SEATTLE — Countries across the globe are recognizing the value of a mother tongue education to ensure the success of children who speak languages different than the official language taught in school.
Mother tongue education, or the practice of teaching children in their native language, has taken hold in parts of Africa, Latin America and Asia. The large variety of languages and dialects spoken on these continents, coupled with their history of colonization, often means that the language in which the children are expected to learn in school is different than the one that they speak with their parents and their family. UNESCO estimates that 40 percent of the students in the world are taught in a language they do not understand.
In 2009, the NGO, LABE, in conjunction with the Ugandan government launched a mother-tongue education program in Uganda, hoping it would improve the country’s low test scores. Teachers began teaching grades 1-3 in the dialect common to their region, switching to English instruction in grade four.
They also received classroom books in five languages. Rural areas in particular showed improvements in literacy and teachers reported that the children seemed more alert and enthusiastic when taught in their native language.
Zambia made a similar decision in 2014 when the government decided to teach primary school children in their local language. In the Chauvma district of Zambia, where the schools re-introduced the regional language of Lavale, test scores in reading and math increased significantly. These improved reading skills have the potential to lift 171 million people out of poverty.
The Rutu Foundation, an organization dedicated to making mother tongue education a universal practice, finds that children who are given the opportunity to learn in their native tongue learn more quickly and more efficiently. The children have more self-esteem, are more comfortable in their school environment and continue farther in their education. Teaching in children’s native language also allows the parents to become involved in the children’s learning, making education a community effort.
Through mother tongue education, children develop and appreciate their cultural identity. In Ecuador’s Bilingual Education System, which serves nearly 164,000 students, the children are exposed to both their mother language and Spanish. At the same time, the children are taught to respect and care for their environment. Outside in the garden, they learn how to classify and identify shapes and colors. They become familiar with myths and traditions.
The schools offer high school diplomas with concentrations in natural medicine and ecotourism. Bilingual Education systems have become popular across Latin and South America in countries such as Mexico, Guatemala, Argentina and Chile.
UNESCO research suggests that the longer the students study in their mother tongue, the better they will perform in school. In Ethiopia, the students with the highest math and English scores are the ones who spent the longest period of time learning in their native languages. UNESCO recommends 6-8 years of mother language instruction.
Nonprofits like the Global Partnership for Education assist by distributing books and textbooks written in native languages to children in places like Madagascar and Rwanda.
The Asia Foundation, a nonprofit that works in 18 Asian countries, has gone a step further. The organization recently piloted a program in Thailand called My Community Reader, which aims to not only procure but also create books for Thai children written in their first languages.
The country is home to 31 million minority language speakers, most of whom do not use the country’s official language, Standard Thai, as their primary form of communication. In 2010, Thailand instated its first National Language Policy and began to encourage schools to teach in the mother tongues of their respective regions.
My Community Reader provides villages with materials that allow them to create new books for children from translations of already existing texts.
UNESCO celebrates International Mother Language Day every year on February 21st, and continues to support mother tongue education as part of its Sustainable Development Goals.
– Emilia Otte