In many countries, children are taught in languages they do not speak at home. As we show in the 2013/4 EFA Global Monitoring Report, that can be a potent source of disadvantage. Children need a chance to learn in their mother tongue as well as the official language.
International Mother Language Day, celebrated on February 21, was founded by UNESCO in 1999 to draw attention to the importance of learning in local languages. This year’s special focus is on global citizenship and science.
As well as presenting clear evidence that learning in an unfamiliar language can hold children back, the 2013/4 EFA Global Monitoring Report lays out strategies for making sure that children from ethnic and linguistic minorities acquire strong foundation skills.
Schools need to teach the curriculum in a language children understand. A bilingual approach that combines continued teaching in a child’s mother tongue with the later introduction of a second language can improve performance in the second language as well as in other subjects.
Our latest report shows that in Ethiopia, for example, primary school children learning in their mother tongue performed better in grade 8 in mathematics, biology, chemistry and physics than pupils in English-only schooling.
Our World Inequality Database on Education (WIDE) has recently been updated to show the inequalities in learning across countries and within countries by different dimensions including whether the children speak the language of instruction at home. In the Islamic Republic of Iran in 2011, for example, the database shows that, while almost all those children who spoke Farsi, the official language, at home in urban areas learned the basics in reading in primary school, only 74% of those who did not speak Farsi at home achieved the same minimum learning standard.
Language policies may be difficult to implement, particularly where there is more than one language group in the same classroom or where teachers are not proficient in the local language. For bilingual education to be effective, governments need to recruit and deploy teachers from minority language groups. Initial and ongoing programmes are also needed to train teachers to teach in two languages and to understand the needs of second-language learners.
Given the focus on teachers in the 2013/4 EFA Global Monitoring Report, it seems appropriate to give the last word to Inga, a teacher in Kigali, Rwanda: “There remains no doubt that the main barrier to basic education is the forced use of English as medium of instruction. The complete lack of mother tongue in schools not only impedes learning for the children, but is also a major challenge for Rwanda’s teachers. Without adequate knowledge in English, teachers are unable to interact with the students.”