For many years, traditional approaches to educating children in low-income, multilingual contexts undervalued learning in mother tongue languages, those that children speak at home. These approaches have typically promoted either subtractive language models (abandoning a mother tongue to adopt an international language) or foreign language models (those in which development in the two languages is seen as separate and unrelated). Regardless of the approach, mother tongue languages were viewed as an obstacle to learning.
Now, the international development field increasingly agrees that children should first learn in their mother tongue, a language they speak and understand. Whether the argument is rights-based, culture-based or cognition-based, many in our field agree that children are essentially denied access to education when they are forced to learn in a language they do not speak or understand. The field currently supports the acquisition of international languages, such as English, Spanish or French, along with the mother tongue, to help children more easily access and participate in the global economy.
Although more educators and policymakers agree that mother tongue education is ideal, it can be difficult to implement due to resource constraints and lack of training. FHI 360 is overcoming some of these obstacles through its Timawerenga! project in Malawi, which targets 80 schools and focuses on instruction in the Chichewa language and eventual addition of English. Using decodable stories, this project is meeting the critical need for sufficient quantities of low-cost, appropriate and effective mother tongue reading materials for primary school students in grades 1 and 2. The short, decodable stories, which carefully control vocabulary to build on the readers’ existing reading skills in mother tongue languages, can be reproduced easily in classrooms with only basic, locally available supplies, such as paper and pencils.
A growing body of knowledge shows the long-term positive impacts on learning when students have access to quality mother tongue, bilingual, and multilingual education through projects like Timawerenga!. One unexpected benefit is in the area of science. The focus of this year’s International Mother Tongue Language Day celebration was “Local Languages for Global Citizenship: Spotlight on Science,” which provided a platform for debunking the myth that modern science cannot be fully understood in mother tongue languages. In fact, the loss of mother tongue languages may contribute to the loss of scientific knowledge, such as the special understanding of the plants and animals of Mexico’s Sonora Coast possessed by the Seri community. These types of examples suggest that mother tongue education is beneficial to protect indigenous culture and to promote learning.
Additionally, research shows that learning to communicate in multiple languages has cognitive benefits. Bilingualism promotes deliberative and thoughtful communication practices, an essential tool for children, adolescents, and adults who may be living in fragile states.1 It has also been shown to offer protection against the onset of dementia.2 While much of this research has been conducted in high-income countries, the findings suggest that we ought to view linguistic diversity as an educational resource rather than as a barrier.
The international development community has the collective mandate to act on research that shows the long-term positive impacts on learning when students have access to quality mother tongue, bilingual, and multilingual education. As experts gather this week at the Comparative and International Education Society conference to discuss the theme, “Revisioning Education for All,” the benefits of multilingualism to student learning ought to be recognized. Ensuring a quality education for all means keeping mother tongue languages in the classroom by supporting their acquisition and maintenance along with an international language.
1 Keysar B, Hayakawa S, Sun Gyu A. (2012). The foreign language effect: Thinking in a foreign tongue reduces decision biases. Psychological Science. 2012;23:661-8; Costa A, Foucart A, Arnon I, Aparici M, Apesteguia J. “Piensa” twice: On the foreign language effect in decision making. Cognition. 2014;130(2):236-54. DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2013.11.010.
2 Bialystock E, Craik FI, Freedman M. Bilingualism as a protection against the onset of symptoms of dementia. Neuropsychologia. 2001;45(2):459-64.