If you can’t understand, how can you learn?

For decades, the importance of mother tongue education has been recognized.  But establishing a language in education policy for a multi-ethnic country can be very challengingDr. Eirini Gouleta, who worked last year with SIL LEAD as a consultant, notes that Policies seem to be altering back and forth from mother tongue to post-colonial language depending on the political landscape and the popular trends among voters in each situation.”

On International Mother Language Day (#IMLD), UNESCO released a policy paper entitled If you don’t understand, how can you learn?  One of the key messages of this paper was that, “Education policies should recognize the importance of mother tongue learning.” In addition to acknowledging that according to “one estimate, as much as 40% of the global population does not have access to education in a language they speak or understand,” the paper also highlights evidence which demonstrates that, “At least six years of mother tongue instruction is needed to reduce learning gaps for minority language speakers.” 

This policy paper provides an excellent and brief rationale for the need for mother-tongue based multilingual education. The bottom line is that students who are not taught in their mother tongue are severely hampered in their educational attainment. When coupled with the poverty and marginalization experienced by many minority language communities, the lack of mother tongue education not only perpetuates but increases the disadvantages faced by indigenous language communities around the world. 

At SIL LEAD, we are passionate about efforts to help narrow the educational divide faced by minority language communities. We concur with Dr. Gouleta, who believes that it “is critical that solid policies in support of mother tongue [education], the issue of instruction and assessment, and the implications for accurately measuring student learning in the mother tongue be specifically addressed and safeguarded by all actors and stakeholders in education development.”  

We at SIL LEAD are committed to providing highly trained and experienced multilingual education specialists who can help guide and develop multilingual education programs and resources for minority language communities.  We are thankful that we can draw on talented individuals like Dr. Gouleta.

Dr. Eirini Gouleta is Associate Professor of Multicultural Special Education at the University of Macedonia, Greece. 

A study coauthored by Barbara Trudell, who has also served as a consultant with SIL LEAD, is also cited in the policy paper. 

How Children Learn Best

“Children who start off learning to read and write in their mother tongue do better in school. Literacy programs in mother languages bring learners the self confidence they need to participate in their communities and make informed choices.” — Irina Bokova,  UNESCO Director-General (UNESCO video, Language Matters)

The theme of this year’s International Mother Language Day (February 21, 2016) is Quality Education, Language(s) of Instruction and Learning Outcomes. We join with UNESCO and others to not only celebrate the more than 7,000 languages spoken around the world today, but to reaffirm our commitment to promoting mother tongue-based multilingual education (MTB-MLE).

We at SIL LEAD believe that children learn best in a language they understand. They become proficient readers more quickly when learning in the language they speak at home than when using a language that is only used in school. Children also learn other subject matters better when they do not have to simultaneously decipher a new language. A strong foundation of reading and learning in the mother tongue even improves acquisition of second language literacy and fluency. All of this contributes to a student's long-term success.

SIL LEAD is committed to doing all that we can to promote mother tongue-based reading and learning. We are currently involved in MTB-MLE programs in Ethiopia, Nepal, and Uganda as well as a number of smaller projects. With the support of private donors, SIL LEAD is also providing scholarships to indigenous teachers in Peru who are on the front lines of teaching children in their mother tongue. And we continue to seek new opportunities where we can contribute further to promoting and developing multilingual education.

Our consultants see first hand the benefits of local teachers being equipped with quality mother tongue classroom materials.

According to Carolyn Adger, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Applied Linguistics and SIL LEAD consultant, “Research shows the value of teaching children to read in their mother tongue. Less recognized is the systemic value of preparing materials for mother tongue literacy.”

Dr. Adger recalls from her time in Uganda last year as an SIL LEAD Consultant that, “a member of the Grade 3 Runyoro Rutooro writing team in Uganda reported that when she finally saw the printed pupil book and teacher guide that her team had produced, she was overwhelmed with pride in what we cherished most: the stories that resulted from their six weeks of enormous work writing instructional materials.” When the teachers are trained on using the materials they produced, and Dr Adger said, "It’s my prayer that they too fall in love with this material."

Dr. Adger goes on to note that, “As a teachers college instructor and administrator, this team member will be preparing teachers and collaborating with colleagues and other speakers of her language for years. Each one who participates in planning, preparing, and using high quality mother tongue materials is a potential link in sustaining the mother tongue literacy network that nurtures learners.”

We are grateful for Dr. Adger and more than 50 other consultants who work with SIL LEAD to help children around the world to learn in their mother tongue.