read also: LASU makes Yoruba Language compulsory course for all students, calls it GNS104

The UNESCO Imperative

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has long emphasised the importance of mother language-based multilingual education. UNESCO recognises that education in one’s mother language not only enhances the quality of education but also preserves cultural identity and fosters inclusivity.

The importance of this approach is underlined in UNESCO’s Sustainable Development Goal 4, which emphasises equitable and quality education for all, promoting lifelong learning opportunities for every individual.

UNESCO has consistently championed the cause of multilingual education rooted in the mother tongue, advocating its implementation from the earliest stages of schooling. Extensive research underscores the pivotal role of mother language-based education in fostering inclusion, ensuring quality learning experiences, and elevating academic achievements.

This significance is most pronounced during primary education, where the adoption of mother tongue instruction minimises knowledge gaps, accelerates learning, and enhances comprehension. Moreover, multilingual education founded on the mother tongue empowers all learners to become active participants in society, promoting mutual understanding, respect, and the preservation of the rich tapestry of cultural and traditional heritage inherent in each language across the globe.

Despite these compelling merits, there remains a considerable distance to traverse before ensuring that all learners enjoy their inherent right to education in their mother language. In the majority of countries, a significant proportion of students receive instruction in a language distinct from their mother tongue, significantly compromising their ability to learn effectively. Startlingly, an estimated 40 per cent of the world’s population lacks access to education delivered in a language they speak or comprehend.

Currently, approximately 7,000 languages are spoken worldwide. However, this linguistic diversity is increasingly under threat, as languages vanish at an alarming rate. It is essential to recognise that when a language fades into obscurity, it carries with it an entire reservoir of cultural and intellectual heritage.

On a global scale, there is mounting momentum in the promotion of multilingual education grounded in the mother tongue, accompanied by a deepening appreciation of its importance, particularly in the early educational stages. There is also an escalating commitment to its integration into public life.

African Success Stories

Several African nations have recognised the merits of mother tongue education and have embarked on this educational journey. A noteworthy example is Rwanda, which transitioned to Kinyarwanda as the language of instruction in lower primary schools. This shift resulted in improved learning outcomes and a stronger sense of cultural identity among students.

In Ethiopia, where linguistic diversity is also a reality, mother tongue education has been prioritised in the early years of schooling. This approach has not only improved academic performance but has also contributed to a deeper understanding of cultural heritage among Ethiopian youth.

UNESCO plays a pivotal role by offering normative frameworks for language policy and education, thereby disseminating best practices in bilingual and multilingual education as well as mother tongue instruction. Collaborating closely with Member States, UNESCO actively endeavours to infuse multilingual education into curricular structures and educational systems. Recent initiatives that have successfully propagated mother tongue-based education have been witnessed in nations such as Djibouti, Gabon, Guinea, Haiti, and Kenya.

These remarkable strides are indicative of a global recognition of the transformative potential of mother tongue-based education. As we navigate the intricate linguistic landscape of the world, it is imperative that we remain steadfast in our commitment to preserving the diversity of languages, safeguarding cultural heritage, and promoting equitable, inclusive, and quality education for all.

The Nigerian Challenge

Implementing mother tongue-based education in Nigeria is undoubtedly a complex task. With hundreds of languages spoken, it is essential to carefully plan and adapt strategies. However, the benefits are too significant to ignore. Here are some key steps to navigate this linguistic labyrinth.

Local Curriculum Development: Create localised curricular that incorporate mother tongue instruction in the early years of education. This can be done in collaboration with linguistic experts and educators from various regions.

Teacher Training: Provide teachers with training and resources to teach in mother tongues effectively. This includes developing teaching materials in local languages.

Community Engagement: Involve local communities in the process. Seek their input, support, and active participation in the education of their children.

Gradual Transition: Recognise that this transition may take time. Start with a phased approach, beginning with primary education, and expand it gradually.

Monitoring and Evaluation: Implement a robust system for monitoring and evaluating the impact of mother tongue education on learning outcomes and cultural preservation.


Nigeria’s linguistic diversity is a source of strength and identity. Embracing mother tongue education is not about undermining the importance of a common national language like English; it is about recognising that the foundation of quality education lies in understanding and embracing one’s cultural and linguistic heritage.

As UNESCO advocates, it is high time for Nigeria to embark on the path of mother tongue-based multilingual education, ensuring that every Amina and Ahmed can sit in the classroom with confidence, understanding, and a deep connection to their roots. It’s time to empower our children through their mother tongues, unlocking the full potential of Nigeria’s rich linguistic mosaic.

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