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Strategy sessions III.3 > Bilingual and Mother Tongue Education
 
World Education Forum
Dakar, Senegal 26-28 April 2000
 
Building social integration through bilingual and mother tongue education
Issues Paper
 
Strategy Session III.3
 
Original : English
 
   Multilingual education as understood here becomes an issue if the language of instruction differs from the language children understand when they enter school. Education in an unfamiliar language hampers EFA. Over the last four decades, evidence has accumulated suggesting that teaching learners in a language they do not understand is not very effective and causes a high incidence of repeating and dropout. One can safely assume that it affects access to education: parents are known to keep children out of school whom they consider unable to learn well. If this is so clear, why is it that mother tongue instruction is not universally applied?
 
1. Technical aspects
 
   1.1 Pedagogy - By and large, the pedagogical problems associated with teaching in a language familiar to the learners (L1) can be resolved. Tools are available or can be developed at short notice. We know how to sequence the learning of reading and writing in any language for which basic linguistic analyses are available. We know how to design school books, teachers' guides, teacher pre- and in-service training courses. We know how to introduce the major foreign language used in a country through a second-language teaching approach, and also how to link local language and local content in teaching, be it cultural subjects, mathematics, or life skills. And we have learnt how to share such knowledge and skills with our local partners and, more importantly, how to develop locally adapted approaches with them.
 
Developing the required teaching skills becomes a matter of logistics, finance, and management: for quality teaching in local languages, large numbers of teachers need to be retrained in a short time. This means retraining the personnel in charge of teacher education, as well as additional trainers (master trainers, best teachers, learning co-ordinators, etc.). This may encounter acceptance problems, and generally requires a lead time of up to three years.
 

Transition to a foreign language of instruction is the one pedagogical aspect that is most neglected. In most countries that use mother tongue (L1) instruction in the early grades, the language of instruction shifts later to the dominant (often foreign) language used in the country (L2) . When L2 is taught earlier as a second language, one assumes too easily that pupils master it well enough to follow courses in the later primary grades or in lower secondary without further preparation. This has led to problems in many countries, e.g. in Tanzania and Madagascar.

 
1.2 Linguistics - It would appear that the linguistic issues can also be handled very well. Methods are available for putting a language in writing, describing its rules and norms, identifying the vocabulary used by school age children, and identifying its specific points of interference with the dominant language (L2).
 
1.3 Sector Management As soon as several languages of instruction are admitted, the posting of teachers could become much more complicated than before. Where there is only one language of instruction, any teacher can serve anywhere in the country without any specific linguistic requirements or preparation. This is no longer the case when two or more languages are used in education. Teachers should best be native speakers of the language they use in school. Where this is not possible, they would have to undergo language training each time they are posted to an area with a different language of instruction. The education ministry` s partners could be helpful in designing strategies to cope with these such difficulties.
 
Provision of teaching and learning materials in several local languages (L1) at affordable costs is an unresolved issue. Print-runs are always smaller than an edition in a single language for the same country. Co-operating agencies should, as a matter of priority, explore solutions to this issue. Based on their own experience and looking to the most modern technology used by publishers, they could present model calculations and compare costs of the options with savings expected from lower repetition and dropout.
 
Schoolbook publishers bidding for large international contracts to supply schoolbooks are usually not in favour of multilingual education. It would increase costs if they were in charge of the editorial process, whereas if they are supplied with print-ready material, it reduces the print-runs and thus lowers their profits. It is well known that various means are used to oppose decisions in favour of schoolbooks in local languages (L1). Here is an area where advocacy work is required. The reason why so little has been done to introduce L1 into education seems to be political.
 
2. Acceptance
 
2.1 Attitudes toward languages - The basic issue is one of acceptance of a local language of instruction by the L1 speakers themselves. One root cause of the neglect of local languages is the relative prestige of the language of the former colonial power and the slow-down effect this must have had on the development of the local languages. On the one hand, during the colonial period, most L1 lacked the concepts and vocabulary to communicate the very contents - technical, organisational - that underlay the relative "superiority" of the colonial power. On the other hand, as part of the coloniser's negative attitude towards local cultures, the L1 were considered as incapable of dealing with such content. This argument was used against most African and Native American languages, but also against such prestigious languages as Arabic. In varying degrees, the colonised populations accepted this negative attitude to their own languages.
 
Due to the same colonial legacy, there is confusion between learning in and learning of a language. In many developing countries, going to school has meant first and foremost learning a foreign language before anything else could be learnt, and illiterate parents tend to perceive it thus. No wonder the usual argument of parents against mother tongue instruction is that "the children know our language already". Here, much more explanation and advocacy directed at the beneficiaries is required.
 
2.2 Strategic value of the foreign language in the economy - In both Latin America and Africa, the economy puts a premium on the mastery of the dominant language (L2). The majority of the more profitable economic transactions are conducted in L2. This is not the case in most of Asia where transactions in the huge internal markets are conducted in L1 languages, and the L2 language becomes a real asset only in the import-export sector. Parents are very much aware of the commercial value of language. They expect proof that starting school in an L1 does not prevent their children from mastering the L2. If one can demonstrate that it even enhances the mastery of L2, the better. One of the main tasks of the education ministry's partners is to provide such evidence in a way that is credible, convincing and easy to understand. A strong position in favour of reinforcing the status of an L1 will be counterproductive unless there is a strong popular movement in that direction.
 
3. Language policy
 
3.1 Language standardisation - For mother tongue or multilingual education to work, a country clearly needs to select a limited number of languages as L1. Linguistics would help to identify the minimum number of core languages to be standardised, keeping local and regional variants as dialects . The tendency to declare ever "smaller" languages as separate languages needs to be reversed for the sake of a feasible language policy for education. Identifying the "common core" of several L1 languages is as much of a linguistic challenge as getting another small language recognised as an unique language of its own. Yet, past experience shows that it can be done. Using Germany as an example, two native speakers of the variants spoken on the northern and the southern borders would hardly be able to communicate. Yet, they recognise and use Standard German, and so do more than 80 million speakers in Germany, Austria and the German-speaking part of Switzerland. Co-operating agencies could assist countries to develop such linguistic standardisation.
 
3.2 Utility of local languages beyond school: the literate environment - Given the acceptance problems, the technical-pedagogical argument alone has little power of persuasion if school is the only place where the L1 is written and used in a modern context. Parents and teachers alike are more easily convinced when there are newspapers, fiction, religious and non-fiction literature in their local language. However, experience shows that such literature needs to appear spontaneously. External partners can only support genuine local initiatives. In the few cases known to the author, attempts at initiating and launching such literature have died when project support ended.
 
3.3 Language policy in education: transition or development - Whether an L1 is to be fully developed or used as a transition to better mastery of the L2 is the sole responsibility of the L1 language community. There has been a long-standing controversy whether an L1 used as a language of instruction should be developed and promoted in its own right or whether it should be used to ease the transition to the L2. This controversy has been particularly acrimonious in Latin America, among scholars, under the slogan of mantenimiento versus transición. The point of view of the community of L1 speakers hardly mattered. Apart from the fact that no L1 can be stabilised and promoted against the will of its speakers, does anybody have the right to impose a particular course of action on them?
 
3.4 Language development and the functionality of language - Most languages can be developed in such a way that they can handle complex technical and organisational subject matter. The development of Arabic is a case in point, Kiswahili, Bahasa Malaya and Bahasa Indonesia are other examples among many more. External partners could support such efforts. The real issue arises in countries with extreme linguistic diversity. How many languages and which ones should be so developed? Where is a reasonable lower limit for full-scale linguistic development - 20,000 speakers, 200,000 speakers, 20 million speakers? This blends in with the issues of language standardisation and the reduction of linguistic diversity to manageable proportions.
Most countries are multilingual. How the different languages are treated is an indicator of a country's power structure and the respect it has for minorities and marginalised groups. This has a highly symbolic value. Historically, there are basically three situations found in the developing world:
 

(1) Multiethnic states that did not adopt a European language as the official language and therefore the language of instruction, or that replaced it with a regional L2. This, for example, is the case in China and most of South East Asia.

(2) Multiethnic states that did adopt a European language as the official language and therefore the language of instruction. This is the case in most sub-Saharan African states, with Tanzania, Madagascar, Rwanda and Burundi as major exceptions.

(3) Former settler colonies where, at independence, the settler population or their descendants remained in the country and continued to dominate the indigenous population. This is the case in all Latin American countries with a sizeable Amerindian population. These lessons and questions just scratch the surface of an extremely sensitive topic that is often not addressed because emotions can run so high. But, the experience of the 1990s shows that these issues must be addressed if the goals set at Jomtien are to become a reality. How can the international community help countries to make their schools safe havens for learning, for girls as well as for boys?

 
This paper will focus on situations 2 and 3.
 
4.1 Power relations among ethnic groups - Where a European language is used as the medium of instruction (situation 2 above), language as an indicator of relative power has been neutralised. This does not eliminate the power competition but removes one very visible element. Advocating the use of one or several L1 languages in school would need a consensus among the various ethnic and linguistic groups. It would have to be understood that selecting a few L1 and leaving aside others is done for pragmatic reasons and does not jeopardise the outcome of more complex transactions on power sharing. Co-operating agencies could offer a forum for reaching such a consensus for the education sector. Efforts at standardising languages and reducing the linguistic diversity would also be helpful.
 
4.2 Relations between dominant and dependent population groups - In the third situation above, the subordinate status assigned to the local languages of the formerly colonised population groups cements and stabilises the dominance relation. In Latin America with its 500 years of colonial history, this has become part of the identity of many individuals of both the dominant group and the indigenous population. The privileged majority finds it difficult to "let go" of its privilege, particularly at the second of two levels. The first level is to concede to the indigenous population the right to education in their mother tongue (L1), and to finance it. The second level involves moving towards a real bilingual and intercul-tural education for all, where the children of the dominant group are expected also to learn one of the local languages. For pedagogical reasons, the first level is sufficient. For reasons of social justice, social integration, and balanced socio-cultural development, the second level is required. However, the author is not aware of any instance of this happening.
 
5. Potential effects on social integration

Usually, a multilingual education system is an indicator of successful social integration, but not its cause. In the absence of a basic consensus on the value of each national language and the rights that go with it, pushing multilingual education might even be socially disruptive. The policy issues should come first in any strategy to use mother tongue instruction to improve the quality of education.
 
6. The role of external agencies of development co-operation
 
This Strategy Session will explore the various ways external partners can assist countries to develop and apply realistic language policies in education that are both pedagogically sound and socially acceptable. Should external partners limit themselves to strictly technical, pedagogical and linguistic, aspects of the language issue, or should they also raise issues of language policy for the stakeholders to find solutions? Would it ever be proper for them to "take sides" in favour of maintaining and stabilising a given L2 language of instruction?
 
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