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Nigeria’s Ethnic and Linguistic Heterogeneity: 

Implications for Language Education Policy


Nigeria is characterized by a complicated sociolinguistic landscape comprising over 250 ethnic groups. It is also the most linguistically diverse nation in Africa with over 400 languages spread across its regions. Although there have not been a comprehensive census on the number of languages spoken in Nigeria till date (Ndimele, 2012), different researchers have given different estimation which range from 394 (Bendor-Samuel and Standford, 1976) to 440 (Blench and Crozier, 1992) and 515 (Grimes, 1996). Nigerian languages are classified based on the population of the speakers; Emananjo (1985) identified major, minor, and micro-minor languages while Awonusi (2007) identified minor, millionaire, and decamillionaire languages. For instance, Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba are classified as decamillionaires due to their multi- million speakers and the function accorded to them in the nation (Awonusi, 2007). The aforementioned Nigerian languages represent the most predominant ethnic groups in Nigeria- Hausa (north), Igbo (southeast), and Yoruba (southwest). These languages are the official national languages and have also enjoyed some attention in the continuum of education for the purpose of human capital development.

The nation’s sociolinguistic landscape is constantly challenging the realization of its educational goals, as there are lots of disparities among schools in the north, southeast, and southwest. There are also disparities between rural and urban schools, between schools owned and controlled by the federal government and those owned and controlled by the state government, and also private entities. Most of the disparities are language driven as Olagbaju (2014), puts it, “when a nation has access to more than a language in her national day – to – day experience, then the reality of a language contact situation cannot be ruled out.” In other words, human mobility in Nigeria, a linguistic heterogeneous society, cannot be void of language mobility; as people migrate from one area to the other, their languages also migrate with them. In some cases, certain languages gain more prominence than others. In a linguistically fragmented country like Nigeria, one begins to wonder what implication its multilingual attribute exerts on its education in terms of human capital development that is essential for upward mobility. How do people, especially children in elementary schools get integrated into their new environment linguistically considering the mandate for language use in the Nigerian National Policy on Education?

Overall, Nigeria’s ethnic and linguistic heterogeneous compositions have resulted in complexities in its language policies, as the country is alleged to lack a “robust and well-articulated language planning framework” (Ndimele, 2012) for educational excellence. The adverse effect of the lack of a robust language-planning framework in the nation’s National Policy on Education is evident in the lack of support for literacy in indigenous languages, as only a handful of Nigerian languages are operational in its education system. As Hollos (1991) observed, education is “a significant opportunity for guaranteed employment and often for the attainment of positions of importance” in the society; this, I believe is a universal perception. Due to this understanding of the importance of education, it is imperative for a nation like Nigeria to start paying particular attention to the heterogeneity of both its languages and its cultures in such a way that every citizens’ education needs are met irrespective of their mother tongue, language of their environment, and ethnicity. 


Nigeria Struggles to Deliver Good Education


Interviewing a Beans Seller in Nigeria Ojo Market


Awonusi, V. O. (1994). The Americanization of Nigerian English. World Englishes, 13(1), 75-82.

Bendor-Samuel, J., & Stanford, R. (1976). A Provisional Language Map of Nigeria. Savanna 5, 115-125.

Blench, R. M., & Crozier, D. (1992). An Index of Nigerian Languages. Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Emananjo, E. (1985). Nigerian Language Policy: Perspectives and Prospectives. JOLAN, (3), 123-134.

Grimes, Bare, Ara, F. (1996) Ethnologue: languages of the world, 13th edn (Dallas, Summer Institute of Linguistics).

Hollos, M. (1991). Migration, education, and the status of women in Southern Nigeria. American Anthropologist, 93(4), 852-870.

Ndimele, R. I. (2012). Language Policy and Minority Language Education in Nigeria: Cross River State Educational Experience. Studies in Literature and Language, 4(3), 8-14.

Olagbaju, O. O., & Akinsowon, F. I. (2014). The Use of Nigerian Languages in Formal Education: Challenges and Solutions. Journal of Education and Practice, 5(9), 123-127.


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This information was originally published on the website of the International Network for Language Education Policy Studies ( as

Olagbegi-Adegbite, Olayinka.  (2015). Nigeria’s Ethnic and Linguistic Heterogeneity: Implications for Language in Education Policy. In F. V. Tochon (Ed.), Language Education Policy Studies (online). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin—Madison. Retrieved from: (access date). 

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