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

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

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

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

The languages of elite groups or former colonisers often dominatethe languages of others, particularly in official settings like the school. Yetit is now well established that when a child begins learning in his or herfirst language (also known as a home language or mother tongue) that child ismore likely to succeed academically and is better able to learn additionallanguages.

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

What arethe challenges?

With almost7,000 languages worldwide, how realistic is it to expect every child to havethe opportunity to begin school in his or her first language? How difficult(and expensive) is it for a ministry or department of education to developwriting systems and provide curricula, teachers and materials for everylanguage in the country? If families of marginalised groups speaking non-dominantlanguages want their children to learn in a dominant language, shouldpedagogical arguments override their views?

Each articlein this issue of 'id21 insightseducation' demonstrates the value for children (particularly those frommarginalised groups) of learning in their first language, while recognising the challenges of turning sound educational principles intopractice.

What arethe benefits?

The United Nations Convention on theRights of the Child states that all children have the right to education (Article 28) the right to learn and usethe language of their family (Article30). Tove Skutnabb-Kangas argues that wheneducation is in a language the child doesn’t know, whether due to family choiceor lack of an alternative, this is violating the child’s rights. She alsocontends that if languages are not protected, they will disappear (estimatedrates vary), along with the knowledge held by their speakers.

Bolivia’s successful language model, Intercultural andBilingual Education, described by XavierAlbó, shows that indigenous children are lesslikely to repeat years and more likely to perform well. Evidence fromGuinea-Bissau, Niger and Mozambique, gathered by Carol Benson, shows that mother tongue-based primary schooling isparticularly beneficial for girls and leads to increased parental involvementin their education, reduced exploitation by male teachers and improvededucational access and performance.

Can it bedone quickly?

The evidencesuggests that it can’t. KathleenHeugh has reviewed research from 29 Africancountries and concluded that short-term models (children learn in their firstlanguage for one to three years) are beneficial but, because children mustswitch too quickly to the second language, the benefits fade by year five.

The fullbenefits of mother tongue-based education will only be achieved with along-term commitment of six to eight years; dramatic benefits will only be seenafter ten or more years, when the mother tongue foundation has promotedacademic learning and achievement in other languages.

Can it be put into practice?

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

Is it moreexpensive?

A recentreview (see 'Mother tongue education is cost-effective') of cost-benefitanalyses for the 2006 African Education Ministers’ Meeting shows that educationprogrammes starting with the mother tongue and gradually moving into otherlanguages lead to cost savings compared to monolingual programmes. If they aremore expensive at the beginning, costs decrease over time and savings (notpaying for children to repeat years, for example) far exceed initialinvestment.

Several languages in one classroom?

The government in VietNamrecognises 54 minority languages. HelenPinnock, Dinh Phuong Thao and Nguyen Thi Bich describea project that trains local classroom assistants (one for each language groupin the classroom) to promote multilingual education, increasing the use of eachlanguage and understanding of the national language. Within a politicallyconstrained context such as VietNam, smallsteps are all that are possible, yet significant impact may not be seen forseveral years.

Will goodpolicy work?

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

But it is not just about establishinggood educational language policies. India’s national policy recommends schoolsuse 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 onlyunofficially in school. Language mapping, increased resources, research andtraining are also needed to turn policy into practice.

Is languagethe key to Education for All?

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

Yet mothertongue-based, bi- or multilingual education plays a significant role. Enablingaccess to education in the language in which the child feels most comfortablesignificantly increases that child’s chances in life.

From arights-based perspective, we know why it must happen. From a pedagogicalperspective, we know what should be done. From a practical perspective, thereare many success stories – from PapuaNew Guinea, Eritrea,Nigeria,Guatemala,Mali,Bolivia– demonstrating how it can work.

More isneeded, however:

  • Teachers, educators andnon-government organisations (NGOs) can increase awareness of and commitment tothe importance of language diversity and multilingualism in education.
  • Donor agencies and NGOs can learnfrom the success stories and adapt them for countries without the same level ofpolitical support.
  • Researchers need to find more effectiveways to convince policymakers and budget holders.
  • Researchers can also raise the issuesat the annual international Education for All forum and monitor progress.
  • National governments and donoragencies need to mobilise sufficient resources.

Approximately 1.38 billion peoplespeak local languages – languages that are less well-known, without writtenforms and not used in formal education. This includes an estimated 221 millionschool-aged children. Mother tongue-based education can ensure a better qualityeducation for these children – a significant contribution towards Education forAll.


  1. How good is this research?

    Assessing the quality of research can be a tricky business. This blog from our editor offers some tools and tips.