Language as an inclusive education issue
Imagine this … you’re six and about to start school. You’re getting ready for your first day; you’re excited and chat to your mum and sister using your mother tongue, the local language. You also know Kiswahili, which you speak in the market, to your friends and at church. You like speaking these two languages and have no difficulties switching between them. You arrive at school, find a place to sit and wait for the teacher. She arrives, smiles and begins to give instructions and explanations … but you don’t understand her. She’s not speaking Kiswahili or the local language … she’s speaking English. What do you do?
Key issues to consider in relation to language and education
Thanks to Helen Pinnock and Samantha Ross Hepworth for their input into this overview of key issues.
In this special section, we will look at language and the impact it has on children’s participation and achievement in education. The use of, and teaching of, languages is a complex issue. We can only provide a brief introduction through the articles in this newsletter, but ideas for further reading are provided on page 24.
Problems and solutions
Million of children worldwide are still not attending school, and language barriers are a significant reason for this. Many children, especially those from ethnic minority groups, use a different language at home from that used in school. If they don’t speak the school’s language, they may not be accepted, may struggle to make progress, or drop out early. Girls may find it harder to cope in school than boys because they are often less exposed to other languages outside the home.
Mother-tongue communication and teaching
Children need to learn in their own language for five to six years, before they gradually begin using a second language as the main medium of instruction. And they need to have received, and keep receiving, good quality teaching in that second language. Yet many children have to learn subjects in their second language almost as soon as they start school. Education authorities in low-income countries often think it will be too expensive and time-consuming to deliver quality education in multiple languages. They forget that current language and education approaches aren’t working or helping to improve educational quality.
Increasingly, therefore, education programmes are promoting the use of prolonged mother-tongue communication and teaching, and demonstrating its benefits. Programmes often cover a range of initiatives, from teacher education, to material production, to community involvement. But many policy-makers are yet to be convinced.
Areas for action
- Develop effective monitoring of mother-tongue language programmes, to show policy-makers the benefits.
- Explain that investing in multi-lingual education may cost more initially, but will be more efficient long term. Guatemala saved over US$5.6 million a year when mother-tongue based education reduced repetition and drop-out rates.
The article from Senegal (p.14) looks at issues of affordability.
The choice of language used in education is often dictated by the government. They may want to ensure that everyone communicates in a common language or learns the language used in the country’s economic activities, or that its use establishes a sense of national unity.
Areas for action
- Document evidence that using multiple languages in education doesn’t encourage minority groups to work against the state, instead it fosters social and political harmony and peaceful resolution of disputes.
The article from Thailand (pp.16-17) looks at language as a tool for reconciliation.
Language teaching and learning approaches
Children can often switch between languages when carrying out everyday tasks like shopping. But the cognitive and language skills needed to cope with learning at school in a second language are very different. Children learn literacy and academic content best in the language they understand best. They cope better with learning a second language if they are educated in their own language first.
It is not true that children will automatically learn a new language quickly if they are surrounded by it in class; or that deaf children will get used to lipreading and communicating through writing if they experience it enough, or that this is the best thing for them to be able to function well in a hearing society.
In everyday life we learn languages in a practical way, seeing or touching items that represent new words we are learning. But in school, teachers using traditional methods rely heavily on speaking, offering few clues as to the meaning of unfamiliar words used in unfamiliar situations (e.g., words used to describe new concepts like maths). They may confuse learners by translating back and forth between local and official languages. The development of literacy is particularly difficult through a second language.
Areas for action
- Provide clear guidance to teachers and parents on the differences between (a) giving students good language learning skills, and (b) teaching the curriculum in a language.
- Promote child-centred, active learning approaches to language learning.
- Allow/request primary-level exams to be taken in different languages.
The article about China (pp.12-13) highlights active learning approaches.
Teacher recruitment, education and deployment
Sometimes teachers speak the children’s language but are not allowed to use it in class. Or they may not speak the same language at all. Some may even have been deliberately deployed to an area where they don’t speak the language to encourage education in the official language.
It can be difficult to recruit teachers who speak minority ethnic languages; students from these groups often lack sufficient education to be accepted on teacher training courses. Teachers are increasingly trained using English as the medium of instruction. But this does not make them better at teaching in English, it just makes it harder for them to learn how to become teachers.
Areas for action
- Create alternative routes into teaching, e.g., on-the-job teacher training to build up trainees’ experience and education levels until they can get accredited teacher status.
- Develop and share lessons from pilot programmes on training primary school teachers to teach the official language as a subject.
The article on Vietnam (pp.22-23) shows how community women have worked as classroom language assistants.
Community and parental involvement
Too often there is a division between a learner’s home life and their education experiences. For instance, family members often do not speak the language that their children are learning in, and so cannot support their children’s learning.
Writing systems and curriculum materials
Where teachers are discouraged from using the local language, there is often also a lack of learning materials in that language, or of community-accepted script for that language. Teachers often spend time translating materials, slowing progress through the curriculum.
Areas for action
- Encourage local education authorities to work with minority language communities to create their own scripts and literacy materials, in line with the national curriculum.
The article from Thailand (pp.16-17) highlights the complexity of developing writing systems for minority languages.
Communication and teaching in mother tongue becomes an even greater challenge in emergency and post-emergency situations, especially when students are displaced to areas that use different languages for instruction. Careful planning of language issues within education in these contexts can contribute greatly to reconciliation and reconstruction
Areas for action
- In emergency situations, design suitable language transition programmes for children who have been displaced.
- Accelerated learning for children who have missed school should take place in their mother tongue, with gradual transition to the mainstream school language.
It is important to continually improve language practice in education, rather than aiming for unrealistic short-term targets or sudden big changes. Progress towards mother-tongue based multi-lingual education is being made in many parts of the world. By documenting and sharing these experiences more widely, we can show educators and decision-makers that schools can meet the needs of multi-lingual societies.