SEATTLE — The push for teaching in universal languages such as English has been shown to hinder children’s educational progress in developing countries. Right now, many children learn in a language that is different from the one they speak at home, which is why civil organizations around the world are advocating for mother tongue education.
It often takes children who speak a minority language at home until the third or fourth grade to learn English or a national language. As a result, many students fall behind in their subjects and drop out of school. Approximately 40 percent of students around the world attend schools where teachers expect them to learn in a language they don’t speak.
Many education advocacy organizations are supporting the International Mother Language Day Campaign, a U.N. program focused on implementing multilingual learning. This campaign is a part of the Global Campaign for Education to ensure mother tongue education for all students. The campaign also holds governments accountable for improving mother tongue policies in schools.
Governments in developing countries are resisting the campaign because there aren’t many teachers who are able to instruct in minority languages. Putting mother tongue education in place can often be a costly and time-consuming process. However, studies show that local language policies decrease dropout rates and increase academic achievement.
Here are six countries that have reported success after making the switch to mother tongue education:
Nepal is home to more than 123 languages, yet Nepali is the main language used in schools. Fifty-four percent of students speak a language other than Nepali at home. For years the National Campaign for Education-Nepal (NCE Nepal) advocated for mother tongue education, especially during early childhood education.
In 2015 the new Nepali Constitution gave every Nepali community the right to mother tongue education. NCE Nepal has continued to advocate for mother tongue policies in schools around the country.
The Bolivian Campaign for the Right to Education (CBDE) advocates for inclusive education practices, especially for indigenous people, who make up 60 percent of the Bolivian population.
In 2010, Bolivia passed the National Education Act that requires every child to learn an indigenous language and culture in addition to Spanish, which is the main language in the classroom. This allows children to embrace their own and others’ cultural identities while maintaining a common method of communication.
A recent development in Zimbabwe prioritizes mother tongue education. In February, the Zimbabwe School Examinations Council introduced exams in minority languages. The exams promote indigenous language learning, especially in primary schools.
Right now only three schools are implementing the exams, but the Primary and Secondary Education Minister in Zimbabwe hopes that the exams will gain popularity as more schools become aware of them.
In September 2016, a school in Analavory Commune, Madagascar received 54 textbooks from the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) written in Malagasy, their mother language.
One school is a small start, but GPE’s goal is to supply enough textbooks for one between every two students. In 2015, the ratio was one textbook per 30 students. The textbooks allow children to learn in their mother language through grade three and then switch to learning in French, the country’s second official language, in grade four.
Thanks to GPE, children at Jean de la Mennais preschool in Rwanda’s Burera district will learn to read in Kinyarwanda, their mother language. This will allow Rwandan children to learn reading, writing, math and critical thinking skills in a language they best understand, which will cut dropout rates in Rwandan primary schools.
In 2014, part of a $35.2 million GPE grant went to Zambia’s Chavuma district so that children from grades one to four could learn in their mother language, Luvale. Parents and grandparents in Chavuma welcomed the program with open arms, excited about the prospect of strengthening the bond between generations.
Since 2014 Zambian authorities have noted higher test scores in math, reading and writing in primary schools.
According to a GPE video, “171 million people could be lifted out of poverty if all students in developing countries left school with basic reading skills.” Educated children are better equipped with the skills necessary to develop solutions to economic and developmental struggles, and mother tongue education is a huge step toward achieving this for all.
– Rachel Cooper