Like many developed nations, education in Nigeria is founded on the principle of equipping “every citizen with such knowledge, skills, attitudes and values as to enable him/her to derive maximum benefits from his/her membership in society, lead a fulfilling life and contribute to the development and welfare of the community” (World Data on Education, 2006/2007). The Nigerian policy on education asserts, “The medium of instruction in the primary school shall be the language of the environment for the first three years. During this period, English shall be taught as a subject. From the fourth year, English shall progressively be used as a medium of instruction and the language of immediate environment and French shall be taught as subjects” NPE (2004). This policy, according to Onukaogu (2008) is the government’s way of deliberately promoting “bilingualism/biliteracy and multilingualism/multiliteracy” in its formal education sector.
Examining the mother-tongue or language of the immediate environment policy in primary school, Salami (2008), explains that the policy envisages a “transitional bilingual education program whereby the child’s mother tongue, or the language of his or her immediate environment is used in the initial stages of schooling before switching to English as a medium of instruction at later stages” (Salami, 2008). What this implies is that content area instructions in all subjects but English will be carried out using either the mother-tongue or the language of the environment starting as early as pre-primary level of schooling (usually 3-5 years of age) to the first three years of primary school. During the last three years of primary school (primary 4-6), students will be instructed in English language whereas mother tongue will be taught as a subject (Salami, 2008).
The problem with this model of language policy in such a multilingual and multicultural setting like Nigeria is the lack of consideration for how bilingual education will be achieved in urban areas where there are always a mix of languages and culture within the same environment. In this case, what will the language of instruction be? How would mother tongue be defined? Whose mother tongue? Is it the teachers’ mother tongue or the students’? All of these crucial questions need to be clarified before any plan to implement the language policy in Nigeria. For instance, in a multi-site study conducted by Salami (2008) exploring mother tongue or language of the environment policy in practice in schools in Ile-Ife, it was observed that instead of strictly adhering to the use of the language of instruction (as specified in the policy) in classrooms, teachers have developed a survival strategy whereby they resolve to the use of code-switching as language of instruction in early primary schools. In a multicultural environment in the southwest consisting of a high number of migrants from northern Nigeria, it was observed that the language of instruction in the classroom was Yoruba (mother tongue to a lot of people, but language of the environment to some others) and English in a code- switching format (Salami, 2008). Despite the language policy, most private nursery and primary schools in Nigeria, according to Olagbaju (2009) still use English as the medium of instruction without any restriction from the government. Even some so-called public schools are also not implementing the policy at the grassroots level.