Unlocking education’s potential: Home language as a key to accelerating foundational learning

What foundational learning looks like in the Asia-Pacific region and how it is strongly related to language-in-education decisions, particularly teachers’ professional development strategies and nationally generated research.

February 21, 2024 by Brandon Darr, UNESCO Regional Office in Bangkok
4 minutes read
Grade one students practise reading Khmer script in Chambak Haer Primary School, Puok District in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Credit: GPE/Roun Ry
Grade one students practise reading Khmer script in Chambak Haer Primary School, Puok District in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Credit: GPE/Roun Ry

At a moment when there are numerous calls for education recovery and transformation, this year’s theme of International Mother Language Day is especially timely: ‘Multilingual education is a pillar of intergenerational learning.

Indeed, we must remember that every learner’s future success is supported by their foundational learning that serves as both platform and pillar in all academic pursuits and professional endeavors—no less in life at large.

What are education policy makers to do, however, when the strength of this foundation—one built on literacy, numeracy and transferrable skills—is considerably weakened when young learners can’t understand the language of classroom instruction?

Foundational learning and the language of instruction in Asia-Pacific

Across Asia and the Pacific, home to over 60% of the world’s population, UNESCO data reveals not all learners are reaching minimum learning proficiencies. Achieving Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) indicator 4.1.1. by 2030 is at considerable risk.

The UNESCO World Inequality Database on Education (WIDE) shows notable differences in minimum learning proficiencies between learners who speak the same language at home and in their classrooms, compared to their peers who don’t (SDG indicator 4.5.2.).

The WIDE shows that the 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) carried out in Singapore indicated 98% of learners who spoke the language of classroom instruction at home successfully completed 4 levels of increasing difficulty in a reading assessment, while only 86% of their peers who did not proved similarly successful. Similar differences were found in other areas of Asia-Pacific, including Kazakhstan (3 percentage points) and the Islamic Republic of Iran (29 per centage points).

Early grade classrooms of linguistically diverse countries often have a smaller amount of learners whose first or home language, also called mother tongue or language, matches that of formal instruction. For example, in the Philippines as a country with over 170 languages, approximately only 1 in 4 learners use their first language at school.

This norm is also reflected in learning outcomes. Results of the 2019 Southeast Asia Primary Learning Metrics (SEA PLM) revealed learners who spoke the language of school instruction at home outperformed their peers in reading, writing and mathematics across 5 countries.

Countries across Asia and the Pacific are finally acknowledging the pivotal role of first language-based multilingual education as a way to accelerate quality learning, particularly in fostering foundational skills.

At the 4th High-Level Policy Forum on Multilingual Education in Bangkok, delegates from 20 countries1 endorsed the 2023 Bangkok Priorities for Action on First Language-based Multilingual Education (MLE), building on the action plan outlined in the 2019 Bangkok Statement on Language and Inclusion.

While there are several priority areas for action, UNESCO recognizes the urgent need to focus on data, teachers and research throughout the region.

Disaggregated data can capture classroom languages

Systematic data collection disaggregated by learners’ first or home language is a pivotal step to understanding linguistic barriers and gaps in foundational learning as it ensures teachers are well-informed about the languages present in their classrooms, including varying proficiencies, and how such factors ultimately influence teaching and learning practices.

An important evidence-generating activity can be language mapping so that schools know the language capabilities of both their learners and teachers as was done in India. This process can involve conducting household surveys, classroom observations and interviews with various relevant stakeholders to generate evidence for state-level first language-based MLE implementation.

To sustain classroom-based support for foundational learning in multilingual contexts, first language-based MLE must also be integrated at a systemic level.

Student reading a book in Bengali at the Azimpur Government Primary School in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Credit: GPE/Chantal Rigaud
Student reading a book in Bengali at the Azimpur Government Primary School in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
GPE/Chantal Rigaud

Education management information systems (EMIS) should systematically collect data on learners' first languages, contribute to SDG Indicator 4.5.2. and provide analyses correlating first language-based MLE with learning outcomes.

Making teachers ready to support multilingual learners

Teachers play a critical role in ensuring foundational learning for learners from non-dominant language backgrounds, especially if they understand both the national language and their learners’ home language.

First language-based MLE allows teachers and learners to use their full linguistic repertoires to express understanding of content knowledge. A study of ethnic Korean schools in China used translanguaging activities to allow learners to draw on their existing knowledge of Korean and Mandarin to facilitate learning English.

To monitor progress toward foundational learning, assessments must be adapted to capture the complex learning of multilingual learners and their ability in different languages.

A forthcoming guideline by UNESCO and UNICEF will unpack important considerations and strategies to adapt classroom-based formative and summative assessments for multilingual learners.

The need for future research and guidance

High-quality, nationally generated research is crucial for building a strong evidence base for first language-based multilingual education. While there are several successful cases of implementation such as in Indonesia where an indigenous language and counting system were used to improve mathematics skills, further research is needed on the impact of first language-based MLE on learning in the Asia-Pacific region.

Countries also need further guidance. As a follow-up to the Bangkok Priorities, the Asia-Pacific Multilingual Education Working Group will develop a regional roadmap in consultation with governments and civil society organizations to monitor and implement the priority areas of first language-based multilingual education, adaptable to national and sub-national needs.

With more precise tools and a clearer path forward, countries will be more equipped to accelerate learning for linguistically vulnerable learners from the earliest years of their foundational learning.

  1. Bangladesh, Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, People’s Republic of China, Cook Islands, Fiji, India, Indonesia, Kiribati, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Malaysia, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Nepal, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Thailand, Timor-Leste, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.

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