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Common Problems for English Learners in Nigeria

Common Problems for English Learners in Nigeria | ITTT | TEFL Blog

Although the English language has been the official language in Nigeria for decades, there are a good number of challenges that learners of English language continuously encounter. These problems are not only peculiar to learners but may also be existent in so-called fluent speakers. One of the most basic problems is mother tongue interference.

This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Awazie T. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.

1. Mother Tongue Interference

This is a form of language interference in which a Nigerian's first language/native language/mother-tongue (L1) hinders or influences the acquisition of a new language (possibly L2), in this case - English language. In the process of this interference, linguistic features from the mother tongue are often transferred to the English language, creating an adulterated version of the English language that could differ amongst individuals or ethnicities. Therefore, Igbo learners, for example, have similar adulterated versions of the English language, just like other ethnicities do. For instance, an Igbo English learner is more likely to exaggerate "bread" from /bred/ to /breed/.

Mother tongue interference can manifest in forms such as phonological, code-mixing and code-switching. These classes of interference address alterations to pronunciations, grammar, and syntax.

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2. Phonological Interference

This consists of interferences about accents, word and sentence stress patterns, intonation, phonemes, and all other elements related to pronunciation and articulation. For example, an Igbo English learner is likely to swap the lateral consonant /l/ with /r/, so that "red" which is transcribed as /red/, becomes /led/. The ambiguity created by the wrongful exchange of phonemes increases with the length of the speech. Consider the following:

  • "Lead us to righteousness, oh lord," becomes "/r/lead us to /l/righteousness, oh /r/od." Read us to righteousness, oh rod.
  • "Restore my glory days," becomes "/l/restore my g/r/o/l/y days." Restore my glory days.

As for word stress, syllables that are normally stressed could easily be flattened, and unstressed syllables could be stressed instead. For example, "enVIronment" evidently has its stress in the second syllable. A Nigerian English learner may decide to completely flatten the word or adopt the stress pattern from his/her indigenous language, which may leave the stress hanging on the first syllable, the penultimate syllable or the last syllable. This alteration could create serious issues in comprehension, especially for words in which their word-class is easily identified by stress placement. For instance, CONflict (noun); conFLICT (verb).

Because the rules of sentence stress in English differ from that of Nigerian languages, sentences are often uttered in a disheveled manner; where certain vowel sounds are not weakened or strengthened, or certain neighboring consonant sounds are not assimilated.

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3. Code-switching and code-mixing

Code mixing is the intrasentential combination of linguistic elements (such as affixes, words, phrases and even clauses) from two or more languages. Code mixing could be a result of limited vocabulary on the part of the learner or on the part of the language, i.e in cases where the English language has no word for that particular expression. For example: "Kissie his forehead," in which case "ie" is a suffix (particular to Igbo) added to the root word "Kiss". Code mixing in Nigeria is apt in informal and semi-formal contexts.

In contrast, code-switching is an intersentential change in language use to create special pragmatic effects. For example: "Bia is an (Igbo for "Come here"). I said come here!" When the speaker switches to a more formal language, which is recognized as the official language, the tone of the speech become even more serious and less friendly.

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4. Other problems learners in Nigeria encounter include:

  • Insufficient availability of qualified teachers who are native speakers of the English language. This lacuna has played a key role in resulting in the creation of Nigerian English, which lacks certain phonological and phonetic properties of the British Standard English.
  • The dearth of appropriate teaching materials and methods.
  • The multilingual environment which sometimes reduces the emphasis of the acquisition of English Language, especially as Pidgin English is readily available.

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