An impossible position: children trying to learn in languages they cannot understand

Children campaigning for their rights in El Alto, Bolivia
Photo: Edwin Apaza

Far too many children are entering classrooms unable to understand their teachers’ words or the materials they are given, because the language used in their schools is different from the language used in their homes – or their ’mother tongue’.

A number of studies, including the last year’s briefing by the Global Education Monitoring Report, have shown time and again how damaging this is in education. It puts children in the impossible position of trying to learn in a language they cannot understand. Often, it takes until the third or fourth grade to start to understand, and then learn.

This creates a heartbreaking legacy: children who feel they are on the margins, locked out of learning, feeding a sense of falling behind and failing – right at the very start of their schooling. A wealth of evidence shows this leads to children giving up and dropping out.

What’s more, in multi-ethnic societies, imposing a dominant language through a school system is often part of a legacy of wider social and cultural inequality and marginalization of non-dominant groups. When this intersects with pre-existing pockets of poverty or marginalization, schooling in an unknown language effectively slams the classroom door shut – for instance, as a result of perceived likely failure, parents often become reluctant to send their children to school at all.

The great tragedy of this is that it is basic common sense that children need to understand the language in which they are being taught. Yet governments are doing too little: as much as 40% of the global population are being taught in a language they don’t speak or understand. This must change.

Civil society campaigners and activists have worked tirelessly to get this basic lesson across – teaching and learning needs to take place, first and foremost, in mother-tongue languages. This is key to building more equitable education systems, and is part of a wider movement for equity and cultural diversity. The global education rights movement has used International Mother Language Day to highlight the ongoing struggle for mother tongue learning, since its inception 17 years ago.

A number of civil society education coalitions, as part the Global Campaign for Education, including those supported by the “Civil Society Education Fund”, have been at the forefront of the campaign to ensure better mother-tongue policies, and holding governments accountable for their delivery.

In Nepal, where more than 123 languages are spoken, 54% of the population have a mother tongue other than Nepali, yet Nepali is still the main language in the classroom. As result, the National Campaign for Education-Nepal (NCE Nepal), has made it a central part of their campaigning to advocate for mother-tongue learning – especially in the early years.

In 2015, after years of campaigning, the new Constitution established the right to education in the mother tongue for every Nepali community. This was a clear win for the struggle to acknowledge the importance of mother tongue learning.

NCE has continued to ensure this is written into key policy documents and processes, and as part of an overall strategy to influence the development of the national Nepalese agenda on the new Sustainable Development Goals and the Education 2030 agenda, NCE has been advocating for all pre-primary education to be in the mother tongue.

However, even with this constitutional commitment, and policies beginning to fall into place, there is a large gap in the funding required to address a lack of teachers able to teach the subjects in mother tongue, and learning materials to support that.

This speaks to an ongoing concern of education activists: governments often see mother-tongue learning as too difficult and costly to put in place. But we know how costly it is to not invest in it, especially in the early years: all evidence shows that local language policy results in lower drop-out rates, higher retention, and increased achievement.

Activists in other countries are focused not only on getting policies in place, but also in the tricky task of ensuring implementation. For instance, the Bolivian Campaign for the Right to Education (CBDE), has long been a forceful advocate for the right to an inclusive education for all Bolivians, which includes the majority indigenous populations (to which 60% of the population belong).

In 2010 the new National Education Act made a major step forward, making it law that every child must learn an indigenous language and culture in addition to Spanish. A major program has been rolled out to deliver this right, including – crucially, in a country with such ethnic diversity – ways to adapt the delivery according to local realities.

This includes participatory community committees – the indigenous Educational Councils (CEPOS) – deciding which language should be used in schools in communities with multiple languages. CBDE works at multiple levels to help communities to engage and ensure they are genuinely participatory, and build tools for social accountability and the delivery of the 2010 Education Act.

It is simply unacceptable that any child is left behind, sitting in a classroom for hours unable to understand the language they are being taught in. That is a fundamental betrayal of the right to education.

Delivering on mother-tongue learning for all, especially in diverse multi-ethnic countries, is not an easy task. But we know what works. The accepted standard by experts is that six years of mother-tongue instruction is needed. Children need to “learn how to learn” first in their own language.

Once the basic foundations have been built, then they can go on to learning in a language that is not their own. This means investing in mother tongue in the early years, at the very least.

Governments also need to invest in mother-tongue teacher recruitment, and curriculum development; they need to provide teachers and teaching materials in mother-tongue; and, they need to work with communities to ensure that education reflects local diversity.

This article was first published on the Global Partnership for Education blog site

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