How important is the language of instruction in education?

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.

Some recommendations 
  • 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.

You can also comment via Twitter: @GEDBlog


  1. Andrea on LinkedIn:

    It is certainly a current issue in South Africa, with 11 offical languages - 2 being of European origin (English & Afrikaans). The levels of education reached are worryingly low, although other factors from the legacy of colonialism and apartheid are a factor.

    In general, those speaking a language of Afican origin will have 3 years of mother tongue education while also learning one of the European languages (which is increasingly English), and after that teaching in the European language. As I know from my previous job, the township schools largely teach by rote - the children could read & pronounce the English very well but didn't have a clue what it meant.

    Part of the reason for prejudice against mother tongue education is that it was one of the policies used by apartheid to try to solidify segregation - but ended up having the opposite effect and educational standards rose. The Eastern Cape, with some of the worst educational results in the country, are now moving to 6 years of mother tongue education with English being taught as a second language during those years. The Mail & Guardian had an interesting article on it in March:

    1. Thanks for your comment Andrea. South Africa provides a really great example in terms of the political nature of language decisions which are frequently overlooked. As they say, the proof is in the pudding, and the fact that educational standards rose speaks volumes.

      The teaching by rote is a completely different issue of course. For example, even is a mother tongue were to be adopted somewhere but they were teaching by rote, the educational quality is obviously likely to be lacking.

      Really great to hear a bilingual model of mother tongue/English has been adopted. I wonder what problems have arisen as a result of implementing such a model?

  2. Amy on LinkedIn:

    Another interesting topic! In Panama, on our outer islands, Spanish is sometimes not the instructional language as they are using tribal languages; therefore English is not even considered. On one hand, if these children would like to attend high school, university or pursue jobs on mainland Panama, they will lack the skills to move forward in these pursuits. Teacher training and recruitment and government oversight seem to be the factors. If we look at the successes in Costa Rica, Panama will need to evaluate the level of Spanish and English acquisition.

    However, in the US, we are requiring non English speakers to reach high school level proficiency by 12th grade (regardless of when they began English instruction) and pass a math and reading test written in English. This does not seem to be working! Our Hispanic population/(English Language Learners) is a large portion of our dropout population! Denver, Colorado school district has about 130 languages floating around!

    I look forward to hearing viewpoints on solutions!!

    1. Thanks for posting Amy.

      You raise a really important point regarding higher levels of education and/or jobs being linked to languages of power e.g. Spanish. I think this is a key point. I'm sure you'll agree that whilst it is true that this impacts upon language choices made at lower levels, it can often be used to mask the political nature of the choices made. Likewise, with the English speakers and the level required by 12th grade - does this not also raise issues of power? The dropouts are inevitable with such a system it seems, yet I doubt it is likely to be reformed...

      In terms on solutions, it's not straightforward - as I'm sure you'll agree. I struggle with this myself, because whilst I feel that no child should be forced to learn in a language that they do not understand properly, I also realise that sweeping statements about reform are not helpful.

      Along with you, I look forward to comments, perhaps from people that have experience implementing mother-tongue or bilingual models and the challenges they pose.

  3. Mansoor on LinkedIn:

    It is important and matter most. But most recent research indicates that bilinguals are more tolerant, flexible and better understanding in learning process. Also better in life skills too.

  4. Antonio on LinkedIn:

    In Mozambique the official language is portuguese, as a consequence of colonizmo in the past. Not that long that the Ministry of Education has introduced a mother language in a education system and the children as a target group, specially in the rural areas, where the index of illiterancy is still high. It is believed that this is the best way to prepare the children to face the life in their near future. Some examples have been given that illustrate some advantages, such as the great possibility of those children to easily interact and receive further explanation of what they learnt at school, with their parents, that probably are not official language speakers. Is this system in the good path?

  5. Grazyna on LinkedIn:

    When children first go to school, they have many strange things to deal with: a new environment; school discipline; new faces, etc. as well as many new things to learn. If that learning can occur in the language that they know already, rather than them having to learn a new language as well, it is far easier for them, and of course reinforces their sense of identity. However, if we insist on them learning in a foreign language we are asking an awful lot.

    There is already a lot of experience which shows that children learn much better if they can have two or three years learning in their own language before moving onto one of the "international" languages. By this time, the basis of their education has been laid down, and they can cope much better with the new language or languages.

  6. Franca on LinkedIn:

    The language of instruction in education is the most important aspect of education. like in Nigeria where English language is the lingua-franca, the books that are used in schools, the lesson plan, the instructors and other aspects of the teaching has to be 99% English language unless in a situation where one needs to explain a complex subject to students from a village, then one can use the language of the ethnic group to explain and later translate it to English language.

  7. Lisa on LinkedIn:

    Such a pleasure to read this post, and a privilege to take part in the conversation.

    I have been working with rural Tanzanian communities for the past several years and have experienced the detrimental effects of misalignment between medium of instruction and lingua franca. Tanzania is a particularly interesting case because, unlike other African nations with great variability in language use, 95% of the Tanzanian population is estimated to speak Kiswahili (I think this number came from Roy-Campbell, The Language Crisis. If you have not read it, its a worthy endeavor). This sociolinguistic context, in my opinion, lends itself to a true bilingual education policy and/or monolingual African language education policy. Despite its potential, Tanzania maintains a late-exit transition system, which means that kids are using Kiswahili in primary school and English is treated as a foreign language. At Secondary level, students face an abrupt shift from Kiswahili to English medium instruction. Many educationalists value the efforts made at the primary level, yet these benefits are cut short as kids enter secondary schools. Just as you mentioned in the post above, academic content and higher order thinking skills are forgone for some linguistic endeavor - and ultimately, neither are obtained.

    So, my colleagues and I have been developing an instructional approach inspired by Tanzanian teacher code-switching practices. What do we know? We know, generally, the conditions that best support language and literacy learning. We know (with acknowledgement of differentiation) the scaffolding necessary to create access in content area classrooms. And we know that Tanzanian teachers have already begun to employ a strategy, code-switching, to overcome the linguistic divide in their individual classrooms. The bilingual program we hope to pilot in the upcoming months is arranged around all three dimensions, and as such, we are creating weekly units in which students transition from Kiswahili only medium instruction to English only instruction within content area classrooms. Units are based around a particular disciplinary topic, and supported by relevant and explicit English grammar and vocabulary instruction. It is an attempt to implement a genuine additive bilingual program. New academic concepts are introduced through informal discourse in Kiswahili, understanding is developed, and by extension, motivation to learn more. Students are then provided with the linguistic tools to apply these concepts to practical situations through English medium instruction and activities (with a focus on basic communicative english as opposed to academic).

    What this approach would require if successful, every teacher must be formally trained both in their content area and English language instruction. While I think this should be a given even amongst monolingual populations, the push-back by Stateside teachers is undeniable. My hope, because the pedagogical approach is inspired by something Tanzanian teachers employ naturally, the practice will be embraced -- if politically legitimized. The result, we could maximize the benefits of code-swtiching by training teachers in how and when to use each language.

    Oh so much to think about. Pardon the length here!

    1. Jenny on LinkedIn:

      Lisa, I am also a rural Tanzanian educator. Well, anthropologist actually. I have been working in education from a cultural perspective. I agree with a lot that you have to say and athough I am not an educator by profession (so I do not have the jargon that you mentioned : ) ) The concepts are the same. I have worked with a few secondary schools mentoring their teachers into using form 1 as a transition year teaching necessary english vocabulary to be used in the next three condensed years. I am located on the border between coastal region and dar es salaam region out by Kisarawe (about 25 km par the dar ariport) My Tanzanian husband and I have opened a small rural learning center that mentors the local teachers as well as simplifies the teacher training material for our ESL speaking teachers. I would also like very much to read the study done by Roy-Campbell as my experience in rural communities would indicate that most rural preschool children speak their tribal language with only a few words in swahili before entering school. I would love about what you are doing.

  8. Ladi on LinkedIn:

    I do agree with you Grazyna that when children go to school,they face a new environment and a new way of life,thats why they are there in the first learn something new.Learning in the mother tongue may look comfortable but is not helpful as this children find themselves unconciously translating their mother tongue in English.And we know it doesnt always work that way.

  9. Grazyna on LinkedIn:

    I think this question of transition is key, and the Tanzanian experiece described by Lisa is rather late and abrupt, with all primary school teaching is in Kiswahili (i.. mother tongue). The lingua-franca needs to be studied from a very early stage and introduced after three or four years as the medium of instruction (even if bilingually at first). In this way, children learn both their own mother tongue and the lingua franca better.

    I look foward to hearing about the results you obtain from your research, Lisa. best wishes

  10. Thank you all for such wonderful contributions! Really interesting to hear different opinions.

    @Antonio: I think the learning achievements (or lack of them if that is the case) can highlight whether the system is on the right path or not?

    @Lisa: Thanks for your enthusiasm Lisa! Code-switchining - really interesting to hear what you're doing in Tanzania. You're right, there is so much to think about. The discussions surrounding LOI - as you know - are rarely straightforward! What I'd be interested to know is whether the English language skills coupled with teaching skills of secondary teachers support code switching? By this I mean, from what I know the English skills on teachers are somewhat lacking in Tanzania and thus create problems.

    @Jenny: You've raised a really important point - tribal languages vs. KiSwahili i.e. an African Lingua Franca...I'd be interested to hear people's thoughts on where we draw the line? At what point is inclusivity met? E.g. Is KiSwahili enough or should those children whose mother-tongue is a tribal language be allowed to learn in this initially?

  11. Jenny on LinkedIn:

    Sadia and Lisa. One major issue that is often overlooked is that tachers themselves often only have middle primary school skills. Add this to the culture of forbiding children to think or create has created an adult culture that is unable to imagine, think criticly and problem solve. NOW as if that is not enough the teaching materials being taught in the teachers colleges are designed for native english speakers. ALL of our teachers here in Tanznania are ESL speakers but none have been trained with ESL appropriate materials. What this means in a practicle sense is that they memorize certain facts but do not fully (or in most cases even partially) understand their meaning and therefore, cannot apply the information. I have two ECD teachers who have been trained here in Tanzania. They can spout theories and developmental benchmarks but cannot give examples or even do assessments. They have learned words but have not understood meaning. Teaching my teachers how to explore, imagine and internalize then apply new information has been painstakingly slow but very rewarding! In my opinion, if we train the teachers we won't have to focus on the kids because they will then have the ability to teach properly. Now I have worked with two teachers who are now teaching 40 students. The ripple effect is there, we just need to think a bit differently and understand that culturally, Tanzanians have been conditioned to not ask questions, to not seek information and to not internalize. Once we understand learning from a cultural perspective we can begin to address the needs of the teachers by changing our approach and giving them the skills that were missed in childhood.

    1. Really important point Jenny. I think what is interesting is building upon what you've said, good teacher training is where we can solve the problems. It seems this is a large piece of the puzzle...going hand in hand with the language used to teach. Of course if the language is not an issue and the students are - like the teachers - taught to learn by rote then seems we are back to square one.

  12. Timothy on LinkedIn:

    Our organization is doing quite a bit of work, both at the grassroots level, and at the national and international level in the area of Languages of Instruction in education (including in Tanzania). There are some good resources that we have contributed to the following website:
    It is definitely a complex issue, and balancing multiple languages of instruction in the education system is not easy. But if done well, the benefits to students, teachers, and ultimately society are worth the investment.

  13. Tarek on LinkedIn:

    Mali is an interesting case to look at.
    They moved to local language for primary education. This has accelerated learning among pupils.

    1. Grazyna on LinkedIn:

      Thanks Tarek. This has been the case in almost every country where the first classes are in the local language. It is also true with refugee children who are not speaking the local language - in this case, when they are taught initially in their own language and then the local language (and/or lingua franca) is gradually introduced, they do much better too. Not least because it shows respect for their own language, and therefore strengthens the sense of identity. However, I also agree about good teacher training - this is absolutely essential.

  14. Simba on LinkedIn:

    Language has two elements heritage (Culture) as well communication. If there is a barrier in communication through language its most likely that the message may not get across. It is therefore perninent in my view to ensure that language is clear in education.

  15. Carole on LinkedIn: Vygotsky offers insight into the need for initial mother tongue language instruction because of his theory of social learning where language and comprehension are built from peer and other forms of personal interaction. This also applies to second language instruction. I am a big fan of bi-lingual education at the earliest age possible because children's brains are most capable of learning language from birth to puberty.

    Technology is making it easier and easier to to have both mother tongue and lingua franca instruction through self-authoring e-books and ways to interact with native speakers via internet, Skype, mobile phones., etc.,

  16. Timothy on LinkedIn:

    The value of using students' mother tongue as the language of instruction in early education is well known. And thankfully, this is now happening in many places around the world. However, too often students are transitioned into the language of wider communication (LWC) too quickly and before they have enough facility in that language to really learn. While they may be able to converse in the LWC, they have not learned enough academic vocabulary to handle the academic content.

    In addition, they may not have developed the more sophisticated knowledge of their own language that would provide a solid schema for higher level language learning in the LWC.

    Greater attention to teaching the LWC, needs to be made, particularly in the area of academic vocabulary. In addition, supporting students' continued growth in their own languages would enable them to more easily attain higher level sophistication in the LWC.

  17. David on LinkedIn:

    It is immensely important. I would like to see all teaching sessions video recorded. Once exam results are delivered, I would like to see a correlation of where students failed and a retrospection back to the particular lesson where the student has failed in this area. I would then sit down and survey the student/s as to whether they actually understood the language proferred by the teacher.

  18. John on LinkedIn:

    I've always thought that the best way to explain this problem to people is to ask them to consider if they were starting school now and someone was teaching them mathematics, imagine that the teacher was speaking Russian (or Chinese if your first language was Russian) how well you think you would do in maths if you didn't understand a word the teacher said.

  19. Suma on LinkedIn:

    It is an interesting topic and I think this is not an easy one to solve. I am a Malaysian and we are exposed to English and Malay. Apart from this, Chinese/ Tamil are general languages that students learn if there is an emphasis on learning their mother tongue (other races) mother tongue at the same time as they are necessary for mainstream education. Although there is an emphasis on Malay as a medium of instruction , there is significant importance given to English as well. With more students moving internationally English has become quite an important language for students. However, there is a need to train teachers to make this more effective. As always there are problems that relate to local markets where learning of English is concerned and it is becoming more complex with many english language schools coming up ...with different syllabus and a recent trend focusing on Cambridge syllabus.
    Is it market driven or will it serve students in the long run.. ? It is yet to be seen

    1. Definitely not an easy one to solve. In terms of the English Language schools, if you're referring to the ones that simply teach English as a second language then I think - given they are on the whole private - there is definitely potential that they are mostly market driven...on the other hand if we're talking about schools that are teaching through English then this is another story. I always try to differentiate and explain the difference between learning English and learning through English, or make that any language. If we do the former i.e. learn the language, then the latter (being taught via that language) should be simple, however as this discussion has shown, many students are not masters of the language they are taught in leading to problems...

  20. Jenny on LinkedIn:

    Emersion programs are designed to have the students learn both the language and through the language and they are quite successful if done properly. Many cultures around the world are exposed to multiple languages and historically people have had little problem learning the other languages, it is only in the past 20 years with new PhD interest that has declared multi language learning difficult.

    1. Timothy on LinkedIn:

      Jenny can you please cite research that demonstrates the effectiveness of Immersion programs? The bulk of research I have seen seems to indicate that such programs have not been effective in general application (see esp. Thomas and Collier, 2002).

      It seems to me that the educational community is, in general, becoming more positive toward multilingualism in the education system, rather than more negative. Educators in the past were much more insistent on using the dominant language in school - to the detriment of the vast majority of non-dominant language speakers.

      There is growing awareness of the value of using more than one language in education and of the effectiveness of not requiring students to learn IN a language until they have first learned to speak and understand that language. This does not mean that they don't learn the dominant language, but that they are first TAUGHT the language before they are taught IN the language.

    2. Suma on LinkedIn:

      I share the same thoughts as Timothy. In some countries especially in Southeast Asia it has become a necessity to focus on more than one language.. sometimes 3 languages. Teaching IN the language happens here depending on what benefits come with it. For example, Malay is compulsory as a medium and if not, you still need the National language to compete for jobs and do your higher studies within Malaysia. As Timothy mentioned, students are taught the dominant language, in fact, " languages in Malaysia" and parents have a choice to focus on what they need for their students, depending on whether their career is in Malaysia or abroad.
      @ Timothy, Krashen, S. (1981, 1982, 1984) might be helpful to check out on why immersion programs work. I must still say that immersion programs have several factors that impact its effectiveness, including contextual and cultural factors. Please check studies in Thailand as they have many on this. (Chulalongkorn University).

    3. Jenny on LinkedIn:

      Hi Timothy, Although I have an education background in linguistics I was referencing personal experience. Having come from an Eastern European family the majority of my family speaks multiple langauges. I however (Born in Canada) was raised to speak only English. My children on the other hand have been educated in an emersion program. My siblings and I were a gap generation that were monolingual. I know what a lot of the western (North America) research indicates on language and indentity as well as learning but my family experience contradicts much of this research. Many Europeans have learned multiple languages and can communicate easily accross borders. It not only did not hinder their learning it actually increased their opportunities. I caution anyone who relies on limited or one sided information. What is interesting is that there is less research done on bilingualism in europe than done in other areas. Perhaps it is because there multi language use is cultural (not considered unusual) where as in other areas such as North America, where there is a little access to other majority langauges we feel that this is a "new" phenomenon and need to study the heck out of it. I mean no disrespect to researchers or people who follow on philosophy or another I am just gently reminding to observe all sides before drawing a conclusion especially since research is often narrowly focused and then presented as a generalization.

    4. Grazyna on LinkedIn:

      Hi Jenny. There is no doubt that the more languages we are competent in the better for many reasons. The question is how to reach that level of competence in the most effective way for as many children as possible. In fact, a lot of research was done in Sweden, with reference to migrant Finnish children, and I am sure that you would find that very interesting. It concludes that children do much better, not only linguistically but also socially and emotionally, if the children's own language is carried forward and studied too, as well as the host language. I am sure that you will find information on this on the web.

      I think there are two kinds of emersion programmes - one where many of the pupils are already competent in the language and some new pupils who are not competent arrive - here they will usually learn pretty quickly, but if none of the pupils are competent in the language and they are obliged to use that language all the time, it becomes much more difficult and the results are far less certain.

    5. Timothy on LinkedIn:

      Grazyna, you have put it very well. The immersion programs that work well are those where the non-dominant language speakers are surrounded by a dominant language environment. Of course the program also needs the right types of instructional strategies and good teachers. And the research shows that even in a well resourced country like the USA most immersion programs produce very poor results compared to other bilingual programs.

      Jenny, you speak from personal experience, which is quite valid. And you are right that much of Europe has been doing multilingual education very well for decades. It is unfortunate that there is not as much research 'out there' to highlight that success and the factors which contribute to it. There is much that the world could learn from the European experience.

      One thing I would note in relation to the success in Europe, from conversations with a number of friends from Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands, is that all of them started their education in their mother tongue. The schools used the mother tongue as the language of instruction through primary at least, and even commonly through secondary. They did study other languages starting in early primary, and they often learned 2 or 3 additional languages, but the dominant language of instruction was the mother tongue. This actually agrees well with much of the research which shows that the best predictor of success in multilingual education is the amount of time spent using the mother tongue as the language of instruction.

      Since this is a forum question about Education in the Developing World, I do think it is important that we keep in mind the huge language situation differences between that world and areas like N. America and Europe. In many places it is impossible to create the types of immersion conditions that work well. The only exposure that students have to the dominant language is what they hear from their teacher in the classroom. The dominant language is not used in the home, or the community. They do not have access to mass media in the dominant language. In fact, the teacher may not even speak the dominant language all that well. These are very poor conditions for a successful immersion model, yet that is the model that prevails in most situations. It's not that immersion is a bad model, in and of itself, (though it may not be the best either) but in a majority of situations in the developing world, it is not a realistic model for the context.

  21. Grazyna on LinkedIn:

    It is also worth considering why we are teaching in more than one language. Why are we teaching in anything other than the mother tongue or local language? For whose benefit is it? pupils? teachers? short-term or long-term benefits? I think this will also help us decide on the most effective format.

  22. George on LinkedIn:

    Language is a very important aspect of learning and teaching, but the challenge in most developing countries is that the mother tongue is not the medium of instruction, which in some cases is all so not well understood by the children and when the difficulty of having to cope with a second language not properly spoken and understood by school going children is added to this, it poses a big question and makes learning most difficult and results poor. This is because there is problem of communication both oral and written, hence conprehension is at its lowest ebbe learning often nnot taking place. Language is therefore essential if learn is to take place.

  23. Sylvaine on LinkedIn:

    I have been working in Mali for the past four years. I am temporarily evacuated because of the coup but going back in two weeks. The going back to mother instruction has produced some results on a small scale. BUT 1) it was introduced at the same time as a new pedagogy "La pédagogie convergente" in only 80 pilot schools, so it is difficult to say if it was the language or the methodology, and- personally - I am convinced it was the method; 2) it didn't work on a larger scale: we did in 2009 a nation-wide study on reading and writing and - in ALL languages tested - 84% of the 5618 children tested could not read one single word of a very simple text at the end of Gr. 2. The children were tested in their language of instruction, the test was administered in their mother tongue by native speakers of their own language. Tests were administered in French, Arabic in medersas, Bambara, Fulfulde, Songhaï, and Bomu. It was on a one-to-one basis: one tester per child at a time.

    Having taught French Immersion in Canada for over 20 years, I wholeheartedly agree with Jenny: a) the method is wrong. The pedagogy used in African classroom do not seek understanding; b) the lingua-Franca is taught as if the children were native speakers, teachers need to learn how to teach in a second language c) the material is not adapted for 2nd language learners 3) nobody has thought through the transition from one language to another 4) teachers don't master either language; even when they speak fluently their mother tongue, they don't know how to read it or write it; 5) children are asked to memorize and repeat, they are actually forbidden to think, to ask questions or to do anything that would show they actually understand. Creativity is swiftly and sometimes brutally dealt with. No space for imagination.

  24. Kadiatou on LinkedIn30 June 2012 at 22:33

    I am from Mali and have witnessed the various swinging of the pendulum in favor of one method or another. Although I know learning in one's mother tongue makes the learning process much smoother for the students, I have always had numerous questions regarding the principle. For instance, in the case of Mali, is having each region teach in the local language spoken in that area a dividing factor? What are the implications of such potential divisions? Given that most teacher are civil servants, if they are posted in a different region what becomes of their children's learning process, keeping in mind that they have been learning in a different language previously? When I asked policy makers that question, the answer I got was that "children learn fast and so can pick up the new language very quickly." Then how is that different from learning in French? I agree with Jenny and Tarek that it's more a question of pedagogy. Teachers rarely use student-centered methodologies in their classrooms. Having a more child-friendly approach to teaching can go a long way in smoothing out the learning process regardless of the language.
    A few other issues related to the mother tongue as medium of instruction need to be taken into account: (a) Are books and other school manuals available for all grades in adequate quantity or is it on the basis of develop-as-you-go? (b) Beyond grade 3 what use is made of the mother tongue? In countries where native languages are used in international settings (Japanese, Mandarin, etc.), it would not make much sense to drop those languages in favor of a foreign one. It's a different story in our countries. Someone mentioned the advent of technology in the classroom. Our schools have not made much headway in that direction yet. Do we need to add another hurdle that is the lack of mastery of an international language? (c) In countries where there are numerous mother tongues, what's the best approach? 1) Choose one and make it mandatory for all to use? That would beat the goal of having children learn in their mother tongue for a lot of the children! 2) Have each region use their own language? Again there is that division issue. I do not pretend to have the right answers, but the questions I raise deserve adequate responses and need to weighed against the benefits of making learning much easier for children.

    1. Sylvaine on LinkedIn30 June 2012 at 22:35

      Thank you Kadiatou. I have been wrestling with exactly the same questions..with, so far, no good answer. And what about the child learning in Bomu who, in Grade 2, moves to Bamako (language Bambara), then, in Grade four to Mopti (language Fulfulde or Dogosso or other). Is this child supposed to change language every year or so ? If you take the region of Mopti, many languages are spoken, so your chances to have a linguistically homogeneous class are pretty low. You will always have children learning in another language.

    2. Timothy on LinkedIn30 June 2012 at 22:36

      Kadiatu, you have raised many important questions. Let me address just one of them here.
      You asked "For instance, in the case of Mali, is having each region teach in the local language spoken in that area a dividing factor?
      When we really dig down to root issues, conflict is not CAUSED by differences in language. Conflict is usually the result of misuse of power. It is a common belief that encouraging the use and development of local language will foster divisions. But in fact the opposite is actually the case.

      When a government officially uses, or allows the use of, non-dominant languages, it actually contributes to harmony. Official acceptance and use of a community's local language sends the message to that community that their language is valued. And because a person's identity is very closely tied to their language, this translates to the message that the people are valued for who they are. This actually contributes to harmony rather than division.

      This does not mean that non-dominant language speakers never learn the language of wider communication. But if they are encouraged and enabled to develop their own languages, they will also better learn that language of wider communication.

      It requires considerable commitment, effort, and investment for governments to do this. But the benefits to society overall are worth it.

    3. Jenny on LinkedIn30 June 2012 at 22:37

      I work in rural Tanzania where many communities speak a tribal language first then learn swahili once in primary school. About mid primary english is supposed to added to the mix. As someone with a linguistic, anthropology and education background I find it interesting and frustrating that the debate about what language to teach in always gets in the way of the education itself. In our small learing center 60% of our staff and students are neither native english nor swahili speakers. We have chosen english and the teaching language not because we feel it is a superior langauge but because our goal was education and with the numerous variations in beliefs, customs, language and evucation levels we had to start with an equalizer. Teaching in english meant that everyone was learning a new langauge. That leveled the playing field a little. The second thing we did was to treat all students as though they had no education at all. This meant that all students started with a kindergarten curriculum. Learning or relearning numbers and letters and sounds in both the new langauge and in a simplified form has meant that our education program has been quite successful! I am fully aware that heritage langauge is important and we should do our best not to lose anymore languages but at the same time we cannot ignore education and skill building because no one can come to a consensus about the best langauge. Another note about swahili specifically. Although it was chosen as the national language it was not actually spoken by the majority. Nor was it even a formalized language at that time. It wasn't until the late 70's that formalization of the langauge really began. This means that anyone educated in swahili langauge was not taught in a formal swahili because there wasn't a formal swahili at that time. This also means that the majority of the senior teachers in Tanzania have never learned the formal swahili. If they never learned it, how can they teach it? If they are not teaching it, the younger generations are also not learning it. So here we have an example of a language that was never formalized before it was deemed the national language and the language of instruction. As a result we have millions of people who have not mastered any language. I know that this struggle is going to go on for a long time in the mean time though we still must find a way to educate rural communities.

    4. Timothy on LinkedIn30 June 2012 at 22:38

      Yes, multilingual education is difficult and requires considerable investment of resources. But achieving quality education solely through foreign languages is even more difficult. The following article just came across my desk this morning.
      It is UKAID report entitled "Mother Tongue Education and Girls and Poor Children" -
      There is much in the article that is worth reading, but I note these quotes from page 9:

      A further advantage of mother tongue and bilingual education programmes relates to student retention rates: a study in Mali (World Bank, 2005) found that they were 19 per cent cheaper than monolingual programmes due to lower drop-out and repetition rates.


      First language instruction results in:
      i. increased access and equity, ii. improved learning outcomes,
      iii. reduced repetition and dropout rates, iv. socio-cultural benefits and
      v. lower overall costs‖ (World Bank, 2005:[2]).

      So while there is no doubt that implementing multilingual education is a difficult task, global experience and research is showing that it is more successful and actually cheaper than trying to achieve quality education using foreign languages.

    5. Grazyna on LinkedIn30 June 2012 at 22:38

      Thanks Timothy for this reference. It is as you say well worth reading. It cleearly points out the difference between two very important questions:

      1. Does the use of the mother-tongue improve learning?
      2. How can we arrange this, if it does so? Clearly here the question of resources applies, but there is no doubt that the answer to the first question is "yes", in almost every case.

    6. Sylvaine on LinkedIn30 June 2012 at 22:39

      I am fairly familiar with all this research. For Mali, it is based on a small pilot project. When the pilot went to a larger bigger scale (not national), the pédagogie convergente went unfortunately by the wayside and so did the results. Not all teachers were properly trained and reverted to their own syllabic method. And, as they had no idea to help the transition from national language to French, children ended up facing Gr. 6 in French with little or no French at all, thus nicely being set up for failure at the secondary level for most of them. As I stated earlier, our own extensive national 2009 study could NOT prove that the learning was SIGNIFICANTLY better in mother tongue than in another language. This would imply that the pédagogie convergente was mostly responsible for the learning gains. I am NOT against teaching in mother tongue at all, but the cost, the amount of material it requires, the teachers' training necessary and the many obstacles it poses make me wonder it this is the best solution. And the article you sent did say: "At the end of the first year, about 69 percent were promoted compared to about 52 percent of French-language schools. Pédagogie convergente nominally costs 80 percent more to teach because of materials and teacher training, but it costs 27 percent less when repetition rates are considered." In view of our findings, I am not convinced a developing country can afford it. I believe we have to find a more creative way to arrive at a bilingual education.

  25. Sylvaine on LinkedIn1 July 2012 at 17:18

    Agree, you must value your country culture. But which culture as a country ? Every single ethnic group has its own culture. Last year in April, the Malian Minister of Education decided that by the 14th of September of the same year, the ministry was to implement the teaching of Bambara in 80% of the nation. This simply didn't happen because nothing was ready. Our program was asked to help and we did so extensively because our approach, balanced literacy, works in pretty much all languages. We encouraged the Ministry to limit the implementation to three academies chosen because they were fairly homogenous linguistically-speaking, mostly because it was physically impossible to get everything translated, created or printed. By January this year, most schools in these three districts were "officially" teaching in Bambara. The teachers only have some material in Language arts, everything else could not be ready and translated. For some of the children, this means learning in a second language that is not the official language. Due to the coup, everything has come to a grinding halt. The material is not ready, the teachers have been trained with mostly the same modules used in 1986 which didn't work then. Only in reading and writing did we make some changes as asked by the government. We'll see what happens when (if) school resumes in October.
    I would like also to point out that the people who are leading in Mali, in any sector - not only in education - and the ones who are petitioning for the mother tongue are the ones with perfect French. If they had been taught in their mother tongue, would they be in the positions they hold now ? The ones speaking only one or even two or three national languages have no chance to be hired anywhere and have no access to the larger world such as Internet. We did some informal survey in and outside of Bamako with the parents. As kadiatou pointed out, parents are upset by this decision as they see in it another way of controlling an ignorant population and keeping it at menial jobs or unemployment.

  26. Grazyna on LinkedIn2 July 2012 at 09:54

    I don't think that the choice should be between learning in the mother tongue or learning in a more wide-spread or international language, as children will need both if they are to enter into the wider world - that said not all children want to enter into the wider world and for them learning in their mother tongue is the most effective. They can forget the international languages as these are of no help to them.

    For those who feel that they need an international language as well, how can we best ensure that they acquire good skills in that language while succeeding in their school work? The interesting discussion is about the most effective way to ensure that they learn well in school and acquire skills in both languages. The weight of evidence seems to suggest that introducing the second language as a subject at first and gradually moving to its use as the language of instruction, once the children are competent in it, is the most effective way.

    I appreciate that a lot of resources are needed for this, but the few resources we have are often wasted through school drop-outs and repetitions when the children are not able to work in the language used. It seems worth investing a little more to achieve much better results.

  27. Kadiatou on LinkedIn2 July 2012 at 20:52

    Some very interesting ideas have been put forward on this topic. The debate has been very enriching. Thank you all. However, I have the feeling that most people focus mostly on the ease of learning for school children when using the mother tongue. I do not dispute for one minute that a child that learns in his/her mother tongue is faced only with the challenges of mastering the content of the material, without the added hurdle of understanding a foreign language first to get to the content.

    I raised some other issues as have others regarding education budgets and the context of each single country. I've seen many people repeat "education for poor children, education in poor countries" and so forth (I take issue with the use of poor countries or poor children, but that is a whole other topic that I will not get into here). Those who contend that mother tongue instruction is more beneficial in poor countries should see the contradiction in that statement right away, unless they have no idea of the true cost of providing education to all the children of a country. Most "poor countries" that get the bulk of their education funds from donors can barely embark on expensive schemes that they will definitely not be able to sustain without assistance. Therefore, developing immediately mother tongue instruction materials and making them available to all kids is almost out of question for them. What has happened so far in my own country is that new ideas are tested and dropped for lack of means to provide complete sets of materials for all children. What is accomplished then? Something in-between where kids can't continue in their language and have to struggle to play catch up in the foreign language?

    I love my culture and the numerous languages spoken in my country and there is no way I would prefer another language to mine. However reality dictates that we function in languages other than our own, at least for now. And that reality includes not only cost issues, but also the delicate balance that we need to strike so that NO language in a given country feel left out. Because choosing one local language (for whatever rationale) for all children to embrace is no different than having to study in a foreign language for the majority of the children who would be using that one local language as second language, not their mother tongue.

  28. Nurudeen on LinkedIn3 July 2012 at 22:40

    The issue of language is a sensitive one.However, teaching a child by her language may be easier and the child may understand better since the language of communication is not new to her.But the important question to ask is: can poor countries revives that method after many years of foreign languages?Also if african want to use one language as a means of communication,which of the languages are they going to use?am a fula and i have great respect for my language,what about the mandingo,the jola, the wolof?So the issue of language in africa is a sensitive one as everyone love her language.Am say it is not possible but it need great thinking.

  29. Hilary on LinkedIn6 July 2012 at 20:02

    I have spent some considerable time on this issue, particularly in relation to education in Ghana where the outcomes for those who undertake full elementary programme are poor. In the past Ghana used mother tongue in Early Years and moved into English as the medium of transmission in Middle Years and High School. Now all schooling is in English and the result has been a diminishing in attainment among children from less affluent backgrounds ie those who don't have English at home.
    I have witnessed lessons in Accra delivered by teachers whose own English was inadequate such that all they were doing was getting their students to parrot what none of them understood.
    My younger children all went to school in Accra yet they had no English when they came to the UK; my second daughter who is in her last year of senior secondary school still does not communicate at a sophisticated enough level in English even though she has been taught throughout through English.
    The problems are, as others have already stated, that teachers are EAL speakers themselves, often educated well below acceptable levels for teaching to levels which would put students on a par with international peers; drilling rather than exploratory learning which means children find it difficult, if not impossible, to ask what is meant, teaching to the test and a complete ignorance of such theorists as Vygotsky who has inspired my own teaching for over 30 years.
    Children in the public education systems of all countries require competent teachers who are able to think and be creative, who can help them move from mother tongue to English without hindering learning. In a multi-lingual capital such as Accra this poses problems which we spent much time trying to unpick when we put our early years packages together.

    1. Alfred on LinkedIn7 July 2012 at 20:25

      Hilary, the language policy in Ghana has changed. By the 2008 reforms, Ghana has reverted to the early exit bilingual model, where the local language of the community of the school is supposed to be used as the medium of instruction from kindergarten through to the third year.There is this National Literacy Acceleration Programme (NALAP) which is meant to support teachers to implement this policy. There are challenges in the implementation of the local language policy (like the multiple languages spoken in a community) though. However, there is evidence to show that parents put pressure on schools to use English instead of the local languages. Moreover, some of our teachers look down on our local language. There is also the perception that fluency in English implies academic brilliance. In fact there are a lot of issues regarding this language policy dilemma. Even with the early exit model, how well do we teach English Language at the lower primary levels for pupils to acquire the needed competency for dialogue in upper primary classrooms? It is my candid opinion that English should be taught very well at the lower primary levels and also that the switch to English as medium of instruction should not be rushed but rather done gradually, Owu-Ewie (2006) discusses these issues very well. This is an interesting topic worth exploring. Let's keep the debate on. Thanks and best wishes. Blessings.

  30. Clifton on LinkedIn7 July 2012 at 20:27

    I live in a country where bilingual education is a major problem. Most education is in English. Even the nationals primarily send their children to English schools. Notwithstanding, fortunes are spent on "bridge" programs to get high school grads up to competency for University level education which is all in English. Tons of money is poured into the problem and yet no one has found "excellent bi-lingual programs where teachers are culturally competent and highly trained"

  31. In Uganda, with 50-70 local languages depending on how you define them, the change to local language in the early years has been hampered by the lack of an orthography for some languages and a lack of reading material in almost all. Teachers do not necessarily teach in their 'home' areas so may not be fluent in the language of instruction in the schools where they are employed. Nevertheless, even this is surely better than the complete bewilderment of young children moving from the home into school and unable to understand anything that is going on in Enlgish.

    1. Thank you for the comment. You make a very good point about teachers not necessarily teaching in their 'home' areas. Also, I think the fact that many local languages are often oral is one of the main stumbling blocks when implementing mother-tongue instruction. As the extensive discussion has shown, there does not seem one sure-fire way to go about this. And, I myself sometimes wonder whether advocacy for mother-tongue instruction (my own included) can sometimes be a little hollow.

      Thanks for stopping by.