In 2000, UNESCO proclaimed February 21 “International Mother Language Day”. Over the past 10 years, this date has been an annual opportunity to celebrate multilingualism and the preservation of language diversity as an essential component of human heritage. It is also a day to remember that everyone can use their native language fully and freely in any and all circumstances. Unfortunately in many countries, this fundamental right is still not fullyrecognized.
The scope of UNESCO’s efforts encompasses education, science, and culture. This international institution is particularly concerned with the issue of mother languages in terms of two of these areas: culture of course, since language is a crucial part of the intangible heritage of all people; and education for the language of instruction is often crucial for strong academic achievements.
The issue is simply this: studies conducted worldwide by various organizations show that using a child’s native language for instruction generally provides excellent results, whereas imposing at the outset of schooling a national or foreign language is a policy that often leads to failure.
Mother languages in early education
Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, the Finnish linguist (University of Helsinki) specialized in multilingual education and particularly involved in mother tongue education projects in Nepal and India, offers a clear analysis of the question: “If instruction is given in a language that children from a native (tribal or minority) language community do not know, they will spend their first 2 or 3 years in the classroom without understanding much of what is taught. They can mechanically repeat what the teacher says without understanding, without developing their ability to think with the help of language. In the end, they will have learned almost nothing of the subjects that they have been taught.
For this reason, many of these children leave school prematurely, without having learned to read and write, without having developed a mastery of their native language either, and having acquired virtually no academic knowledge.
Whereas if children are educated in their native language, they understand their lessons and are capable of learning them, they develop their cognitive and academic ability in their native language, and have very good chances of becoming rational and cultivated individuals, capable of continuing their education. “
In the Sourcebook for Poverty Reduction Strategies (2001), the World Bank itself sums up a 1999 UNICEF report thusly: “There is ample research showing that students are quicker to learn to read and acquire other academic skills when first taught in their mother tongue. They also learn a second language more quickly than those initially taught to read in an unfamiliar language.”
Better results in school
Linguists W.P. Thomas and V.P. Collier (1997) have considerably researched the subject and are even more specific. They have observed that those students from linguistic minorities who had received the most extensive instruction in their mother language during their primary school education had the best results … in the national language on national standardized tests conducted in high schools.
Finally, Claire Moyse-Faurie, linguist with the LACITO / CNRS, provides further arguments: ”The benefits are also social and cultural. When the same language is used in school and at home, parents are able to monitor their children’s learning. They can thus discuss, help, and get involved in school life. Schooling in their mother language guarantees the children’s lifestyles will not be marginalized and that they will not be alienated from their culture.”
Recommending the use of mother languages to teach children to read and more generally in education as a whole is not a flight of fancy. It is a recommendation based on multiple, field studies. In addition to the conclusive results of these studies – despite the difficulties certain have in admitting them – we should add it is a matter of common sense. It is unfortunate that this information is not more widely acknowledged because academic achievements determine the chances for millions of children to better their living standards. Literacy is their best guarantee against being left behind by globalization.
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