Queen Ugochi Njemanze
Directorate of General Studies, Federal University of Technology, Owerri

Monolitracy in entire English or mother tongue has not yielded the desired result in the development of an individual or language in Nigeria. A child is expected to be literate both in his/her mother tongue and a foreign language: English. Literacy being an important concept which is also criteria to the processes of language and human development demands that an individual should have a sound foundation in both his mother tongue and in English Language in order to develop a stronger literacy base for better academic and personality development in Nigeria. These concepts being interdependent assert that biliteracy education aids the all round development of an individual.

Keywords: Literacy, mother tongue, biliteracy, development

Literacy being a multifaceted concept is acquired within linguistic and educational environment. It is one of the yardsticks for measuring a nations development. There is therefore the need to inculcate the appropriate values to individuals using an understandable medium of instruction.  
Literacy has attracted a lot of attention from many scholars. It has been given a pride of place in the upliftment of every individual. It is used as an instrument to arouse the human consciousness towards the realization of concrete human goals.

In the Nigerian environment which is struggling to fit into the global community, there is need not just for English alone but also for the ethnic languages. This agrees with Qorros(2004:113) assertion that;”…English alone is not enough, therefore we need English plus other languages”. In other words every Nigerian citizen should be equipped with these her mother tongue and English Language.
This paper therefore examines the concepts of literacy, mother tongue biliteracy and development. It also looks into the relationship of these concepts to the processes of human development and why they should be options for language, human and educational developments. It concludes by re-emphasizing the theme of the paper.

Literacy as a concept
Literacy is simply defined as the ability to read and write.
Literacy as a term is prominent in our linguistic reasoning. It is derived from the Latin word ‘Literae’ meaning to read. Literacy has been amplified in such a way that one can only pick a suitable definition for her work. Adieseshia (1976) sees literacy as a functional instrument for transforming, constructing and reconstructing human experience. A literate person thus, becomes one who is able to read, understand and interpret a simple sentence which he uses in his everyday life. UNESCO’s definition in Ryan (1991).

Literacy can therefore be described using the broader notion of definition that suits the present millennium. Hence, lytle and wolfe (1989) used four concrete terms to define this concept; acquisition of skills; tasks performance, social practices; and critical reflection.
This definition emphasizes an individual’s ability to perform literate skills, like individuals ability to learn a trade or skill e.g Computer traning, he is able to interact freely in the society and earn good money to sustain his living. This enhances his productivity, livelihood and personality.

Examining literacy from another perspective, venezky, wagner and ciliberti (1990) believe that literacy is dependent on the meaning acceded to it and conceptions of the person involved. In defining literacy therefore. Scholars of this view argued that it is the ability to encode message correctly using acceptable symbols with corresponding power to decode the message meaningfully.

This definition emphasizes communication as the basic concept in literacy, it embraces all the language skills; reading, writing, speaking and listening. The advancement of Roman and Greek education only popularized the ability to read and write. This did not last as there was reformation and dawn of linguistic nationalism. This placed emphasis on significance and purposefulness in literacy. It brought with it a new perspective of literacy meaning the ability to read and write as well as the use of vernacular or mother tongue of the individual in the literacy process. This led to the emphasis placed on indigenous language or mother tongue today.

Mother tongue
Mother tongue is a language in which a speaker has proficiency and mastery. This language is acquired naturally in a speakers native environment.
It is also the first language of an individual. It is the language that has greater prominence in the life of every individual. Afolayan (1988) defines it as;
The only language of a monolingual person, which meets all his linguistic needs. It is usually the sequentially first language of a bilingual or a multilingual person.

According to him, it is the language that fully identifies with the personal or native culture of a bilingual or multi-lingual person. Mother tongue is the language in which a person conducts his everyday activities and has the greatest linguistic facility or intuitive knowledge.

This language has the socio-cultural functions of serving as the instrument of nationism and nationalism in a speech community or nation. It is an internalized habit which emphasizes proficiency and knowledge of the basic skills; listening, speaking, reading and writing. Mother tongue becomes a distinctive characteristic feature of man which has the major function of communication. The child acquires knowledge of this language from his immediate family; parents, siblings, uncles and aunts at home before he is exposed to formal instruction and education. He internalizes these initial education and uses it in his day to day activities.

Education thus becomes an indicator of informal and formal instructions acquired by an individual. It is also synonymous with traditional education, which conserves and transmits the culture, traditions and experiences of a particular society. It aligns with formal education which reflects systematic schooling organized in an institution of learning at all levels. Using the mother tongue as a medium for initial instruction therefore provides a hitch-free transition from the home environment to the school environment. This leads to the actualization of biliteracy which guilds an individual to become functionally relevant in his society.

Biliteracy education in Nigeria
In the Nigerian environment which is largely multilingual there is a large gap existing between English and other languages which perform lower functions in the society. However, most advocates of mother tongue affirm that proper development of an individual is achieved when the person is taught in a language that he has spoken from birth. Educational subjects have content, facts and principles which is easier for an individual to interpret in his first language than in a second or foreign language.

Using a foreign or second language to educate a child or an individual without using his mother tongue will mean educating the child outside his or her social setting, immediate environment, culture and traditional values. It also encourages loss of self identity and alienation between the child and his parents and between the individual and his society.
The dominance of English literacy as the dominant language in our education policy should be reassessed rather the inclusion of both the first language/mother tongue and English/foreign Language should be encouraged.

There is an urgent need for people to read and write in their mother tongue as a means of enjoying their human right while also acquiring strong English skills to function effectively in the global society. Hence, this paper evaluates literacy and language education as a process of human development.

Literacy, language education and human development
Development has been identified as the gradual growth or formation of something in which a person matures, changes or advances to another stage. Development of a literate person is fundamental component of Human development. It gives human security to an individual. Development is a gradual growth of a structure which directs and controls the processes of future change. It also recreates the society.

Human development thus refers to the development which is central to man. Ginkel (1998) asserts that man has fundamental right to freedom, equality and adequate qualities of life in an environment of quality that permits a life of dignity and well being and he bears a solemn responsibility to protect and generally improve the environment of present and future generations. In order words human development cannot be accomplished without combined efforts of the individual, the environment and government. The government provides an enabling environment for sustainable development.

For an individual to be developed, he needs to attain the developmental and environmental needs of his immediate environment. This can only be achieved through education. Education is the bedrock of human and national development. Hence Bamgbose (1980) asserts; Education is not only the basis of mass participation, it is a means of upward social mobility, manpower training and development in its widest sense of the full realization and utilization of human potentials and the nation’s resources for the benefit of all. Its importance cannot be overemphasized. It carries a nation forward; for this to happen there must be a literacy programme.

This coincides with otagburuagu’s (2006) view which sees literacy as a multidimensional concept which is critical and criterial to human development process. He goes further to encapsulate literacy as;

  • The process of the acquisition of various skills and technologies that make life worth living in a dynamic society.
  • A process that is culture-driven which often responds to market forces for relevance
  • An attribute of human civilization which shapes man and transforms him from ignorance to knowledge, obscurity to prominence and from passivity to activity.

These can only be achieved through language. It is the only means of communication and the best means of knowledge transmission. Language is an asset of human habits; it carries the real expressions of our thoughts and feelings. Because of the uniqueness of language there is the tendency for the problem of language to be used to arise. Hence, this study evaluates the use of biliteracy medium of instruction in Nigeria.

Biliteracy as medium of literacy education in Nigeria:
Every language has its unique attributes. Ayodele (2004) stresses that, “in virtually all the advanced countries of the world children are first and foremost educated in their mother tongue. No language can do better in deepening knowledge and making it a worthy experience than one’s mother tongue. This lends support to the efficacy of the mother tongue in the education of an individual.

For the developing nations like Nigeria which needs to compete favourably with the developed nations; it has to educate their citizens through the use of biliteracy medium of instruction; this will enhance easy transition from informal education to formal education. The official situation in Nigeria is that pupils should be taught in the official language as well as their mother tongue.
The real reason is to make them literate in two languages; hence they are expected to be fluent both in speaking and thinking. The primary level of education is the foundation for effective literacy of any individual. The draft of federal republic of Nigeria National policy on Education (1995) contains a definite statement on the role of language and language of instruction in education. Section (3:14(e)) stipulates that the language of instruction in the primary school should be initially the child’s mother tongue or the language of the  immediate community. The adoption of the mother tongue in literacy instruction will put education on a surer footing. Literacy in mother tongue and English language will therefore enhance an individuals ability to read and write as well as socialize, analyze expressions and critically evaluate issues which will in turn facilitate national and human development.

The relevance of English Language in our nation cannot be neglected. It is the foundation for all aspect of human development in Nigeria. English is the language of wider and International communication, it is the language of commerce and trade, it is the language of administration, the language of education and more. As a language of education, it has acquired global power, it is the language of digital communication, it is the compulsory language of entry into the Nigerian universities. It also determines the award of degrees in Nigerian tertiary institutions. It is used from pre-nursery to the tertiary levels of education, it enhances communicative and linguistic competences of individuals.

Adopting biliteracy education for human and national development aids behaviour modification through inter-personal communication. Transmission of oral and written tradition is achieved. This shapes the individuals morals which he/she exhibits in the society. Biliteracy skills transfer across languages from their mother tongue to their school language. The development of the new language is dependent upon the existing one. When mother tongue is promoted in child language instruction, it transfers the skills of the new language to the existing one. Both languages nurture each other in literacy acquisition environment.
Biliteracy education helps an individual to be literate both in his mother tongue and second language. He will be bold to adapt and participate in the new dispensation. He will contribute to the socio-economic development of his society and he will also see himself as unhindered and literate, since the (1997) constitution provides the use of mother tongue in the daily running of the nation’s affairs even in the legislature. One will no longer be like the proverbial individual who sees literacy as an encounter with a monster in an enemy territory.

However, one cannot conclude this discussion without referring to an abridged part of an earlier study I carried out bearing in mind that Nigeria according to Bamgbose (1991) has between four hundred and five hundred indigenous languages. The questions are;

  • In what language should a person become literate? And
  • Why does the individual need such a language?

In an attempt to answer these questions, I observed a small population of adult bilingual English students which is made up fifty ICEP (Institute for continuing education program) students. These students were categorized as follows.



No of Students

Sex of Students

Age of Students

Category of Job Done Before Enrolling in School



All student
Are Between
28 and 58 years


28 12


Self employed: hair dressers, tax/cab drivers, restaurant operators, telephone operators, pool house managers and motorcycle riders.

14 9


Private employment: Company receptionist, like fast food centre, petrol station sales agent and clerical officers.

Total No of male students                    =          21
Total No of female students                =          29
Total population                                              =          50 students.

From this study it is discovered that these students lost the opportunity of enjoying early education, they also could not communicate well in English but had sustained interest to be functional literates. They had to go back to school to learn, the medium of instruction being English Language, they measured up because they had a strong mother tongue foundation. They needed the two languages to excel because the Nigerian environment attaches so much importance in an individual’s ability to read and write the English language. They realized that they are not making any meaningful impression in the society because they are not functional literates. Njemanze (2007)

Development being a product of thought while thoughts are expressed through language, also recreates the society, while the society embodies sufficiency, satisfaction and intellectual growth, biliteracy becomes an end products of education which is achieved through language. The use of English Language as the official language in Nigeria is therefore a blessing because it serves as a unifying factor between the divergent ethnic groups in Nigeria. The acquisition of education (literacy) thus becomes the bedrock for national and human development.

Although much attention is being paid to English in Nigeria, every language is important. The impression that literacy is limited to ones ability to read and write only in English should be discouraged.

A relationship exists between a second language and mother tongue, this helps in bringing out potentialities of individuals for human and national development. The challenges of the new millennium demand the combination of literacy initiatives and education programmes, which is tailored towards enhancing equitable use of human, natural, educational and social resources of our nation.

Biliteracy depends upon and reinforce each other; the use of the native language enhances the meaning – making processes of a new/second language. It is a bridge between language and human development. It also allows learners participation and effective utilization of new concepts, which also enhances human and national development.

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