Mother tongue: A dying language of the heart


A new policy paper by the United Nations has recommended the use of the mother tongue during teaching for at least six years of early learning.

The report says that teaching a language “other than one’s own language,” negatively impacts a child’s learning ability.  It stresses that mother tongue instruction is needed so that gains from teaching in mother tongue are sustained.

The policy paper issued ‘If you don’t understand, how you can learn?,’  was released recently by UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring agency.

It reveals that about 40% of children are being taught in a language they do not understand, according to UNESCO.

The UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova underscores the basic principle of children learning in a language they understand.

“It is essential to encourage full respect for the use of mother language in teaching and learning, and to promote linguistic diversity.

Inclusive language education policies will not only lead to higher learning achievement, but contribute to tolerance, social cohesion, and, ultimately, peace,” says Bokova.

The report states that learning improves in countries that have invested in bilingual programmes. It found that children in countries such as Ethiopia, which participated in bilingual programmes, improved their learning in subjects across the curriculum. “They also have higher scores in all subject areas,” the report says.

Aaron Benavot, Director of UNESCO’s GEM Report says one language can serve as a double-edged sword and hence advocates for bilingual classes.

“While it strengthens an ethnic group’s social ties and sense of belonging, it can also become a basis for their marginalisation. Education policy must ensure that all learners, including minority language speakers, access school in a language,” he says
Uganda’s situation

The question of mother-tongue education in Uganda remains a vexed one.

On one hand, it seems reasonable and desirable that learners should be able to receive education in their mother tongue, if they so wish. On the other hand, there are some very real difficulties involved in the implementation of this idea.

As it is, even with the thematic curriculum which only emphasizes three years of teaching in mother tongue has been hit by several glitches since inception in 2007.

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