By Farooq Kperogi, Ph.D.
There are two persistent fallacies concerning the nexus between language of instruction at schools and national development. The first fallacy states that no society has ever developed using a foreign language. The second fallacy flows from the first, and it states that indigenous language instruction in and of itself guarantees national development. I will explode both fallacies in today’s column.
Broadly speaking, two groups of people are invested in, and help popularize, these fallacies. The first group is made up of people I choose to characterize as “English mumpsimuses.” Mumpsimus is defined as “adherence to or persistence in an erroneous use of language, memorization, practice, belief, etc., out of habit or obstinacy (opposed to sumpsimus).” A person who is wedded to, or who persists in, mumpsimus is also called a mumpsimus. (The term mumsimus came to mean stubborn resistance to correction because an old monk in the 16th century mispronounced the Latin word “sumpsimus” as “mumsimus” but intentionally persisted in her error even after she was corrected.)
So an English mumpsimus is a person who commits errors in English but is either unwilling or unable to accept corrections. English mumsimuses not only choose to persist in their errors but also direct their anger at the language and at people who point out their errors. This group has my sympathy because English does have quirky and whimsical conventions of usage that can throw off even the most careful learner.
The second group of people is a motley crowd of feel-good, starry-eyed, sentimental nationalists who resent the global linguistic hegemony of English—for good reason. But their arguments against the use of English as a language of instruction at schools are often injected with heavy doses of emotive appeals, but they stand on a slender thread of empirical evidence.
As an advocate for African languages myself, I share some of their sentimental reasons for promoting the use of indigenous languages for instruction at all levels of education. But sentiments are no substitutes for evidence-based reasoning, and legitimate emotions don’t become facts by virtue of their legitimacy. So let’s look at the evidence.
Nations that developed using foreign languages
It’s a well-worn cliché among dewy-eyed linguistic nationalists that indigenous language instruction is the only key to national development. There are several iterations of this sentiment.
For instance, in a 2016 edited book titled Studies in Nigerian Linguistics, Philip Anagbogu and Gideon Omachonu contributed a chapter in which they claim that, “No nation has ever made appreciable progress in development as well as science and technology education relying on a foreign language(s).”
One Professor Birgit Brock-Utne, a Norwegian who taught and lived in Tanzania for a long time, also claimed that, "No country has ever developed on the basis of a foreign language." But these essentialist claims have no basis in linguistic or historical evidence.
Evidence from linguistic research (and, I might add, common sense) shows that no one is infrangibly wired to cogitate rarefied thoughts only in their native language. Societies don't develop because they use their primordial languages for education, nor do they stagnate because they deploy a foreign language for education. That’s vulgar linguistic determinism. Development isn't solely a function of language of instruction at schools; it's a consequence of a multiplicity of factors.
There are 6,909 living languages in the world. The linguistic deterministic thesis of development that holds that societies can only develop if they use their indigenous languages for instruction at schools would suggest that speakers of all the 6,909 living languages in the world should have their separate instructional policies based on their languages. What a babel that would be!
History is littered with examples of countries that developed on the basis of a foreign language.
Let’s start with Europe. Scholarship in Latin, that is, Classical Latin, is the foundation of the development of Western Europe. Latin wasn't native to vast swathes of people in Europe. It was an exclusive elite language, a reason all other European languages at the time were called “vernacular languages.” Latin was the language of education in Europe (including in North Africa where it was studied in schools until the Roman Empire waned) until about the second half of the 18th century.
European development wasn't stalled because people learned and used Latin for scholarship; on the contrary, scholarship in Latin is the foundation for Western Europe’s development. It isn't because there is something intrinsically superior or magical about Latin; it's simply because, for historical reasons, it was the vault of knowledge at the time—the way English is today.
In the Muslim world, particularly from the 8th century to the 13th century, during the so-called Golden Age of Islam when science, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, economic development, etc. grew and flowered luxuriantly, the language of scholarship was Arabic, but several of the key personages associated with this golden age spoke Arabic as a second language.
For example, Muhammad Ibn Musa al-Kwarizmi, the father of algorithm, spoke Farsi as his first language, but his language of education was Arabic. That didn't stop him from making profound contributions to knowledge and to development. Note that Farsi (Persian) and Arabic are not only mutually unintelligible languages, they also belong to two different language families. Persian is an Indo-European language (in common with English!) while Arabic is an Afro-Asiatic language (in common with Hausa!)
Ibn Sina, through whose efforts the West recovered Aristotle and whose work in medical science is foundational, was also a Persian who learned and wrote in Arabic. Arabic was a second language to him. I can go on, but the point I want to make is that several of the central figures in Islam's golden age weren't native Arabic speakers. In fact, most people in the Muslim Ummah at the time weren’t Arabs. But Arabic was the language of education. It was the epistemic storehouse of the time, and the fact of Arabic’s foreignness didn't cause it to halt the development of the societies in which it was used.
For modern examples of countries that developed using a foreign language, Singapore is one. Although most Singaporeans are ethnically Chinese, they use English as the language of instruction at all levels of education in their country. Singapore, not long ago, transitioned from “third world to first,” to borrow from the title of late Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s book. Use of English as the language of education hasn’t stalled Singapore’s development.
Ireland is another example. For long, it was Europe’s fastest growing economy because of its advances in information and communication technology. Ireland’s language of instruction at all levels of education is English even though English isn’t “native” to the country. The country’s “native” tongue is Gaelic, which is mutually unintelligible with English. Like Nigeria and Singapore, Ireland was colonized by England.
In addition, several universities in Asia and Europe are now switching to English as their language of instruction. They aren't stupid.
On the other hand, North Koreans, Vietnamese, Pakistanis, Mongolians, etc., use their native languages as their countries' official languages and as the languages of instruction at all levels of education. That hasn't guaranteed their development. So it is simplistic to assert that simply being educated in a native language is all that is needed to be developed, and that use of a foreign language forecloses development.
As I pointed out earlier, although evidence suggests that mother-tongue instruction enhances learning, no human being is intrinsically and inexorably wired to conceptualize high-minded thoughts in just one language, or only in the language of the culture they grew up in. Nigeria isn't stuck in prolonged infancy because English is its official language; it is because it has had no purposeful, forward-looking, transaction-oriented leadership since independence.
I will explore this topic some more next week and conclude with a discussion on India, which shares many similarities with Nigeria.