English is Nigeria’s lingua franca. It is also the language of academic instruction, the major language of communication in government offices, business establishments and places of trade; yet Nigerians are struggling with proficiency in the English language. Nowhere is this struggle more evident than in the performance of Nigerian students sitting for the West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE), the single most important examination certificate in the country and a major requirement for admission into University. In 2015, over 60 percent of Nigerian students who sat for the May/June edition of the WASSCE failed English, slightly better than in 2014 when over 70 percent of students failed to receive a credit in the subject.

There are a growing number of Nigerians—born and bred in Nigeria—for whom English is their only language, but even if nativism is offered as the reason Nigerians perform poorly in English language, the performance with Nigerian languages is also not spectacular. Although there is no official data on native language proficiency, it is generally believed that a vast majority of Nigerians are semi-literate or illiterate in their native languages. Of the over 500 Nigerian languages, only five (Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, Efik and Ibibio) are available as academic courses in the West African Senior School Certificate Examination. Most Nigerian languages are also facing the real threat of extinction, notably the Igbo language, which though with over 30 million belonging to the ethnic group, is predicted to disappear by the end of the century.

Given that Nigerians already struggle with their lingua franca and have a very limited command of their native languages, it is difficult to see how the citizens can successfully adapt another foreign language as a second lingua franca. However, this is exactly what the Nigerian government says it wants to achieve. In January the Minister for Education announced that the government has made French language compulsory in all schools. “We are keen and motivated by the need to actualize our dream of making French language our second language of business in Nigeria,” Nigeria’s Minister of State for Education, Prof Anthony Anwukah, said while hosting the French Ambassador to Nigeria, Denys Gaver.

The case for French in Nigeria is a very strong one; all of the countries with which Nigeria shares a border are francophone. Eight of the countries in West Africa are francophone, so too are 31 of the 51 countries in Africa. French is also a major language in Europe and across the world, and so, if Nigerians could domesticate French as they have English–both of which are the two most spoken languages in the world—then the country and its citizens would be at an incredibly high advantage in the 21st century, where the world has become a global village and international communication is key.

However, Nigeria’s need for French is trumped by its language problem, which must be solved before the former can be achieved. This is not the first time that the Nigerian government has tried to embrace French. “It was [General] Sani Abacha who declared French as our second foreign language in 1994, because he was trying to court the friendship of France, but it [the decree] was easier said than done,” said Remi Sonaiya, an emeritus professor of French and a presidential candidate in the 2015 general elections. I am for it [making French compulsory in schools] definitely,” she added. “I have always canvassed for more foreign languages to be taught in our educational institutions, I think that the learning of foreign languages definitely opens up the citizens to the world and give them more opportunities, but there is a lot more to it than just making a declaration. We have to know what the steps being taken are to turn that policy into reality.”

Like Professor Sonaiya’s questions on the French policy, little can be said of the government’s plan to tackle Nigeria’s deepening problem with English and its native languages. The quality of academic instruction for English language has been on a steady decline for decades and the same is true for Nigerian languages. While English has been greatly affected by the general drop in Nigeria’s standard of education, with schools grossly underfunded and poorly staffed, Nigerian languages have suffered even more due to the perception of their lesser importance. Unfortunately, the Federal Government has not, thus far, made a similar commitment to tackling Nigeria’s indigenous language problem as it has just done with French. Yet it is only by addressing the country’s growing deficiency in its lingua franca (English) and native languages, as well as dealing with the root causes of those deficiencies—the poor standard of education—that the government has any chance of succeeding with its French expedition.

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