Bilingual education starts with the mother tongue
The way that mother tongue based multilingual education has been offered may contribute to low parent demand in some settings. Using “bilingual education” instead may be a more positive way to describe education that enables all children to learn and become literate in more than one language.
February 21, 2019 by Jessica Ball|
A student reads out loud from his textbook. The Gambia

Sustainable Development Goal 4 aspires to at least one year of pre-primary school and free, equitable quality primary and secondary education. Given a choice, what language(s) will parents choose for their children’s first experience of formal education?

There are common (mis-)understandings about the nature and outcomes of mother tongue-based multilingual education (MTB-MLE) that can influence parents’ decision-making. In many situations, the term bilingual education (BLE) may offer parents a clearer understanding of schooling in more than one language.

What we mean by mother-tongue multilingual education

Research shows that children learn best in a language they already understand (UNESCO, 2016).

There has been steady growth in opportunities for children to start school in their mother tongue (called “home language”, or L1), in various forms of mother tongue-based multilingual education (MTB-MLE) (Benson & Kosonen, 2013; UNESCO, 2016).

Strong research evidence shows that MTB-MLE can result in children becoming bilingual if it is delivered well and for long enough (throughout primary school) (Cummins, 2009).  For example, in Ethiopia (Heugh, 2011) and Eritrea (Walter & Davis, 2005), the longer the mother tongue was used as the primary language of instruction (up to 8 years) in a multilingual classroom, the better national examination results.

In contrast, using the mother tongue as the medium of instruction for only three years and then switching to the dominant language has not been shown to have the same positive results in these countries or other settings worldwide (Ball, 2010; Heugh & Skutnabb-Kangas, 2012; Ouane & Glanz, 2011; Walter & Benson, 2012).   

Most states that allow use of the mother tongue in early education use a bridging model, in which children are taught in the mother tongue for a few weeks or months, then in both the mother tongue and the dominant language for the first two or three years, and then transition to learning in the dominant language in the middle of primary school. This is known as an ‘early exit transitional’ model.

While this is better than not using the mother tongue at all (Alidou & Brock-Utne, 2011), it rarely aims to produce literacy in the mother tongue. The early exit approach is not likely to produce skills that readily transfer to becoming literate in additional languages (Bialystok et al., 2005; Cummins, 2009; Heugh, 2011). 

While the early exit approach does ease students’ entry into classroom instruction, it does not build upon research about the necessary conditions for cross-linguistic transfer of literacy skills, calling into question whether MTB-MLE is an apt term.

In nearly all primary school settings where the mother tongue is used, some instructional time is spent teaching oral and written skills in the dominant language as well as in the mother tongue. Where only one additional language is used, a more apt term in most situations is bilingual education.

Texbooks in Kiswahili in Zanzibar, Tanzania
Texbooks in Kiswahili in Zanzibar, Tanzania
CREDIT: GPE/Chantal Rigaud

Does education in mother tongue entrench inequality?

While MTB-MLE has been sought after and enthusiastically received in many settings, some families and teachers have not embraced this approach, even when there are supportive policies. For example, rejection of MTB-MLE is known to be widespread in several countries in Africa (Adika, 2012; Edu-Buandoh & Otchere, 2012; Erling et al., 2016), Philippines (Parba, 2018), and some parts of China (Rong, 2007).

Opponents sometimes argue that the practice will ‘cripple’ a generation of ethno-linguistic minority children who will remain marginalized due to deficiencies in dominant language skills.

Several factors may account for resistance to MTB-MLE by various stakeholders in different contexts, including ideological, political, linguistic, and resources issues (The World Bank, 2005).

Doubts tend to focus on whether this approach gives children a ‘fair chance’ to succeed in education, the mainstream economy, and life in an increasingly globalized world (Trudell & Young, 2018). Yet, with the promise of producing bilingual, biliterate citizens, what accounts for parents’ resistance to MTB-MLE? 

Changing what we call mother tongue education to change attitudes

Proponents of MTB-MLE seek solutions to lower parents’ resistance. Parents usually have their children’s best interests at heart.

However, it is likely that parents who reject MTB-MLE have not had an opportunity to see its benefits when it has been fully implemented and appropriately resourced for six years of primary school.

In the diverse multilingual context of West African countries, the combined use of a local language and a dominant language in bilingual education has been well implemented, well received by parents, and well documented as having a positive impact on children’s education outcomes (Hovens, 2002).

Perhaps the use of the term “mother tongue based” itself has not been helpful. In settings where the mother tongue and one other language are used in education, we might lower resistance and increase parent demand if the term MTB-MLE is replaced with the more accurately descriptive term bilingual education, and the co-teaching of the dominant or ‘high prestige’ language alongside the mother tongue is emphasized.

In conversations in communities and with education policymakers, there is often widespread misunderstanding that the outcome of children’s education where MTB-MLE is used is that children will only become literate in their mother tongue and will have little or no chance to become literate in the dominant language.

In fact, this may be the outcome, if a teacher primarily focuses on literacy in the mother tongue, and children do not continue their education beyond the primary grades, when education in the dominant language is the norm in fully implemented MTB-MLE. This is more likely in classrooms where the teacher is not literate in the dominant language.

However, in an ideal implementation of MTB-MLE, education is provided in two languages, to varying degrees. They are bilingual programs. (A few programs offer education in more than two languages, and are therefore multilingual programs). 

Shifting away from the term ‘mother tongue-based’ may represent a loss from the perspective of minority language advocates. However, using the term ‘bilingual’ may yield gains in terms of highlighting for parents that the education approach is intended to support dominant as well as non-dominant language skills. Their children will not be ‘crippled’ by becoming literate in only one language.

A student of Khmer descent learns Kinh language (the official Vietnamese language) at the Lac Hoa Primary School in Soc Trang province. Vietnam
A student of Khmer descent learns Kinh language (the official Vietnamese language) at the Lac Hoa Primary School in Soc Trang province. Vietnam
CREDIT: Chau Doan / World Bank

A big challenge: the lack of qualified teachers

The perception that children will not gain enough proficiency in the dominant language to succeed in later grades may be due in part to the challenge of recruiting teachers who are able to speak, read and write in the local language as well as in the dominant language (Trudell & Young, 2018).

This is generally the case in Cambodia, for example, where the government supports MLE for Indigenous children, but few teachers are proficient in both Khmer and an Indigenous language. It is also common throughout Canada, where communities aim to introduce Indigenous language-based education that also uses English or French, however there are almost no qualified teachers who are able to speak, read and write an Indigenous language (Ball & McIvor, 2013).  

In many settings, teachers in so-called MTB-MLE are known to community members, who may be well aware of the teacher’s limited range of language and literacy skills. This may contribute to parents’ perception that their children will be handicapped when they have to use the dominant language, including in secondary school and in life.

Full implementation of education models that use more than one language requires a teacher who is proficient in the languages.

In bilingual education, it requires a bilingual teacher, or two teachers with different language capacities who co-teach or divide the school day or week between them. This often exceeds local human, financial, and technical resources.  

Another situation that can increase resistance to MTB-MLE, seen in some communities, is when there is an MTB (only) classroom for ethnic minority children, and dominant language classrooms for everyone else.

This segregation can exacerbate parents’ fears that their children are receiving an education that erodes social harmony and will not lay the foundation for later success when children are mainstreamed. All multi-language education models recommend integrating children with diverse languages in shared classrooms for all or most subjects.

Educating children who can learn and become literate in more than one language

Bilingual education is a term that can appeal to parents whose home language is the dominant language as well as to parents whose home language is a non-dominant language. Cultivating the appeal of bilingual education depends on effective awareness-raising activities that highlight the cognitive, economic, and social advantages for all children to become bilingual in integrated classrooms.

The way that MTB-MLE has been described, offered, and observed may contribute to low parent demand in some settings. Using “bilingual education” may be a more strategic, accurate, and positive way to describe education that enables all children to learn and become literate in more than one language.


Adika, G.S. (2012). English in Ghana: Growth, tensions, and trends. International Journal of Language, Translation and Intercultural Communication, 1, 151-166.

Alidou, H., & Brock-Utne, B. (2011). Teaching practices: Teaching in a familiar language. In A. Ouane & G. Glanz (Eds.). Optimizing learning, education and publishing in Africa: The language factor. A review and analysis of theory and practice in mother-tongue and bilingual education in sub-Saharan Africa (pp. 159-185). Hamburg: UNESCO/Tunis Belvédère: ADEA.

Ball, J. (2010). Enhancing learning of children from diverse language backgrounds: Mother tongue-based bilingual or multilingual education in the early years. Paris: UNESCO.

Ball, J., & McIvor, O. (2013). Canada’s big chill: Indigenous languages in education.  In C. Benson & K. Kosonen (Eds.). Language issues in comparative education: Inclusive teaching and learning in non-dominant languages and cultures. (pp. 19-38). Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Benson, C., & Kosonen, K. (Eds.) (2013). Language issues in comparative education: Inclusive teaching and learning in non-dominant languages and cultures. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Bialystok, Ellen, Luk, Gigi, & Kwan, Ernest (2005) Bilingualism, biliteracy, and learning to read:

Interactions among languages and writing systems. Scientific Studies of Reading, 9: 43-61.

Cummins, J. (2009). Fundamental psycholinguistic and sociological principles underlying education success for linguistic minority students. In T. Skutnabb-Kangas, R. Phillipson, A. Mohanty, & M. Panda (Eds.). Social justice through multilingual education (pp. 19-35). Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Edu-Buandoh, D. F., and G. Otchere 2012. ‘“Speak English!” A prescription or choice of English as a lingua franca in Ghanaian schools.” Linguistics and Education, 23 (3): 301-309.

Erling, E. J., Adinolfi, l., Hultgren, A.K., Buckler, A., & Mukorera, M. (2016). Medium of instruction policies in Ghanaian and Indian primary schools: an overview of key issues and recommendations. Comparative Education, 52 (3), 294-310.

Heugh, K. (2011). Theory and practice: Language education models in Africa: research, design,decision-making and outcomes. In A. Ouane & C. Glanz (Eds.). Optimizing learning education and publishing in Africa: The language factor. A review and analysis of theory and practice in mother-tongue and bilingual education sub-Saharan Africa (pp. 105-156). Hamburg: UNESCO/Tunis Belvédère: ADEA.

Heugh, K., Benson, C., Bogale, B., & Gebre Yohannes, M.A. (2007). Final report: Study on medium of instruction in primary schools in Ethiopia. Research report commissioned by the Ministry of Education, Addis Ababa, September to December, 2006.

Hovens, M. (2002). Bilingual education in West Africa: Does it work? International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism. 5(5), 249-266.

Limon, D, & Lukanovič, N. S. (2016). Does bilingualism have an economic value in the ethnically mixed regions of Slovenia? Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 1-12.

MoEYS Cambodia (2010) Guidelines on implementation of bilingual education programs for Indigenous children in highland provinces. Phnom Penh: Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports.

Ouane, A. & Glanz, C. (Eds.). Optimizing learning education and publishing in Africa: The language factor. A review and analysis of theory and practice in mother-tongue and bilingual education sub-Saharan Africa (pp. 105-156). Hamburg: UNESCO/Tunis Belvédère: ADEA.

Parba, J. (2018). Teachers’ shifting language ideologies and teaching practices in Philippine mother tongue classrooms.  Linguistics and Education, 47, 27-35.

Rong, M. (2007). Bilingual education for China’s ethnic minorities. Chinese Education and Society, 40(2), 9-25.

The World Bank (2005). Education. Education Notes: In their own language….education for all.

Trudell, B., & Young, C. (Eds.). (2018). Good answers to tough questions in mother tongue-based multilingual education. Dallas: SIL International.

UNESCO (2016a). “If you don’t understand, how can you learn?” Global Education Monitoring Report, Policy Paper 24. UNESCO: Paris.

UNESCO (2016b). MTB-MLE resource kit: Including the excluded: Promoting multilingual education. Paris/Bangkok: UNESCO.

Walter, S., & Benson, C. (2012). Language policy and medium of instruction in formal education. In Spolsky, B. (Ed.) The Cambridge handbook of language policy (pp. 278-300). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Walter, S., & Davis, P. (2005). Eritrea National Reading Survey. Dallas, TX: SIL International.

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