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Published: 10 Mar 2006

Mother tongue first: Children’s right to learn in their own languages

Mother tongue first: Children’s right to learn in their own languages
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Education is power and language is the key to accessing that power. A child who thrives at school and develops self-esteem and pride will have better employment opportunities and is more likely to realise his or her potential.

Ethnicity, language and culture are deeply intertwined. They are also intertwined with inequity, discrimination and conflict. Since most countries in the world are multiethnic and multilingual, opinions about provision of education, curriculum content, and the language of teaching and learning are often fiercely held and hotly debated.

The languages of elite groups or former colonisers often dominate the languages of others, particularly in official settings like the school. Yet it is now well established that when a child begins learning in his or her first language (also known as a home language or mother tongue) that child is more likely to succeed academically and is better able to learn additional languages.

A child who begins learning in a second (or foreign) language will, at least initially, find learning anything that much harder. The barrier of school language is often enough for children not to enrol in school or, if they do, for them to experience difficulties, become discouraged, repeat years, or drop out of school.

What are the challenges?

With almost 7,000 languages worldwide, how realistic is it to expect every child to have the opportunity to begin school in his or her first language? How difficult (and expensive) is it for a ministry or department of education to develop writing systems and provide curricula, teachers and materials for every language in the country? If families of marginalised groups speaking non-dominant languages want their children to learn in a dominant language, should pedagogical arguments override their views?

Each article in this issue of 'id21 insights education' demonstrates the value for children (particularly those from marginalised groups) of learning in their first language, while recognising the challenges of turning sound educational principles into practice.

What are the benefits?

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that all children have the right to education (Article 28) the right to learn and use the language of their family (Article 30). Tove Skutnabb-Kangas argues that when education is in a language the child doesn’t know, whether due to family choice or lack of an alternative, this is violating the child’s rights. She also contends that if languages are not protected, they will disappear (estimated rates vary), along with the knowledge held by their speakers.

Bolivia’s successful language model, Intercultural and Bilingual Education, described by Xavier Albó, shows that indigenous children are less likely to repeat years and more likely to perform well. Evidence from Guinea-Bissau, Niger and Mozambique, gathered by Carol Benson, shows that mother tongue-based primary schooling is particularly beneficial for girls and leads to increased parental involvement in their education, reduced exploitation by male teachers and improved educational access and performance.

Can it be done quickly?

The evidence suggests that it can’t. Kathleen Heugh has reviewed research from 29 African countries and concluded that short-term models (children learn in their first language for one to three years) are beneficial but, because children must switch too quickly to the second language, the benefits fade by year five.

The full benefits of mother tongue-based education will only be achieved with a long-term commitment of six to eight years; dramatic benefits will only be seen after ten or more years, when the mother tongue foundation has promoted academic learning and achievement in other languages.

Can it be put into practice?

Susan Malone outlines a framework to integrate minority languages into dominant language programmes, with five phases taking a child from spoken fluency and confidence in the first language to reading and writing in the first and then additional languages.

Is it more expensive?

A recent review (see 'Mother tongue education is cost-effective') of cost-benefit analyses for the 2006 African Education Ministers’ Meeting shows that education programmes starting with the mother tongue and gradually moving into other languages lead to cost savings compared to monolingual programmes. If they are more expensive at the beginning, costs decrease over time and savings (not paying for children to repeat years, for example) far exceed initial investment.

Several languages in one classroom?

The government in Viet Nam recognises 54 minority languages. Helen Pinnock, Dinh Phuong Thao and Nguyen Thi Bich describe a project that trains local classroom assistants (one for each language group in the classroom) to promote multilingual education, increasing the use of each language and understanding of the national language. Within a politically constrained context such as Viet Nam, small steps are all that are possible, yet significant impact may not be seen for several years.

Will good policy work?

Sheila Aikman shows the complexity and inter-relatedness of ethnic identity and language. With indigenous peoples’ efforts to revitalise their languages entangled with larger struggles for social justice and self-determination, they wish to see educational programmes based on their culture that also allow their children to participate in and benefit from the multicultural and global world in which they are growing up.

But it is not just about establishing good educational language policies. India’s national policy recommends schools use children’s mother tongue in the classroom yet, as Dhir Jhingran and Shireen Miller outline, most children are still either completely ‘submersed’ into a second language or their mother tongue is used only unofficially in school. Language mapping, increased resources, research and training are also needed to turn policy into practice.

Is language the key to Education for All?

Poverty and discrimination are still the root causes of inequitable access to education; family background (including levels of education, social class and so on) is still the main indicator of educational achievement. It is difficult to assess the impact of language alone, while controlling for all other factors such as quality of teaching and curricula and the availability of teachers and good teaching materials.

Yet mother tongue-based, bi- or multilingual education plays a significant role. Enabling access to education in the language in which the child feels most comfortable significantly increases that child’s chances in life.

From a rights-based perspective, we know why it must happen. From a pedagogical perspective, we know what should be done. From a practical perspective, there are many success stories – from Papua New Guinea, Eritrea, Nigeria, Guatemala, Mali, Bolivia – demonstrating how it can work.

More is needed, however:

  • Teachers, educators and non-government organisations (NGOs) can increase awareness of and commitment to the importance of language diversity and multilingualism in education.
  • Donor agencies and NGOs can learn from the success stories and adapt them for countries without the same level of political support.
  • Researchers need to find more effective ways to convince policymakers and budget holders.
  • Researchers can also raise the issues at the annual international Education for All forum and monitor progress.
  • National governments and donor agencies need to mobilise sufficient resources.

Approximately 1.38 billion people speak local languages – languages that are less well-known, without written forms and not used in formal education. This includes an estimated 221 million school-aged children. Mother tongue-based education can ensure a better quality education for these children – a significant contribution towards Education for All.


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Katy Webley

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