Moving beyond mother tongue: A pro-multilingual approach to learning

Multilingual education can help children improve learning and life opportunities. What are some of the challenges of multilingualism and how can we overcome them?

October 30, 2019 by Carol da Silva, Save the Children
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5 minute read
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Education in Madagascar. Credit: GPE/Carine Durand
Education in Madagascar.
GPE/Carine Durand

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?

Factors affecting learning outcomes in multilingual contexts

The persistent low quality of public education in the countries where these children attend school is one obvious explanation. At the same time, one cannot overlook the shortsighted approach the field has taken to deliver bilingual education.

In most countries where MTB-MLE is implemented, the mother tongue (L1) instruction is clearly separated from instruction in the second language(L2). L1 literacy programming is often limited to grades 1 and 2, much shorter than the recommended 6 years.  

The international development community and national governments continue to set unrealistic timelines for learning in multilingual contexts: for example, learning to read with comprehension in an unfamiliar language is likely to take more time and effort than learning to read in a mother tongue language, and standards and benchmarks should reflect that reality.

Government systems do not typically train teachers to teach or assess children with their entire linguistic repertoires in mind. Teachers don’t have access to assessment results that document the size or complexity of a child’s entire phonology, syntax or vocabulary in all the languages they speak or understand, nor do they know how to harness children’s linguistic expertise to bridge learning in other languages.

From multilingual to translingual

Beyond training teachers to bridge between languages to support learning, a key missing ingredient from the international community’s approach to teaching and learning is a translingual stance. As Garcia and Wei have written, the theory of translanguaging posits that all users of language (bilinguals, multilinguals) necessarily draw upon their entire linguistic repertoire to make meaning and communicate.

Translanguaging is also a pedagogical approach that recognizes a child’s linguistic diversity and leverages it to improving teaching and learning, rather than viewing it as an obstacle. In a translingual literacy classroom, a teacher would be aware of her students’ linguistic repertoires and their characteristics, encourage the use of all languages as tools for learning in all subjects, and assess children based on the entirety of their linguistic knowledge and skills.

In some countries where Save the Children works, education staff intuitively understand the benefits of translingual practices to learning outcomes and take initiative to use them, even when teachers are not multilingual in the local languages. In Vietnam, Save the Children worked with schools to recruit mother tongue speaking community volunteers to serve as teacher assistants in schools to facilitate use of both mother tongue and language of instruction in the classroom. Kinh-speaking teachers collaborated with these volunteers to plan and carry out lessons.

While the international development community has made progress in funding and implementing educational programming that acknowledges mother tongue languages, we cannot rest on this progress, when evidence suggests it is insufficient to guarantee a quality education. 

Making small shifts toward a translingual approach to literacy programming needs not overwhelm; mandating that widely-used literacy assessments such as Save the Children’s Literacy Boost Assessment, EGRA, ASER and UWEZO are adapted to capture a child’s full linguistic repertoire is a start and some of that work has already begun.

In Nepal, Save the Children has assessed Awadhi-speaking children using reading comprehension passages in both Awadhi and Nepali. The results not only provided a richer understanding of students’ linguistic repertoire, they also brought to the forefront the importance of linguistic factors (e.g. how to compare results in languages with different phonological complexity) in interpreting assessment data in multilingual contexts.

Adopting a translingual approach to literacy programming could help move the field along the path to UNESCO’s statement that “Embracing linguistic diversity in education and literacy development is central to addressing these literacy challenges and to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.”

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