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Language of Instruction

Which is best—an international language or the mother tongue?

What language or languages should children use in school, beginning with their earliest experiences of formal instruction?

With more than 6,000 languages being used globally in less than 200 countries, multilingualism is the norm around the world. Children grow up in homes speaking one language (and sometimes more), their parents may use another language for work and trade within the region, and national government institutions may use yet a third—or more.

In such bilingual and multilingual contexts, how can educational institutions decide what language to use for instruction? Should a local language be used, to guarantee that children can actually understand what is being taught? Should a national or international language be used to give children access to wider educational and economic opportunities? Should the two approaches be combined?



Monolingual Instruction in France

Multilingual Instruction in Papua New Guinea

Figure 2: Languages of France. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


Figure 3: Papua New Guinea has over 800 languages. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

 France has some two dozen regional languages  and dialects, seven of which are officially  recognized. In the 1880s, French was proclaimed  the sole language of instruction in state schools.  Today, regardless of the language in which they  first learned to speak at home, most French  children will be immersed in French-based  instruction from the first day in a state primary  school—although some bilingual instruction has just  recently been allowed.


From 1994-2012, Papua New Guinea’s schools  implemented a three-stage language system. The first  three years were taught in the local mother tongue.  Oral English was introduced at the end of this cycle,  after which grades 3-8 were officially bilingual, with the  percentage taught in English intended to increase each  year. Secondary school was taught 100% in English.  Materials in over 400 local languages were developed  to support this policy. More recently, however, the  system has shifted towards earlier introduction of  English.



While international research points to the importance of learning first in the mother tongue, in many countries there is a great deal of controversy around this issue. Some governments have chosen to immerse all students in a common national or international language from the beginning of formal schooling (a monolingual language of instruction policy). Others have attempted to tailor their education systems to the languages of particular regions and even communities, starting with instruction in the mother tongue and then gradually introducing a national or international language as a second language of instruction (referred to as mother tongue-based bilingual instruction).

Some of the issues governments typically consider in making the choice between a monolingual or bilingual system include:


The balance of these and other issues have weighed out differently in different contexts. France and Papua New Guinea provide two interesting contrasts on this issue.


French has long been the sole medium of instruction in nearly all of France’s state schools—despite the fact that there are a number of regional languages in the country and numerous immigrant communities. This monolingual policy was first proposed in 1794, during the French Revolution, as a means for ensuring that all citizens could participate in the new republic. Yet there have been ongoing protests against this policy, especially since the 1950s. Official regulations have gradually loosened over this period to allow the teaching of regional and minority languages in public schools—although for a limited number of hours per week.


In Papua New Guinea, on the other hand, more than 400 local languages have been used for initial mother tongue instruction. Following popular demand, the government began extending official support for mother tongue-based bilingual instruction in 1986, with policies such as support for language development workshops, local materials development, selection of local graduates to become elementary teachers, and a distance teacher training system. Yet in recent years, members of the public began to argue that students were not learning effectively either in the mother tongue or in English. Beginning in the 2013 school year, elementary schools were expected to use English as the language of instruction, with local languages now being taught only as a subject.


Language of instruction policies have continued to be controversial in both France and Papua New Guinea. To see how these two countries have weighed the pros and cons of monolingual versus bilingual education over time, click on the chronologies below.






Language of instruction

Language(s) used to convey a specified curriculum in a formal or nonformal educational setting.



A context/person using three or more languages, usually with equal fluency.