Retooling Igbo Language In Era Of Digital Pedagogy


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Today, the 21st day of February 2022, the United Nations through its organ, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) marks the International Mother Language Day (IMLD) originally proclaimed by the General Conference of UNESCO in November 1999, a special day which the UN General Assembly ratified in its Resolution of 2002. Following that landmark proclamation, the United Nations General Assembly, had in its resolution A/RES/61/266 of 16 May 2007, enjoined Member States “to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples of the world”. The UN General Assembly, by the same resolution proclaimed the following year, 2008 as the International Year of Languages, to “promote unity in diversity and international understanding, through multilingualism and multiculturalism,” thus designating UNESCO as the lead agency for the Year.

International Mother Language Day is driven by the mindset, which not only recognises language and multilingual education as veritable catalysts for inclusiveness, but also advances the Sustainable Development Goals’ focus on leaving no one behind. This tallies with UNESCO’s position that “education, based on the first language or mother tongue, must begin from the early years as early childhood care and education is the foundation of learning”.

Contemporary times have witnessed rebounding consciousness about the centrality and primacy of language in guaranteeing cultural diversity and intercultural dialogic exchanges, strengthening cooperation and attaining quality education for all, building all-inclusive knowledge societies, preserving cultural heritage, as well as galvanising political will for deploying the limitless resources of science and technology to sustainable development. It is against this background that this year’s theme – ‘Using technology for multilingual learning: Challenges and opportunities’ – speaks to the potential role of technology in advancing multilingual education and supporting the development of an all-inclusive quality pedagogy. This represents a clarion call on policy makers, educators and teachers, parents and families to scale up their commitment to mother tongue education, and inclusion in education to advance education recovery especially in the context of post-COVID-19 pandemic. It is in sync with the 2019 Cali Commitment to Equity and Inclusion in Education and the United Nations International Decade of Indigenous Languages (2022-2032), which places multilingualism at the heart of indigenous peoples’ development with UNESCO as the arrowhead.

Digital pedagogy, which derives its roots from the Constructivism Theory, is the use of contemporary digital technologies in teaching and learning. As a type of digital education tool (also referred to as Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) or e-Learning) that is applicable to online, hybrid and face-to-face learning environments, this innovative use of digital tools and technologies during teaching and learning, has collaboration, playfulness/tinkering, focus on process and building as its key components. One of such digital tools is the Digital Pedagogy Toolkit designed by Jisc’s Digital Practice Team led by Chris Thomson, meant to support academic staff to make informed choices about how they use technology to underpin the curriculum, provide ideas and inspiration for how staff can overcome barriers to using technology, promote current approaches in curriculum design theory to ensure technology meets the learning outcomes of the course, module or programme of study, dispel a range of misconceptions about what can and cannot be achieved by using technology. As a challenge-based approach, the toolkit presents a series of scenarios based in real-world situations that institutions have been grappling with such as delivering live online learning with students, designing engaging VLE courses or managing digital communities of practice, and describes areas of digital practice one may want to develop.

Perhaps, advocating the deployment of digital tools that provide for synchronous and asynchronous Igbo pedagogical platforms may sound outlandish or utopian in the light of near or total absence of strong web presence in most hinterland communities of Igbo land. This is not excluding other daunting challenges bordering on skills, motivation, knowledge and environmental factors, dearth of digital competencies and support staff, lack of staff’s access to required digital tools, absence of guidelines, key policies and measures for evaluating the effectiveness of online delivery, for instance, as well as monitoring and managing learner expectations.

Nonetheless, as herculean as these challenges may sound, digital pedagogy remains the way to go. There is no viable alternative course of action for rolling back the digital pedagogy revolution ignited by digital technologies. Following a rash of school closures in 2020 precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries around the world employed technology-driven solutions to ensure continuity of teaching and learning. The ugly experiences of many learners in developing societies such as Africa, who lacked the requisite Virtual Learning Environments (VLE) that would have facilitated distance learning, might have diminished the pedagogic relevance of technology. However, it is a proven fact that technology holds all the aces in addressing a great deal of education’s greatest challenges today in the light of its pivotal role in reinventing equitable and inclusive lifelong learning opportunities for all as guided by UNESCO’s core principles of inclusion and equity, hence the strong emphasis on mother tongue education, which represents a key component of inclusion in education.

The foregoing underscores the urgency of exploring technologies and their potential in enhancing the role of teachers in the teaching and learning of the Igbo language.

Herein lies the inescapable option of Igbo digital pedagogy if the language and its owners hope to escape the rampaging proboscis of globalisation currently gobbling up their rich tapestry of cultural heritage, and indeed all the valuable resources that are of strategic importance for preserving their unique modes of thinking and expression, identity construction, in-group integration, education and development.

The gloomy UNESCO report suggests that a language disappears every two weeks, taking with it an entire cultural and intellectual heritage’ with not less than 43 per cent of the estimated 6000 languages spoken in the world being endangered.

Regrettably, the Igbo language belongs to this hapless league of endangered languages, whether considered from the theoretical prism of Joshua Fishman’s (1991) Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale (GIDS), which recognises the degree to which intergenerational transmission of the language remains intact as the key factor in gauging the relative safety of an endangered language or Lewis & Simons’ (2010) Expanded Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale (EGIDS) that evaluates a language’s literacy acquisition status, identity function, state of intergenerational language transmission, vehicular and a societal profile of its generational use.

Going by the UNESCO’s template for global assessment of the state of world’s languages, Igbo falls within Level 7 of both Fishman’s GIDS and Lewis & Simons’ EGIDS and meets UNESCO’s criterion for fitting into an ‘endangered language’ frame, which states that “the child-bearing generation knows the language well enough to use it with their elders but it is not transmitting it to their children.”

It is in the light of the unfolding scenario in the global linguistic ecosystem that we have observed elsewhere that language endangerment is a serious social problem, which has elicited clarion calls from renowned language scholars for owners of such languages to develop renewed interests in their languages as one effective way of reversing the ugly trend.

In particular, foremost Nigerian linguists, Ayo Bamgbose (Professor Emeritus) and Professor Nọlue Emenanjọ (of blessed memory) had expressed a consensual view that “the fate of an endangered language may well lie in the hands of the owners of the language themselves and in their will to make it survive”.

As it concerns the Igbo language, Centre for Igbo Studies (CIS), University of Nigeria, has been in the vanguard spearheading fine-honed advocacy for reimagining Igbo studies. Its Igbo Ezue colloquium – a linguo-cultural renaissance featuring homecoming of Ndigbo in Homeland and the Diaspora cum maiden international conference – slated for the last quarter of the year 2022, represents one of such practical steps towards igniting emotional commitment in Ndigbo to promote, develop and sustain their language and cultural heritage.

Furthermore, we argue for the practical implementation of the mother tongue policy of UNESCO. As it concerns Igbo in our educational institutions, for instance, we call for the immediate formulation and implementation of a policy that makes Igbo language a compulsory subject in primary/secondary schools in Southeast states and a credit pass in Igbo as a precondition for admission into tertiary institutions in Igboland; mounting of Use of Igbo as a course in the General Studies programme of tertiary institutions in the Southeast region of Nigeria; reward system in form of scholarship schemes for students who elect to study Igbo in higher institutions and automatic employment on graduation.

These steps align with the consensus among language scholars and researchers that appropriate measures must be taken to ensure the maintenance of languages by way of revitalisation and spare them the frightful prospects of endangerment, attrition and outright death. The case of Igbo is not different.

Therefore, as the world marks this year’s International Mother Language Day, it presents an auspicious moment for Ndigbo to reflect on the endangered character of their God-given language (for which almost everybody is currently bemoaning listlessly) and make a resolute commitment to change the unsavoury narrative through the instrumentality of digital pedagogy, which accords Igbo a rightful place in education systems, the public domain and digital space; as well as practical implementation of the UNESCO’s mother tongue policy as it concerns the Igbo language, literature and culture. Perhaps, in this way, the significance of International Mother Language Day would have rubbed off on Igbo and by extension reformatted its motherboard; rebooted its floundering gait; rekindled its dwindling embers; and re-gigged the waning interest of Ndigbo in their mother language.

Agbedo is a Professor of Linguistics and Director, Centre for Igbo Studies, University of Nigeria, Nsukka.