Language matters, a lot

On 21 February, International Mother Language Day, UNESCO calls on countries to teach children in their mother tongue during the early years of their schooling, which can be combined with the official language of instruction, an approach known as multilingual education.

As the World Inequality Database on Education (WIDE) shows, children being taught in a language they speak at home are 30% more likely to read with understanding by the end of primary school than those who do not speak the language of instruction.

Many of the World’s most linguistically diverse countries are in Africa

Multilingual learning is costly to implement and related policies take on political and cultural connotations, meaning it is not always as easy as it sounds. But change is worth it. Our recent Spotlight report on primary education completion and foundational learning in Africa, Born to Learn, shows that at most one in five children are taught in their mother tongue in Africa, the continent with the highest linguistic diversity.

Probability of two randomly selected individuals having different mother tongues, 2017

In Côte d’Ivoire, home to some 80 languages, for instance, slightly less than one quarter of pupils speak French, the language of instruction, at home. The proportion ranges from 41% in urban areas to only 11% in rural areas. In Congo, 36% of all pupils are taught in their home language but only 15% in rural areas. This is detrimental to learning outcomes on the continent, where at most one in five pupils master the basics of reading, writing and mathematics at the end of primary school.

One of the ways language impacts is by challenging children’s motivation to remain in school. When not taught in the language they speak at home, children experience difficulties in following instructions and feel disconnected from the learning process. Where the language of instruction is foreign to both parents and children, students cannot benefit from parental support.

The Born to Learn report shone a spotlight on Mozambique, where multilingual learning is making a difference. It recently expanded bilingual education to 25% of schools with a new teacher training curriculum. Children learning in these schools are performing around 15% higher in basic reading and mathematics. For this success to extend to the entire continent, the international community must mobilize more funds for African countries investing in this area.


Staying the six-year course

The consensus is that children need to be taught in their home language for a minimum of six years to yield long-term benefits or up to eight years in under-resourced environments. Despite this evidence, however, transition to the official medium of instruction still often happens too early for home language instruction to yield benefits.

The need to provide six years of home language instruction can be shown by countries where language policies vary by region. In Ethiopia, students from regions that transition to English after eight years of home language instruction perform better, across a range of disciplines, than those who switch to English earlier, even those in more affluent regions. Similar results have been documented across Africa, including in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Mali and Nigeria.

A policy is only the beginning

Reforms that introduce bilingual education must address a range of parameters to become effective. Enacting a language policy is only the beginning. Countries need to develop curricula, teaching and learning materials, and teacher education, as well as to achieve consensus for the policy.

Even where there is the will, therefore, the way may be hard. In francophone Africa, French often becomes the sole medium of instruction from grade 4 or even grade 3, notably for lack of financial or human resources. Niger had a clear policy to develop bilingual schools in some parts of the country, with the local language as the main medium of instruction and French progressively introduced from grade 1, up to a 50% split between the two languages by grade 5. However, lack of trained teachers led some schools to completely remove the local language and only teach in French by grade 3.

But given that learning levels have been so low for generations, now, perhaps it’s time to stop dismissing the hard choices and to carve out a way to make them happen.


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