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The Importance of Mother Tongue Education

Ayuda en AccionThe last 15 years have seen the number of children and young people who are not in school fall by almost half. Every child should be able to access their right to education, and the world has made strides in the right direction - but it’s imperative that, in addition to going to school, children are actually learning. If a child cannot speak or understand the language used in the classroom, the efficacy and quality of learning will obviously suffer. This is the situation facing hundreds of millions of children – in fact, as much as 40% of the global population does not have access to education in a language they know. The repercussions are far-reaching.

Language is deeply connected to notions of culture and identity, and the language children are taught in can often reflect broader societal inequalities. For example, in many countries the ethnic majority population, which often speaks the dominant language, enjoy better learning outcomes than minority groups that speak other languages.  Inequality in education is actually increasing - including for those marginalised by language. When pre-existing barriers to education, such as poverty, or living in rural areas, combine with schooling in an unknown language, children are less likely to make it to school, and if they do, are less likely to stay there. Conversely, some education systems favour using national or 'global' languages based on the belief that this will give children a competitive advantage in later life. Research shows, however, that bilingual education which includes the mother tongue can lead to improved attainment levels more generally.

Being taught in a known language is a key component of quality education for all learners - from the very early stages right through to adulthood. Early education in the mother tongue can prepare children for school and foster foundational skills, such as literacy and critical thinking, which are proven to significantly increase learning later on. Likewise, mother tongue adult literacy programmes of good quality need to be available in order to improve adult literacy levels, particularly in developing countries; around 757 million adults cannot read or write a simple sentence, and a quarter of those live in sub-Saharan Africa – one of the most linguistically diverse regions in the world.

Many GCE national coalitions have long campaigned to promote mother-tongue-based multilingual education, and influence national language policy - for example, in Guatemala, Haiti, Mexico, Peru, Cambodia, Benin, Ethiopia, Nepal and Timor Leste. Indeed, changes in policy over the last decade have yielded results. In Ethiopia, local language policy, which combines long-term mother tongue instruction with Amharic and English, has resulted in lower drop-out rates and higher retention. Similarly, in Guatemala, grade repetition in bilingual schools is about half that of traditional schools, while dropout rates are about 25% lower.

Despite the overwhelming evidence of the value and benefits of education in the mother tongue, too few countries invest in it. Now is the time for action. On January 1st 2016, a new global development agenda came into effect. 193 world leaders have pledged to a set of goals which will ‘leave no-one behind’. Respect for the use of mother tongue language is imperative if the world is to deliver on its promise of inclusive, quality education for all by 2030. The Education 2030 Framework for Action (a road-map on how to implement the new agenda) clearly refers to the need for ‘language policies to address exclusion’ and asserts that ‘particular attention should be paid to the role of learners’ first language in becoming literate and in learning’.

Governments need to set about enacting policies that recognise mother tongue learning, and  - crucially – finance their implementation. This task will be costly and complex: there’s a need for more trained teachers from linguistic minority groups, teachers who can teach in more than one language, and textbooks in a language students can understand.  However, the social, political and economic cost of maintaining the status quo cannot be ignored. This International Mother Language Day – which is marked on February 21st – is an opportunity to focus on the importance of multilingualism and mother tongue learning for quality education, for fulfilling the potential of all learners, and for the success of the new global development agenda.

[photo credit: Ayuda En Acción, 2015]


For more details on International Mother Language Day 2016, go to the UNESCO website here

Download the Global Education Monitoring Report’s newly released policy paper (February 2016) on mother tongue education here

Explore more data via the World Inequality Database on Education (WIDE) from the Global Education Monitoring Report here

Download GCE's 2013 policy brief: Mother-tongue education: policy lessons for quality and inclusion here. This is also available on the resources section of this website in French, Spanish, Arabic and Portuguese.