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Lessons from Africa prove the incredible value of mother tongue learning

Children at school in Mali, which is among the countries that’s prioritised mother tongue education. United Nations Photo/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Sixty-five years ago a group of students paid with their lives in a fight for language. A number of students were shot and killed by police while demonstrating in defence of their language, Bengali (also called Bangla). The students wanted Bengali to be formally recognised as one of the two national languages in what was then Pakistan and is today Bangladesh.

Since 1999, the anniversary of the tragedy has been marked every year on February 21 by UNESCO as International Mother Language Day.

African research has made a valuable contribution to the framing of 2017’s International Mother Language Day theme: “Towards sustainable futures through multilingual education”.

This makes sense; after all, it was in Africa that the first sustained research about mother-tongue education in multilingual countries began 100 years ago. The continent was also the site of UNESCO’s early interest in multilingualism in education. In 1953 the global body produced a report that explored the use of vernacular languages in education. It included a “continental survey” of Africa’s identified vernacular languages and how they were being used in teaching and learning during the early primary school years.

The report’s recommendations were based on available understanding of the relationship between language and learning at the time. It was believed then that after three years of mother-tongue medium education children could successfully switch over and use an international language – such as English or French – for learning in schools.

Many African countries, mostly former French and Portuguese colonies, ignored these recommendations after gaining their independence. They prioritised international over local languages, even in the early primary school years. Most countries in “Anglophone” Africa, meanwhile, have attempted some form of early literacy development in the local language before children switch to English medium education.

Over the years, our understanding of how language and learning are linked has shifted and changed. There is ample evidence about the value of mother-tongue-based multilingual education.

So, what’s working in Africa when it comes to language in education – and what isn’t?

Compelling evidence from Africa

By 2004 only 50% of children in Africa completed primary school. Several authors, among them prominent Nigerian linguist Ayo Bamgbose, have written about this startling fact, and it also prompted UNESCO, with the Association for the Development of Education in Africa Association for the Development of Education in Africa to conduct a 25-country study between 2004 and 2006.

Its results offer important insights. For instance, the study found that children in well-resourced contexts in multilingual countries take between six and eight years to learn the international language before they can learn at school through this language. It also revealed that a child’s mother tongue or local language is indispensible as the main medium of instruction during these six to eight years.

Children can only learn when that learning is based on what they already understand and through the language or languages that they understand. This is local knowledge conveyed through a local language. In some contexts, children grow up knowing several languages. In such cases it’s important to make as much use of children’s linguistic repertoire as possible.

Teachers also need to know that it is legitimate to teach children in the language or languages that they understand. Teachers should be trained to teach through the local language/s. They must also be taught how best to develop strong proficiency in the relevant international language. Children and teachers who grow up in multilingual contexts know how to use their multilingualism to communicate effectively. They just need to understand that it is a legitimate practice.

The 2004 - 2006 study also showed how adequate teaching and learning resources can be enhanced by including local stakeholders. These individuals or organisations can bring valuable local knowledge.

Crucially, mother-tongue-based multilingual education programmes based on these criteria are likely to result in higher retention and lower grade repetition. They also don’t cost a fortune. Investment in such programmes in Africa at the moment is usually less than 2% of a country’s education budget – and is recovered within five years.

Community and local involvement

The 2004-2006 UNESCO study found that governments which adopt rigid top-down education policies are slow to implement these. The policies, then, are likely to be unsuccessful. One example is the failure of South Africa’s government to implement its (multilingual) education policy since 1997.

On the other hand, the researchers found that successful partnerships between community-based stakeholders, NGOs and governments are more likely to be effective.

Ethiopia’s example is particularly interesting. The UNESCO study reported on compelling data about student retention and achievement linked to mother tongue medium education in this multilingual country. Researchers also found an intriguing link between proximity to the centre of power and a decrease in student achievement. Simply put, when schools are geographically close to the seat of national or federal government, local communities disengage. This compromises students’ academic performance.

As an example, the report revealed that student achievement at the end of the fourth and eighth grade in Ethiopia is higher in regions and districts that are further from the country’s capital city Addis Ababa, than in those closer to Addis. When schools are far removed from education authorities, local stakeholders are more likely to get involved. This includes offering stronger support for developing the local language for use in education.

Recent research in Uganda confirms many of UNESCO’s findings. Since 2009 an NGO called Literacy and Adult Basic Education has helped the country’s government to implement its mother-tongue policy in primary schools. It is working in remote areas on the country’s north-western borders which have experienced 30 years of civil conflict, human displacement and appalling poverty. It would be difficult to find a more challenging site for educational transformation.

Yet there’s been remarkable progress.

After a 30-year absence of regular schooling, parents and grandparents now accompany their children to school. Adult literacy and numeracy programmes have been set up in one village thanks to residents’ close collaboration with the local school. Villagers have also started running early childhood education centres, often under mango trees. Uganda’s government drew extensively from this programme while preparing to introduce a national pre-school year from 2017.

A global movement

This research reaches far beyond Africa. UNESCO has taken the unusual step of promoting its African findings elsewhere in the world, specifically South Asia and South-East Asia. Thanks particularly to the efforts of UNESCO’s Bangkok office, one country after another in South-East Asia has adopted mother-tongue-based multilingual education programmes and policies.

International Mother Language Day 2017 hopefully served as a reminder to governments everywhere that sustainable development depends on successful education.

And successful education, especially for vulnerable and marginalised communities, cannot occur unless children understand the language/s through which it is provided.

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