Every day around the world, children are living and learning in multilingual environments. Save the Children implements education programs in nearly 120 countries and in most of these, multilingualism is the norm.
The international development community and Save the Children have made strides in recent years in developing, implementing and advocating for mother tongue based multilingual education (MTB-MLE). Despite these efforts, multilingual learners tend to post learning outcomes at lower levels than their monolingual peers.
As part of the celebrations of UNESCO’s 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages, it is imperative that our community take seriously the multilingual realities of children’s lives as a tool to advance their rights and improve learning and life opportunities.
The challenges of multilingualism
The nature of multilingualism across countries where Save the Children works is vast: the number of indigenous languages spoken in Indonesia is a staggering 719, in Ethiopia it is 85, and in Guatemala it is 24.
These national figures mask an additional level of linguistic complexity at the school, community, familial and individual levels: some children speak one language at home and another in the school; some speak multiple languages at home; teachers may or may not speak the language of the community in which they teach but be multilingual in other languages.
The growing international research on the bilingual brain suggests that bi- and multilingualism can result in significant benefits for children. In “A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of The Cognitive Correlates of Bilingualism,” Adesope, Lavin, Thompson and Ungerleider found that that bilinguals demonstrated “increased attentional control, working memory, metalinguistic awareness and abstract and symbolic representation skills.”
The United Nations recognizes the linguistic rights of all children as fundamental. Article 29 of The UN Convention on The Rights of The Child states: “Parties agree that the education of the child shall be directed to: The development of respect for the child's parents, his or her own cultural identity, language and values, for the national values of the country in which the child is living, the country from which he or she may originate, and for civilizations different from his or her own.”
Those involved in devising language in education policy and programming need look no farther than research on bilingualism and child rights to determine that guaranteeing access to bi- or multilingual education is essential.
Learning outcomes are low in multilingual contexts
Multilateral and bilateral donors have implemented education strategies that encourage teaching children to read first in a language they speak and understand. Some national governments, such as The Philippines, have established clear bilingual education policies that aim at competency in at least two languages for all children.
International NGOS, such as Save the Children, make it clear that language matters by emphasizing through advocacy and programming that “Reading and writing instruction and activities for children—both in and out of school—should be conducted in a language that children understand.”
Despite the clear benefits of bi- or multilingualism and an expressed commitment to MTB-MLE by donors, national governments and INGOs, children are still struggling to learn as expected. Thirty-seven of 45 internal Save the Children education reports show some relationship between language and learning outcomes (2009-2017).
That relationship is generally negative, with bi- or multilingual children showing lower learning outcomes than their monolingual counterparts do. Why, when we expect bilingualism to convey positive impacts, do children in multilingual contexts appear to perform poorly, on average?