Inside the READ Act - part three

“Teaching Children in a Language They Do Not Speak or Understand"

- by SIL LEAD Executive Director, Dr. Paul Frank

When is it appropriate to teach children in a language they do not speak or understand? That’s a question I found myself asking when I read the following sentence in the U.S. Government International Basic Education Strategy:

  • “U.S. Government programs will encourage schools, where appropriate, to teach in a language children speak and understand...” [p. 32, emphasis added]

I am glad that the strategy makes space for children being taught in a language children speak and understand. That’s what we’re about at SIL LEAD. But the phrase, “where appropriate” stumped me: It’s always appropriate to teach children in a language they understand. What’s the point of spending money on teaching that will be nonsense to the student? So, in one of the many briefings held during the development of the strategy, I asked why this was worded the way it is.

The answer we were given was twofold. First of all, the contention was made that it is possible for children to learn through a language that isn’t their own. Secondly, we learned that this statement was actually a compromise between competing positions held by various government agencies involved in basic education.

Granted, it may not be possible for every child to be educated in his or her home language, especially where there are multiple languages spoken in the classroom and there are not resources for teaching in every language. In some cases, children even grow up with more than one language being spoken in the home.

People often talk about and promote “mother tongue-based” education. Others critique the phrase “mother tongue,” saying that the language of the classroom may not always be the student’s first language. Still others suggest that education should be in the children’s “language in common.” Even if it can’t always be the “mother tongue”, surely it should always be some language the child actually understands!

Putting a child in a classroom where she does not understand what the teacher is saying is tantamount to denying that child an education: This is precisely one of the factors that leads to children dropping out of school very early, repeating grades, or simply being in school but not learning.

It would appear that this “compromise” is somewhat of a backlash against the previous USAID Education Strategy that said, “This strategy recognizes the importance of educating children in their native languages where possible in the earliest grades. This allows for earlier comprehension and a smoother transition into other languages in subsequent years.” I may be reading between the lines, but my impression is that some USAID Education staff did not think that the “native languages” approach worked. In one of the briefings, something was said to that effect and was followed by, “We’re not going to do that again!”

I think what rubs me the wrong way about this sentence from the strategy is that it seems to put the burden on programs to justify teaching in a language that a child understands rather than the other way around. It should be normal and the default to teach children in a language they understand. What should have to be justified is proposing to teach children in a language they do not understand. For any given situation where this is proposed, the burden of proof should be on those attempting to argue that in that situation, ignoring understanding is appropriate.

But apparently that is precisely what some agencies think is the right way to go— to default to not using the mother tongue. In fact, they argue, you don’t always even need to use a language the child understands. We were told that there was strong debate over this point prior to finalizing the strategy. This boggles the mind.

Part of what is going on, I believe, is a tension between sometimes competing principles. One of the key tenets of the new strategy is country ownership. If the host government thinks children should be taught in language X, even though many children do not know that language, the principle of country ownership wins, and the U.S. Government will accept the host government’s approach. Such a choice may reflect a conviction that the majority language is superior, that local languages are not important, or that it isn’t feasible to teach in multiple languages, but whatever the reason, the result will almost always be a lower quality education for those children who do not speak or understand the language of the classroom.

I don’t want to downplay the importance of country ownership, but I would advocate committing to education that puts the child and communication at the center. It’s the grownups that need to bend to the needs of the child, not the other way around.

In my next post, we will look at a few case studies from USAID education projects that have prioritized teaching children in a language they understand, with good results.

Paul Frank Sketch.jpg

Paul Frank, PhD, is SIL LEAD’s Executive Director. As one of SIL LEAD’s founders, Paul brings 30 years of experience working with language issues in developing country contexts.

Prior to leading SIL LEAD, Paul was the Director of International Relations and Vice President for Academic Affairs for SIL International. For 17 years, he implemented and led language development fieldwork in Colombia for SIL. Paul has also served as a board member for SIL International for three years. He holds a PhD in Linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania.