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)
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