Why school should speak your language

People whose mother tongue is different from their country’s official language can find this a barrier to thriving in society. But does that mean children should be educated only in the official language? It’s a complex question. As we found in the 2010 Education for All Global Monitoring Report: Reaching the Marginalized, educating children in their mother tongues can be a powerful way to prevent them from becoming marginalized.

International Mother Language Day on February 21 is a good opportunity to reflect on the connections between education and the world’s linguistic richness. Nearly 7,000 languages are spoken around the world, but many education systems do not reflect this diversity. About 221 million school-age children speak languages at home that are not recognized in schools.

Children who study in their mother tongue usually learn better and faster than children who study in second languages. Pupils who start learning in their home language also perform better in tests taken in their official language of instruction in their later school years.

The complexity of the issue is reflected by the fact that being taught only in one’s mother tongue can also be a route to marginalization. People who cannot speak a country’s dominant language often have restricted opportunities for employment and social mobility.

Furthermore, parents who do not speak the language their children are being taught in may be less able to engage with teachers, education authorities and to help with their children’s homework.

Language, culture and ethnicity are inherently interlinked. As the United Nations’ General Assembly noted in 2009, “genuine multilingualism promotes unity in diversity and international understanding” and is important for “promoting, protecting and preserving diversity of languages and cultures globally”. That is why the UN is committed to preserve “all languages used by peoples of the world”.

At least half of the world’s spoken languages are, however, under threat of extinction within 50 to 100 years, according to the  Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project, based at SOAS, University of London. About 2,500 languages are listed in UNESCO’s latest Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, which is accompanied by an online interactive edition.

Education systems must perform a delicate balancing art. Schools must give their pupils good conditions for effective learning. In many multilingual countries, this involves learning the official language as a subject in primary school, while being taught in one’s home language. It also implies that schools should teach the majority population respect for ethnic minority language and culture. But they must also ensure that children from disadvantaged minority backgrounds learn the skills they need to thrive in society and get a decent job – including mastering the official language.

In Latin America, where most countries aim to give children a chance to learn in their home language before moving on to Spanish, bilingual programmes have registered some significant achievements, but they face major challenges. Many indigenous children do not have access to bilingual education. Where indigenous language teaching is available, it is often of poor quality. And many indigenous groups find that bilingual education is too narrow when it focuses mainly on more effective integration of indigenous children into mainstream education.

Education reforms in Bolivia have addressed some of these problems. In the mid-1990s, intercultural and bilingual education was introduced on a national scale for the three most widely used indigenous languages. Bilingual teaching expanded rapidly, from 75,896 pupils in 1997 to 192,238 in 2002, or 11% of all primary school pupils. Curriculum reforms led to the development of courses and textbooks that attach more weight to the country’s multicultural history and the role of indigenous peoples.



  1. I am a lowly “educational engineer” who works on actionable problems, but I ‘m quite good at it. If you would please convert some of your concerns into issues that can be addressed I, and others like me, might be able to offer help. For example, here is a very tough problem for which there are classroom based pragmatic solutions:” How can we help second language learners continue to read, participate in class discussions and to learn from textbooks written in the second language? ”
    Actionable Solutions (Teaching Methods): 1. Listen-Read-Discuss Heuristic; 2. Note Cue; 3 Enabling Questions. All are found in Content Area Reading 2009) Manzo/Manzo/Thomas, Wiley Publishers, and/or Manzo/Manzo/Albee (2004) Reading Assessment for Diagnostic-Prescriptive Teaching (2nd ed.) Cengage Publishers]. Also see dedicated websites such as: .
    http://anthony-manzo.blogspot.com/2010/05/listen-read-discuss-simple-teaching.html, and Translation Questions: The Missing Link in Power Q…http://anthony-manzo.blogspot.com/2010/05/translation-questions-missing-link-in.html
    It is not false or naive hope for us to do what we can do.

  2. I think it’s important to do both. Where there is a dialect or a native language teachers should work with both measuring the results in each class.

    1. This is a pragmatic question being answered with political words like BOTH. It would really help if you could say how to do Both, or just have the courage to stake out one and save a lot of ideological chatter. Sorry to sound so crusty. But, this issue is 50 years old. We debated it to death when I was in graduate school. If there is no sensible, affordable way to do BOTH, let’s say ONE and get on with doing it. I have designed several methodologies for teaching with optimized scaffolding…but this presumes one language. I hope that you who teach will consider using these…let’s not allow the lack of a perfect answer keep us from employing a satisfactory one. The cost to our students for further delay is devastating. Here are some imperfect Solutions you can look up: Manzo’s Note Cue; ReQuest Procedure; Listen-Read-Discuss Heuristic; Enabling Questions.; iREAP…
      Or buy copies of: Manzo, U., Manzo, A. & Thomas, M (2009) Content Area Literacy: A Framework for Reading-Based Instruction (5th edition) Wiley ) and/or Manzo, A.,U. Manzo and Julie Albee (2004) Reading/Learning Assessment for Diagnostic-Prescriptive Teaching, 2nd edition Belmont: California, Thomson/Cengage Publishers.

      Please look in on our effort to identify Best Instructional Practices at:

  3. All reasons and debate regarding mother tongue teaching as well as foreign language is very relevant and sounds like we are all going in circles and this after almost after 100 years. Maybe a specific schools should or must have been targeted and piloted to see the outcome of the performance, and for the world to see advantages and the disadvantages. Such a feasibility survey should have already shown how to preserve the mother tongue as well as the second language, and the teachers would have been trained accordingly in the teaching service, to help sustain or review and upgrade their teaching skills. I still believe that each person is born and talk to by his or her parents in one specific language, even though the parents could be of different language group! And this I believe do not only apply to the the child who must be taught in whatever language, but also to the teacher who is supposed to teach, as well as the parent who should assist their child to continue speaking their home language and also to do well in school. This is a massive challenge for and in the whole world and much more should be done to find a resolution while time still allows and before certain languages get totally distinct. We really hope that the next generation’s language, culture and origin should be protected! Thank you for the site , it truly help me a lot.


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