Children need to be taught in their mother language

In many countries, children are taught in languages they do not speak at home. As we show in the 2013/4 EFA Global Monitoring Report, that can be a potent source of disadvantage. Children need a chance to learn in their mother tongue as well as the official language.

International Mother Language Day, celebrated on February 21, was founded by UNESCO in 1999 to draw attention to the importance of learning in local languages. This year’s special focus is on global citizenship and science.

Nguyen, a teacher in Muong Khuong county, Viet Nam: ‘There are 13 ethnic students in my class. All Hmong girls. Sometimes when you teach in Vietnamese they seem not to understand.’ Credit: Nguyen Thanh Tuan/UNESCO
Nguyen, a teacher in Muong Khuong county, Viet Nam: ‘There are 13 ethnic students in my class. All Hmong girls. Sometimes when you teach in Vietnamese they seem not to understand.’
Credit: Nguyen Thanh Tuan/UNESCO

As well as presenting clear evidence that learning in an unfamiliar language can hold children back, the 2013/4 EFA Global Monitoring Report lays out strategies for making sure that children from ethnic and linguistic minorities acquire strong foundation skills.

Schools need to teach the curriculum in a language children understand. A bilingual approach that combines continued teaching in a child’s mother tongue with the later introduction of a second language can improve performance in the second language as well as in other subjects.

Our latest report shows that in Ethiopia, for example, primary school children learning in their mother tongue performed better in grade 8 in mathematics, biology, chemistry and physics than pupils in English-only schooling.

Our World Inequality Database on Education (WIDE) has recently been updated to show the inequalities in learning across countries and within countries by different dimensions including whether the children speak the language of instruction at home. In the Islamic Republic of Iran in 2011, for example, the database shows that, while almost all those children who spoke Farsi, the official language, at home in urban areas learned the basics in reading in primary school, only 74% of those who did not speak Farsi at home achieved the same minimum learning standard.

WIDE - world inequality databse on learning
WIDE – World Inequality Databse on Learning

Language policies may be difficult to implement, particularly where there is more than one language group in the same classroom or where teachers are not proficient in the local language. For bilingual education to be effective, governments need to recruit and deploy teachers from minority language groups. Initial and ongoing programmes are also needed to train teachers to teach in two languages and to understand the needs of second-language learners.

Given the focus on teachers in the 2013/4 EFA Global Monitoring Report, it seems appropriate to give the last word to Inga, a teacher in Kigali, Rwanda: “There remains no doubt that the main barrier to basic education is the forced use of English as medium of instruction. The complete lack of mother tongue in schools not only impedes learning for the children, but is also a major challenge for Rwanda’s teachers. Without adequate knowledge in English, teachers are unable to interact with the students.”



  1. It is a good decision on the part of the UNESCO to teach in local languages. However, people, especially children must learn English or a few of the other internationally accepted languages. It will open many new opportunities for them. They can venture to other countries for work or studies. Learning languages will help them mingle with people universally.

  2. The 2013/4 EFA Global Monitoring Report hardly mentions the Language of instruction (LOI) at all When it does so, it is about minority languages. What about large African majoiry languages like Hausa, Kiswahili, Youruba, Akan., Bambara etc? There are 100 Million speakers of Kiswahili in eastern Africa yet Kiswahili is not LOI in any secondary school in Africa. There is no secondary school in Africa where childen are allowed to be taught in a familiar African language. The former coloinal languages like English and French can be taught as foreign languages like they are in Europe (except Britain where that language is the mother tongue of most chiildren)

    1. It is true that the vast majority of governments in sub-Saharan Africa opt for English, French, Portuguese or Spanish as the language of instruction in upper grades of primary and especially secondary education for various reasons not necessarily related to education. Given that choice, the EFA Global Monitoring Report has strongly advocated for the importance of ensuring that all children are taught in their mother-tongue for at least the first few years of primary school regardless of whether the language is a minority or a majority language.

  3. This is a great idea for children to be allowed to be very vast in speaking their mother tongue,but they should also as most important to be excellent in speaking English language and other internationally accepted languages to make a balance.

    1. The best way to learn English or French in countries where these languages are not languages of everyday conversation is to have a familiar lnaguage as LOI and not only the first years of schooling but at least through secondary school and learn English and French well as foreign languages from teachers who are excellent in these languages and know how to teach them..

  4. its great idea to teach the learners in their mother’s language.i hope the craze of our nationalities towards teaching English from very beginning will be lessened from this article.

  5. Do we have people with abilities to make school curriculum in our mother tongue?who will facilitate that also?

  6. Good Question Kihwaga, but if we don’t do that at the present stage we may not have any capable speakers of our languages left at a later stage.

  7. It is a very good decision on the part of the UNESCO to teach in local languages. However, people, especially children must learn a few of the other internationally accepted languages.

  8. teaching children in the language they bring to school is the best thing any education system can adopt. children come to school with a wealth of knowledge and this is their entry behaviour. when they find teacher who use their mother tongue they feel school is not a strange place but a place to be. their self-esteem is maintained, they do not feel intimidated. this facilitates their learning of new concepts building on what they know. UNESCO should make sure they facilitate education system to have teachers who are proficient in teaching the mother tongue by motivating teacher training institutions to train teacher who are competent in mother tongue. this is because today very few people especially in the colonized countries can competently read, write and use mother tongue grammar as it should be. most countries insist teaching English or French even where the language policy is mother tongue in the early years of school(class1-3).
    Countries where english is a second languages exams are poorly pefomed a case of kenya r

    I would propose mother tongue is taught all the way to university to preserve peoples identity. they should also learn other languages alongside mother tongue because we are in a global community not seclusion. bilingualism is the way to go from the early years. However I acknowledge is would be a challenge to developing economies as they have many problems in their education systems, but where there is a will there is a way and a journey of a thousand miles begins with a step as they would say.

  9. the use of L1 and target language should be seen as complementary, depending on the characteristics and stages of the language learning process”overuse of L1 will naturally reduce the amount of exposure to L2.
    Therefore, attempt should be made to keep a balance between L1 and L2 use.

  10. Teaching in mother languages has gobe in most of the countries. Most especially Africanss, we are left with colonial languages for all our daily activities.

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