Struggling in school is something that no doubt comes with the territory, all these new concepts flying around in your head – it’s meant to be a challenge. What is not meant to be the challenging element however is the language you’re taught in.
The fact that it is hard to come by statistics highlighting the number of students learning in languages other than their mother-tongue, or in fact in their mother-tongue displays that the area remains a low priority for the international development community. Despite advocacy initiatives such as International Mother Language Day (celebrated on 21 February annually) many children continue to learn in this way – left little choice but to learn using ineffective models of the past. For example, Africa remains the most linguistically diverse region on the planet with the number of languages on the continent in the thousands. In terms of schooling however very few of these are utilised as the language of instruction (in part because many of these languages remain oral). Instead, colonial languages such as French or English are used. Although lingua francas, they are not the first language of the majority of speakers of these languages, meaning students struggle through their schooling years – if they complete the complete system at all – grappling with both new concepts in an unfamiliar language, when their primary concern should be the new concepts themselves.
To give some country examples, we can look at the research of Brock-Utne (2007) who highlights the postcolonial hangover in Tanzania. Evidence shows the negative impact of monolingual instruction upon learning – students engage in the simple accumulation of knowledge without critical consciousness, with pressure on teachers remaining high who maintain ‘safe talk’ when teaching in a language – such as English – other than their mother-tongue. Closed questions such as: Do you understand? resound in the classroom – hardly encouraging the response of no. The illusion of quality learning therefore remains, and students struggle through.
Pinnock (2009) of Save the Children UK is one of the researchers on the forefront of such issues and highlights that in multilingual societies where monolingual models are used high dropout rates are apparent as well as greater impact upon the society as a whole in terms of segregation and political instability (contrary to the belief that multilingual instruction would lead to such consequences). Repetition rates are evidently reduced with the bilingual model - whereby the mother-tongue is used for instruction and supplemented with second language classes - as shown in Guatemala for example, where the repetition rate was highlighted to approximately halve in a study by Patrinos and Velez (1996) (World Bank).
The EFA goals have proposed quality education as one of the targets, therefore language needs to be considered – without this it needs to be recognised that the goals are likely to remain figments of the imagination; ideal concepts never to be achieved. Of course language alone cannot solve the problem, however it comprises a massive proportion of the element of quality which has entered the global rhetoric since the reiteration of the EFA goals in Dakar in 2000.
Perceptions of local languages are part of the problem – something which needs to be remedied as a matter of urgency. The impact of globalisation and the consequent growth and spread of English is partially at fault. However, it remains continually important to remind the international community that learning through English and learning it as a second language are two entirely different ball games. Of course it needs to be stated that doing away with all English taught programmes is also unlikely to be successful, rather contexts need to be examined, and most importantly learning outcomes of the students involved need to be analysed.
The emergence of networks such as the MTB-MLE Network highlights that focus on the importance of language of instruction for quality learning is growing, but more needs to be done if relevant, quality education is to be achieved. We need to move past the rhetoric to actually implement linguistic rights – it’s a huge task given that learning materials need to be changed, however if the rights documentation exists, the international community needs to be accountable for what is written in it. They cannot simply remain hollow promises. If action isn’t going to be taken, then the rights documents (which refer to the right of learning in mother-tongue) may as well not exist at all.
- Needs assessments with communities need to be carried out to determine attitudes towards local languages and feelings towards learning in English.
- The link between quality education and relevant language needs to be established and used as a driving force to achieve goals such as EFA.
- The importance of mother-tongue instruction needs to be mainstreamed i.e. not remain a minorities’ issue as it is at present.
What do you think?
Do you have experience of implementing bilingual or multilingual models? Have you seen the side effects of learning in languages other than the mother-tongue? Do current advocacy campaigns oversimplify the practicalities of implementing mother-tongue/bilingual models? It'd be great to hear from you - share your comments and stories below.
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