SEATTLE — In 2015, one out of 11 children worldwide did not attend school. The reasons vary: some because they couldn’t afford the school fees, others live miles away from a schoolhouse. But for many children the issue is simply that they don’t understand the languages spoken in classrooms because they aren’t native languages.
Since 1953 the United Nation’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has specified the importance of native languages in school settings. UNESCO’s main goal is to ensure that “every child, boy or girl, has access to quality education as a fundamental human right and as a prerequisite for human development.”
With that, UNESCO strongly supports children learning in their mother tongue. “Children are more likely to enroll and succeed in school; parents are more likely to communicate with teachers and participate in their children’s learning; girls and rural children with less exposure to a dominant language stay in school longer and repeat grades less often; [and] children in multilingual education tend to develop better thinking skills compared to their monolingual peers.”
However, in many developing countries lessons are conducted in English because the language is highly marketable. While this practice benefits bilingual students, it marginalizes those who speak and comprehend only the country’s native language.
Child immigrants and refugees often suffer both academically and socially if they cannot participate in language-based school activities. They are at risk of being viewed as unintelligent, uninterested or closed-off, despite possessing a strong desire to learn. Furthermore, these children often conclude that their native language and traditions are obsolete, and they dismiss the value of their culture.
Dr. Jessica Ball, founder of Early Childhood Development Intercultural Partnerships and member of UNESCO, promotes “immersion programs” within minority communities. She helps schools recruit instructors who speak the local language. In instances where no such instructor is available, members of the community are pulled in to work alongside the teachers and to read to the students.
Some children have no choice but to attend foreign-speaking classrooms, which is why it is important for them to have a firm grasp on their first language. Hurisa Guvercin, an English Second Language (ESL) teacher and former immigrant, encourages parents to address their children in their native tongue.
“A strong foundation in their first language will contribute to learning another language and help them develop stronger literacy skills in the school language,” said Guvercin in her article “Mother Tongue: The Language of Heart and Mind.”
One of UNESCO’s many projects to improve global education is analyzing the contribution of family interaction to a child’s linguistic development. Further research will help parents prepare their children for second language classrooms.
“Family members play an important role as children’s ‘first teachers’ and research should explore the roles of informal and non-formal education and family interaction in promoting literacy, numeracy, and higher order cognitive skills using the mother tongue,” said Global Partnership for Education in a statement on their website.
Introducing international languages benefits everyone, even students who already understand their school’s dominant dialect.