Children learn better in their mother tongue

Globally, there are 50-75 million ‘marginalized’ children who are not enrolled in school. Children whose primary language is not the language of instruction in school are more likely to drop out of school or fail in early grades.

February 21, 2014 by Jessica Ball
10 minutes read
Credit: Michelle Rahn, Dominican Republic

Globally, there are 50-75 million ‘marginalized’ children who are not enrolled in school. Children whose primary language is not the language of instruction in school are more likely to drop out of school or fail in early grades. Research has shown that children’s first language is the optimal language for literacy and learning throughout primary school (UNESCO, 2008a). In spite of growing evidence and parent demand, many educational systems around the world insist on exclusive use of one or sometimes several privileged languages. This means excluding other languages and with them the children who speak them (Arnold, Bartlett, Gowani, & Merali, 2006).

The risks of a foreign language of instruction

It is not hard to grasp all that is at stake:  parents not enrolling their children in school at all, children not able to engage successfully in learning tasks, teachers feeling overwhelmed by children’s inability to participate, early experiences of school failure, and so on. Some children do succeed, perhaps through a language transition program that helps them to acquire the language of instruction. But there is the risk of negative effects whereby children fail to become linguistically competent members of their families and communities and lose the ability to connect with their cultural heritage.

While some children continue to develop proficiency in their first language while succeeding in school in a second language, this does not happen automatically.

Increasingly, it leads to an inability to communicate about more than mundane matters with parents and grandparents, and a rapid depletion of the world’s repository of languages and dialects and the cultural knowledges that are carried through them.

Preserving mother tongues

Many linguistic groups are becoming vocal about the need to ensure that the youngest members of their communities keep their linguistic heritage. Some governments, such as in the Philippines, have recently established language-in-education policies that embrace children’s first languages. A compendium of examples produced by UNESCO (2008b) attests to growing interest in promoting mother tongue-based education, and to the wide variety of models, tools, and resources now being developed and piloted to promote learning programs in the mother tongue.

Children learn better in their mother tongue

UNESCO has encouraged mother tongue instruction in primary education since 1953 (UNESCO, 1953) and UNESCO highlights the advantages of mother tongue education  right from the start: children are more likely to enroll and succeed in school (Kosonen, 2005); parents are more likely to communicate with teachers and participate in their children’s learning (Benson, 2002); girls and rural children with less exposure to a dominant language stay in school longer and repeat grades less often (Hovens, 2002; UNESCO Bangkok, 2005); and children in multilingual  education tend to develop better thinking skills compared to  their monolingual peers (e.g., Bialystok, 2001; Cummins, 2000; King & Mackey, 2007).

Some educators argue that only those countries where the student’s first language is the language of instruction are likely to achieve the goals of Education for All. Research also suggests that engaging marginalized children in school through mother-tongue based, multilingual education (MTB-MLE) is a successful model (Benson & Kosonen, 2013; Yiakoumetti, 2012). We are beginning to get answers to some key questions: Under what circumstances and with what resources can education in the mother-tongue combined with multilingual education be an effective approach whereby children become proficient in their home language while laying the foundation for learning in additional languages? What are the costs and benefits of alternative approaches directed at the individual, family, community, school, region, and nation? What are meaningful yet efficient ways to measure costs and benefits? What are the implications of MTB-MLE for recruiting, educating, and mentoring teachers and teacher assistants and for creating and evaluating curricula in diverse language classrooms? What are the contributions of family and community in formal and non-formal MTB-MLE, and how can these be measured?

More research needed

Investment in a coordinated program of research could advance knowledge about these kinds of questions in order to inform national language in education policies, teacher training, and local approaches.

More research is needed on steps that can be taken in the early years and during the transition to school to prepare children for the mix of language(s) that will be used in primary school.

Questions need to be explored about what are the most important outcomes and how best to measure them in various teaching and learning contexts. How should assessment of pedagogical effectiveness take into account the different pace of children’s growing competence in core skills including reading, writing, numeracy and problem solving when they learn through multiple languages?

There is also a gap in research on effective approaches for successful transitions of mother-tongue educated children to secondary school in a dominant language.

Family members play an important role as children’s ‘first teachers’ and research should explore the roles of informal and non-formal education and family interaction in promoting literacy, numeracy, and higher order cognitive skills using the mother tongue.

We need to involve community members with diverse language skills in formal school and train teachers with varying language capacities and levels of education to be effective in MTB-MLE classrooms.  As knowledge develops, we must get better at communicating research findings so that practitioners, policy makers and donors are informed and motivated by evidence about how the potential of MTB-MLE can be harnessed to achieve Education for All.

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Arnold, C., Bartlett, K., Gowani, S., & Merali, R. (2006). Is everybody ready? Readiness, transition and continuity: Reflections and moving forward. Background paper for EFA Global Monitoring Report 2007.

Benson, C. (2002). Real and potential benefits of bilingual progammes in developing countries. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 5 (6), 303-317.

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, E. (2001). Bilingualism in development: Language, literacy, and cognition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cummins, J. (2000). Language, power and pedagogy. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

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

King, K., & Mackey, A. (2007). The bilingual edge: Why, when, and how to teach your child a second language. New York: Collins.

Kosonen, K. (2005). Education in local languages: Policy and practice in Southeast Asia. First languages first: Community-based literacy programmes for minority language contexts in Asia. Bangkok: UNESCO Bangkok.

Malone, D. L. (2003). Developing curriculum materials for endangered language education: Lessons from the field. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 6(5), 332.

UNESCO (1953). The use of the vernacular languages in education. Monographs on Foundations of Education, No. 8. Paris: UNESCO.

UNESCO (2003). Education in a multilingual world. UNESCO Education Position Paper. Paris: UNESCO.

UNESCO Bangkok (2005). Advocacy brief on mother tongue-based teaching and education for girls. Bangkok: UNESCO.

UNESCO (2007). Strong foundations: Early childhood care and education. Paris: Author.

UNESCO (2008a). Mother Tongue Matters: Local Language as a Key to Effective Learning. Paris: UNESCO.

UNESCO (2008b). Mother tongue instruction in early childhood education: A selected bibliography. Paris: UNESCO.

Yiakoumetti, A. (Ed.) Harnessing linguistic variation to improve education. Rethinking Education Vol. 5. Bern: Peter Lang.

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Country with various language is the most threaten position for ensuring education by using mother language.But if any country try to establish a efficient research for mother language it will be encouraged every people of small group.Globally their is a same scene for Indigenous language that almost measured quality and attentiveness through national language.In these way the dominant language always close to the children silently to use national language in the school and outside.We should need MLE in education to express inter and intra relation.

if he doesn't know the meaning of one english word how can he disast that word..and brain will be working as much as fast and heat and struggeled when this happens...
So please save the mother language and share the sweet of fruit (mother language) to our coming generations...
Thank you.....

In reply to by Venkatesh

In a society where there are three national languages and the home language is one of them; this gives the child a strong early start in education. It is also an opportunity for him or her to learn and use his home language in education in the early key stage years. There are many benefits for the child; for instance it helps him or her to navigate the new environment and bridge their learning at school with the experience they bring from home. It means that the learner gets more involved in the learning process and speeds up the development of basic literacy skills. It also enables more flexibility, innovation and creativity in teacher preparation and when it comes to content the child better understands and develops a more positive attitude towards school.

However, in the view of a global world the child needs to be exposed to the other two national languages, for instance English and French, at an early age too. He needs to understand that there are similarities and differences between all three. So this shows that the teacher is at the heart of the child's learning and should always tell the child what he or she is going to learn and why. Repetition and access to all three languages in his every day life are important too.

Problem arises when an expatriate child joins in this type of linguistic setting, the adult (the teacher) finds it hard to instruct him or her. The question of intercultural comes into play. The teacher does not always see this as an opportunity to learn the new child's language. As for the other children this is not really an issue, because they interact easily, how they manage well it is hard to explain.

Opportunity in Mother Tongue education makes children strong

Education through Mother tongue is the rights of every one. It makes children strong in mental as well social bonding.
This also makes them to enjoy life long !

Some learners in urban and some cosmopolitan settings speak and understand some English by the time they join primary school!. However, learners in the rural areas enter school probably understanding only their home language e.g. Shona or Ndebele only. For these learners, using the mother tongue in early education leads to a better understanding of the curriculum content and to a more positive attitude towards school. As known, learning does not begin in school. Learning starts at home in the learners’ home language. Although the start of school is a continuation of this learning, it also presents significant changes in the mode of education. The school system structures and controls the content and delivery of a pre-determined curriculum where previously the child was learning from experience.

The use of L1 and target language should be seen as complementary, depending on the characteristics and stages of the language learning process" overuse of L1 will naturally reduce the amount of exposure to L2.
Therefore, attempt should be made to keep a balance between L1 and L2 use.

the child can learn better if the medium of instruction is mother tongue. then the grasping is better and imagination power is also increased. it being , well informed fast in decision making.

Very helpful

My name is Apurva Oka. I am an Indian citizen. I have done my schooling in my mother tongue and believe that education in mother tongue is the best for a child's intellectual enhancement.

This article motivated me to express a concern. I will briefly describe the situation in India related to the topic and request the author and this organisation to evaluate the possibility of communicating with concerned bodies or people in India about the same.

India is a multi-lingual country with 22 languages officially recognized by the government. In the last few decades, English has gained importance as being a global language, a language that many believe opens doors to bright careers for them. The main victim of this trend has been Education in India, where the dominance of English Medium is increasing. If we look at the metro cities, many reputed vernacular medium schools are shifting to English as medium of instruction.

Central Board of Secondary Education, which is a central board of Indian Government, provides curriculum only in English. Amid such an environment, many parents are left with no option but to educate their child in a language he/she does not speak at home. The effect of all this is disastrous for the children.

However, a limited percentage of parents still believe in mother tongue education and enroll their kids in such schools. In the absence of political support, even such schools are struggling to survive and to provide good facilities to the students.

Your organisation, being a global body working for this cause, is highly respectable. It will be great if your organisation can do something about it by either communicating with public at large or applicable government bodies or schools in India. If you can, it will have a positive impact on the future of millions.

Kind Regards,

It becomes hard for children to know exact meaning and use of many difficult non native language words . Many spend precious time to just knowing its application which makes it complicated with only limited use. Why not keep mastery on one language and just working knowledge of others?

I agree on the issue of mother tongue education. At the same time, I advocate the need of teaching English language to our children. I think that we need to judicially use some amount of students' mother tongue even in the English languages classes. For this, we need to train our teachers. As far as possible a local teacher who can speak both the English and the students' L1 should be given the opportunity to teach English.

In reply to by Chitra Khatri

Dear Khatri
This is Seasons Greeting from a very small island state, the Seychelles.
What i am sharing is what most people believe in, since it is based from our constitution. Our mother tongue, the Seychellois Creole Language, is a national, constititutional and official language, alongside both English and French, which they are also our national languages. Yes, since it is our constitutional and educational rights our children are being educated in all three. However, for the early years the medium of instruction is in the mother tongue. It is wise to note that there are challenges to implement the linguistic policies prescribed but based on our socio- linguistic and cultural contexts we try to find solutions to fix related issues. Please note also that teaching in a trilingual setting is quite complex too.
They key here is the children. Whatever we do in terms of any decision-making it should be geared towards their benefits. Our conviction, engagement, our sense of determination and passion are essential to achieve this goal.

There is an importance being placed on local languages in Nigeria and some state governments are translating science and mathematics textbooks from English to some indigenous languages at the primary level. It is the first of its kind in the country and we are looking forward to it. If you would like to take part in our research we would be honored seeing as you have started some research in different continents and can give some technical expertise.

In sub-Saharan Africa, it's the daily experience of more than 90% of schoolchildren. They have significantly worse learning outcomes than similar low and middle-income countries in Latin America - many of which have adopted mother-tongue teaching for indigenous children.

Thank you for providing relevant information related to mother-tongue through this informational writeup. We look forward to reading such informative content in the future too.

Yes teaching in mother tonque is more understandable than teaching with 2 lanquage. Because teaching in mother tonque didn't delay in understanding but lead to paster education

Children learn best in their mother tongue. It is very knowledgeable information and extremely valuable. Thanks for Sharing a blog.

Great post. Articles that have meaningful and insightful comments are more enjoyable, at least to me. It’s interesting to read what other people thought and how it relates to them as their perspective could possibly help you in the future. keep up the good work.

I agree on the issue of mother tongue education. I am a Malaysian and I did my primary education in my mother tongue and believe that the early education in mother tongue will increase kids thinking skill. I need to thank my government because the government still giving opportunities to us learn our mother tongue in primary school. In Malaysia we have main three type of primary education, Malay, Tamil and Chinese primary school. Now the government giving opportunities to learn mathematics and science in English. Chinese primary school never involve in this programme. Few Malay and Tamil school start implement this program since 2015. Now few Tamil Schools are starting to teach mathematics and science in English. When have two version in one school most of the parents thought learning in English have better future for their kids. But school management not aware about the poor parents and less educated parents who unable to guide their kids in English. In Malaysia we have very good education system. Primary school in mother tongue, secondary school in national language and higher education in English. But problem is parents thinking. They believe English can change their kid’s life style.
However, a limited percentage of parents still believe in mother tongue education and enrol their kids in such school. Your organisation, being a global body working for his cause, is highly respectable. It will be great if we can prove that learning in mother tongue primary education can improve their life style in Malaysia and can master in English. Of course Mother Tongue is equally important to all other languages.

It is called as Mother Tongue for a reason.
A Mother IS the most important person in a child's formative years, the Mother Tongue forms the foundational basis of all learning the child will go on to receive in its life.

This blog post is incredibly insightful and sheds light on a critical issue in education systems worldwide. The statistics on marginalized children are striking and emphasize the urgency of integrating mother tongue-based education. The benefits of mother tongue instruction, as outlined through your references, highlight the potential for significantly improving retention and comprehension among young learners. It's essential that policymakers and educational leaders consider these findings to create more inclusive and effective learning environments. Thank you for bringing attention to this vital topic, Jessica!

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