The English Language, a National Language Policy and Nationhood


The Phelps-Stokes Education Commission to Africa, 1921

Human beings’ most priceless possession – language – marks their personal and group identity.  It is the handmaiden of culture; the two are inseparable.  Language determines people`s Weltanschauung, their worldview.                                                       

It is not surprising therefore that the British colonial masters promoted the English language, “the treasure of their identity, the vehicle of their thought, and the golden key to their soul”, with zeal, investing colossal amounts of money and providing literature in the developing world – Africa, China, India and South America.


In 1935 the British Council was founded and officially launched by the Prince of Wales, who noted that Britain was the last of the Great Powers to set up a bona fide organisation to disseminate knowledge and appreciation of its language, literature, science, education and art. 

In 1940 the Council was chartered to promote “a wider knowledge of our United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the English language.”

A lot of resources were put into the teaching of   English    in   every continent;   innovations   in    methods   of   teaching   English   were encouraged; scholarships to Britain were generously given and books on literature and dictionaries were readily made accessible in British Council libraries all over the world.                                                                        

In Nigeria, the biggest foyer of the black race, the pre-eminence of the imperial tongue was reinforced by Baldwin, the acting Assistant Director for the Northern Provinces of Nigeria, who, in 1944, boldly asserted   that:

“In an ideal world there is no conflict between the aims of the vernacular and a foreign language. On the contrary a literary command of the one is an aid to acquiring the other while the foreign tongue in turn fertilizes the vernacular …. No one, I think, who has had to read through    candidates’   answers    in   the Elementary or Higher Elementary Certificate can doubt it. Even where the English is tolerably correct, it may be very difficult to discover what the man is thinking. He is the victim of words, not their master. The art of clear and vigorous    writing    has    never    been learnt.” 

The above statements lend credence to the immortal words of the 5th century BC Chinese philosopher-genius, Confucius, who said, “If the language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant. If what is said is not what is meant, then what ought to be done remains undone.”

Indeed research shows that educational failure is primarily linguistic failure. This is an incontrovertible fact, as any teacher worth their salt knows.

All over the former British colonies in Africa, including Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Gambia, Ghana, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, the implacable desire for mastery of the white man’s language inevitably resulted in a progressively waning enthusiasm for the national languages. 


The Phelps-Stokes Education Commission to Africa in 1921 pronounced the following cardinal educational principle:

“Native tongue is immensely more vital in that it is one of the chief means of preserving whatever is good in native customs, ideas and ideals …. All peoples have an inherent right to their own personality   however   primitive   they   may be.… No greater injustice can be committed against a people than to deprive them of their own language.” 

The existing language policy and the public examination system in any country go a long way towards determining the quantity and quality of what is to be learnt.  

One of the architects of Nigerian independence, the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, recalling the dog-like devotion of a former British principal of his at secondary school to Yoruba language and culture laments that its encouragement at the time was mistaken for selfishness and says candidly, “I shared this view then, but now I think that he was a great pioneer.”

Awolowo`s conversion to the love of his Yoruba language and culture, despite his marriage to the beauty of the English language, shows clearly that generally the more you are exposed to another person`s language, English, for example, the more you appreciate your native language.

The diploma disease, that is, the obsession with certificates, had at the pre-independence days consumed Nigerians, who yearned for social mobility and professional advancement. 

The entrenchment of the English language sadly meant the gradual descent of the indigenous languages   to neglect and ignominy. 

The national languages were, regrettably, relegated to the background and children who were heard speaking them faced severe disciplinary measures. 

The seeds of cultural imperialism were thus sown by this singular act, and cultural imperialism gives the greatest and most durable returns. 

A common national language affords the powers-that-be the opportunity to reach out to every man, woman and child, thereby bringing to their doorsteps the plans, problems and polices of the government.


These lofty national goals are more neatly expressed by the American linguist, Joshua Fishman, who, in 1971, said:

“A common indigenous language in the modern nation state is a powerful factor for unity. Cutting across tribal and ethnic lines, it promotes   a  feeling   of  single    community. 

Additionally, it makes possible the expression and development of social ideas, economic targets and cultural identity easily perceived by the citizens. It is, in a word, a powerful factor of mobilisation of people and resources for nationhood.”  

In a multilingual and multicultural country, such as Nigeria, Burkina Faso or the Gambia, there is an absolute need for a common indigenous language in order to adequately express the socio-economic and cultural aspects of the life of the nation. 

There is no denying the fact that a nation without a fully developed national language loses much of its self-respect before the eyes of the world. 

A nation without a common indigenous language is a nation in the doldrums of underdevelopment; hence the urgent need for African countries to adopt a viable language policy that will be binding on every citizen. 


The Nigerian linguist, M A Adekunle, posits that: 

A sound national language policy should make sure that there is available to every citizen a language that serves as an adequate vehicle for a national philosophy, a national culture, and as a popular symbol of national unity. 

That it is only the language of the indigenous population that can give expression to their culture most effectively is not in doubt. The Nigerian National Policy on Education stipulates that every child should be “encouraged to learn one of the three major languages other than his own”. 

These major languages are Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo. This is, as the policy clearly states, with a view to consolidating the position of language as a medium of education and a vehicle for the expression of indigenous culture. 

Specifically, with regard to the national languages, the policy states further: “Government will see to it that the medium of instruction in the primary school is initially the mother tongue or the language of the immediate community and, at a later stage, English”. 

The National Policy on Education is no doubt influenced by the Rome Declaration of 1930 on the position of indigenous languages in a nation`s education system. 


The resolution, which was at the instance of the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures, states quite explicitly:

It is a universally acknowledged principle in modern education that a child should receive instruction both in and through his mother tongue, and this privilege should not be withheld from the African child. The child should learn to love and respect the mental heritage of his own people and the natural and necessary expression of this heritage is the language. Neglect of the vernacular involves the danger of crippling and destroying the pupil’s productive powers by forcing him or her to express himself/herself in a language foreign both to himself and to the genius of her race. 

As a general rule, therefore, during the first three years of school education instruction should be carried on exclusively in a native language and we understand that there is a considerable body of educational experience which supports us in this opinion. We consider that no European language should be taught during that time and that it should be followed by a period during which the pupil begins to learn a European language while other instruction is continued in the vernacular. 

According to the American anthropologist-linguist, Edward Sapir, “we see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.”

It is pertinent to note that the often-quoted sentiments couched in the Rome resolution have been instrumental in formulating language policies in many African countries since 1930. 

Ghana, in particular, introduced the learning of its national languages in its education system since the early 1950s when the government established the Bureau of Ghanaian Languages. 

As of today, as many as ten Ghanaian languages are studied from the primary school to the undergraduate and postgraduate levels at the university.  In Nigeria the study of Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo, Fulfulde, Ijaw, and Tiv etc is an important component of the linguistics departments in the universities. 

Swahili is widely taught and spoken in East Africa – Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. As a matter of fact, it is the lingua franca in these countries, just as Hausa and Twi are the lingua franca in northern Nigeria and Ghana respectively.

A paraphrase of the UNESCO proposals for the responsibilities of the mother-tongue teacher, as espoused in the book entitled Using Linguistics: An Educational Focus by P Gannon and P Czerniewska in 1980, is worth our attention here. 

These proposals include the skills of creative interpretative communication, the study of the objective aspects of language, the study of literary heritage, and social and individual development.

It has been necessary to look at the important role of African languages for the following cogent educational and social reasons:

1. It is generally believed that instruction in the mother tongue greatly helps instruction in the second language. Research shows that the more languages one knows, the easier one finds it to learn other languages.

2. It is immoral and unethical to plunge 7-year-old children into the bewilderment of a foreign language and culture on the very first day at school, thus making it difficult for them to grasp the subject matter of teaching. 

3. Education in English devalues   the indigenous languages and uproots learners from their cultural backgrounds, making them black people with white masks!


 Jerome Bruner, a former Harvard University professor of psychology, puts it thus:


“A language that you have never been happy in, never been angry in, never made love in, a language that is only for school, is no language in which to develop the enterprises of the mind.”

The ever-growing spread of English on the continent must be nipped in the bud, for, by its continual use, African traditions and customs are forever condemned to cultural stagnation. 

The use of the English language in Africa and many parts of the world serves only the wide-ranging interests of the United States and their Western allies.

In 1968, Pierre L van den Berghe, professor emeritus of sociology and anthropology, warned strongly that “the use of French and English entails grave danger for the future of democracy and of social and cultural development in Africa. Specifically, the foreign languages accentuate cleavages between the elite and the masses and between the city and the countryside.” 

Unfortunately, the indispensable instrument of knowledge and power in the former British colonies in Africa is currently English.  As such it must be learnt and taught well, especially at the higher education level – in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). 

 It seems from all indications that the English language will be with us for a long time indeed, perhaps for the next one hundred or so years.  If it stays that long, it will spell unprecedented social, economic and political problems.  

African countries have lost, and will continue to lose, a great deal of their self-respect in the comity of nations, especially at the United Nations and its various organs around the world. 

Ultimately, the future of English, and the sensible adoption of any of the indigenous African languages as official languages depends very much on the leadership quality, political maturity, linguistic tolerance and general enlightenment of the diverse peoples of Africa. 

Whether an African  country eventually adopts Hausa, Mende, Yoruba, Lingala, Wolof, Igbo, Pulaar, Mossi, Swahili  or any language for that matter as the official language is a major political decision which has to be sanctioned by the majority of a country`s  citizens, if a bloodbath is to be averted. 

The question is a delicate matter requiring tact, cooperation, sympathy and understanding from people of all walks of life. 

The renowned Kenyan professor of political science, the late Ali Mazrui, succinctly put it thus  in his television documentary, The Africans: “You can teach other people how to speak the English language; you can teach them how to be Christians; but you can’t teach them how to govern themselves.”


Fodeh Baldeh is an editor, a writer and former senior lecturer in English at the University of the Gambia. He is currently working on a book entitled Njanngen Pulaar: A Handbook on the Fula Language.



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