Language of instruction

Last update 11 Jun 18

Schooling in students’ mother tongue and transitioning to the official language of instruction is essential in improving learning for minority-language speaking students.

What language(s) should children use in school? There is significant research evidence that children learn best when the first language of instruction and examinations is their mother tongue (L1).(5)(7)(8)(17)(19)(20) The rewards of schooling in local languages outweigh the costs, with gains in education quality and inclusion leading to savings from reduced school repetition and drop-outs.(2)(5)(12)(19)(20) When vocabulary and literacy skills are built in the mother tongue, along with building oral fluency in the second language, students can more easily master learning in the second language (L2).(8)(20)(22) Education planners must confront a number of practical issues in this regard: language choice in multilingual contexts; the optimal length of mother tongue instruction; codifying unwritten or non-standardised languages; and preparing mother tongue curricular materials and teachers.


Issues and discussion

Choosing the language of instruction in multilingual contexts: As many children as possible should benefit from mother tongue instruction, even in contexts of significant linguistic diversity.(11) Decentralised educational planning and budgeting can help regions develop their own local­-language materials and teaching force.(5) For communities where multiple language groups reside within a single school area, older students or adults from the community can lead some learning activities in their mother tongue.(12) Children should be allowed to use their own language to help them understand new concepts and skills in school.(2)(11)(19) Whenever every child cannot be taught in their own mother tongue, policy-makers should prioritise the most marginalised.(2)(11) Communities should also be given information about the implications of different language of instruction choices, and be involved in decision-making.(7)(12)(19)

How long to use the mother tongue: A wide range of mother tongue instruction policies are being implemented around the world. Some education systems aim for rapid transition away from L1 to L2 as the sole language of instruction, which reduces the time available for learning subject content, and often leads to the loss of theL1.(5)(9)(21) Others seek to maintain and enrich functioning in the L1 for a number of years, even while gradually transitioning to the L2.(5)(9)(21) In fully bilingual models, students continue to use both L1 and L2 as languages of instruction for a range of academic subjects throughout primary and secondary schooling.(1)(4)(9)(23) Research evidence indicates students’ achievement is greately enhanced when they are taught in their L1, preferably for at least the first 6 years of primary school before the L2 becomes the main language of instruction.(1)(5)(19)(20)(21)(23) If the transition from L1 to L2 is too rapid, the risk is that students will not attain full mastery of either language.(5)(19)

Working with unwritten or non-standardized languages: In some cases, language planning is necessary in order to create or modify a language’s writing system, standardise spelling and usage, and, if necessary, expand the lexicon to include any missing vocabulary.(7)(12) In Papua New Guinea, for example, where there are over 800 local languages, the Department of Education helped organise Alphabet Design Workshops with linguists and mother tongue speakers in different local communities.(13)

Preparing mother tongue and bilingual curricular materials: Curricular materials need to be culturally contextualised with appropriate and adequate materials written in mother tongue languages.(6)(7)(12)(15)(17)(18)(20) Local communities can collaborate with government agencies and linguists to create mother tongue curricula and reading materials.(1)(5)(20) Basing materials on standardised templates produced in the national or official language can be rapid and cost-effective, since it uses centralised technical expertise in curriculum development, illustrations, formatting, and other elements.(15)

Training teachers to offer mother tongue and bilingual instruction: Local languages have been historically marginalised in many education systems, often resulting in a shortage of qualified teachers able to teach in the L1.(1)(5)(19)(21) In order to recruit and retain teachers who speak students’ mother tongue and have positive attitudes towards mother tongue instruction, it may be helpful to work with community organisations.(7)(12)(14)(15)(16)(19)(21) When a second language of instruction is planned, teachers also need special training in how to plan and accomplish bilingual or transitional instruction.(4)(7)(10)(12)(14)(16)(17)(20)(21) In the short term, paraprofessional teachers may be recruited from local communities; their initial training can focus on using their own language for early literacy instruction.(7)(15)(20)


Inclusiveness and Equity

Minority and marginalised populations: Children studying in an unfamiliar language face a double burden: not only must they learn new academic concepts and skills, but they must do so using words they do not understand.(7)(11)(20) There is strong evidence that use of the mother tongue in the initial years of schooling helps reach socially and educationally marginalised populations, improving their enrolment, attendance, and achievement.(11)(20)(23)

Gender: Several studies show that offering instruction in the mother tongue positively impacts girls’ enrolment and passing rates, primarily because girls are less exposed than boys to languages outside the home and so face a tougher barrier when the mother tongue is not used in school.(3)(5)


Policy Examples

  • South Africa [PDF]
  • France [PDF
  • Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Guatemala [PDF]
References and sources
  1. Ball, J. 2010. Enhancing learning of children from diverse language backgrounds: Mother tongue-based bilingual or multilingual education in early childhood and early primary school years. Victoria, Canada: Early Childhood Development Intercultural Partnerships, University of Victoria.
  2. Bamgbose, A. 2004. Language of instruction policy and practice in Africa. Dakar, Senegal: Regional Office for Education in Africa, UNESCO.
  3. Benson, C. 2005. Girls educational equity in mother-tongue. Bankok: UNESCO.
  4. Benson, C. 2004. ‘Do we expect too much of bilingual teachers? Bilingual teaching in developing countries’. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism. 7(2-3).
  5. Benson, C. 2005. ‘The importance of mother tongue-based schooling for educational quality’. Background paper prepared for the Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2005: The Quality Imperative. Paris: UNESCO.
  6. Brock-Utne, B. 2007. ‘Language of instruction and student performance: New insights from research in Tanzania and South Africa.’ International Review of Education, 53(5-6).
  7. Bühmann, D, and Trudell, B. 2008. Mother Tongue Matters: Local Language as a Key to Effective Learning. Paris: UNESCO.
  8. Cárdenas-Hagan, E., Carlson, C.D., and Pollard-Durodola, S.D. 2007. ‘The cross-linguistic transfer of early literacy skills: The role of initial L1 and L2 skills and language of instruction.’ Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 38(3).
  9. Chumbow, B. 2013. ;‘Mother tongue-based multilingual education: Empirical foundations, implementation strategies and recommendations for new nations.’ Multilingual education in Africa: Lessons from the Juba language-in-education conference. London: British Council.
  10. Cummins, J. 1991. ‘Interdependence of first- and second-language proficiency in bilingual children’. Language Processing in Bilingual Children. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  11. Cummins, J. 2007. ‘Rethinking monolingual instructional strategies in multilingual classrooms.’ Canadian Journal of Applied Linguistics/Revue canadienne de linguistique appliquee. 10(2).
  12. Dutcher, N. 2004. Expanding Educational Opportunity in Linguistically Diverse Societies. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.
  13. Easton, C. and Wroge, D. Manual for Alphabet Design through Community Interaction for Papua New Guinea Elementary Teacher Trainers. Papua New Guinea: SIL - Ukarumpa
  14. Ghimire, L. 2012. ‘Mother tongue instruction in multilingual schools of Nepal.’ Nepalese Linguistics. 27.
  15. Global Campaign for Education. 2013. Mother-tongue Education: Policy Lessons for Quality and Inclusion. Johanessburg, South Africa: Global Campaign for Education.
  16. Jones, J. M. 2012. ‘The effect of language attitudes on Kenyan stakeholder involvement in mother tongue policy implementation.’ Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development. 33(3).
  17. Nyaga, S., and Anthonissen, C. 2012. ‘Teaching in lingusitically diverse classrooms: Difficulties in the implementation of the language-in-education policy in multilingual Kenyan primary schol classrooms.' Compare. 42(6).
  18. Okebukola, P. A., Owolabi, O., and Okebukola, F. O. 2013. ‘Mother tongue as default language of instruction in lower primary science classes: Tension between policy prescription and practice in Nigeria.’ Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 50(1).
  19. Pinnock, H. 2009a. Language and Education: The Missing Link. London: Save the Children UK.
  20. Pinnock, H. 2009b. Steps Towards Learning: A Guide to Overcoming Language Barriers in Children's Education. London: Save the Children UK.
  21. Rivera, L. 2002. ‘A review of the literature on bilingual education.' Gastón Institute Publications. 149.
  22. Slavin, R. E., and Cheung, A. 2005. ‘A synthesis of research on language of reading instruction for English language learners.’ Review of Educational Research, 75(2).
  23. Stroud, C. 2002. ‘Towards a policy for bilingual education in developing countries.’ New Education Division Documents. Stockholm: Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.