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How do we stop school languages being a barrier to learning?

When a child speaks one language at home and comes to school to find teachers using a new and unfamiliar language, it can push them out of school completely. Despite expectations, many children don’t ‘pick up’ a new language beyond a basic level, leaving them unable to cope with lessons.

As well as causing children to drop out, using unfamiliar languages in school can ruin many children’s chances in exams. Children who live in poor rural areas are often the worst affected. There is evidence that when children are denied education because of the language they speak, this contributes to fragility and conflict.

An estimated 221 million children are affected by this problem, and it’s going to be a challenge well into the future. 72% of children out of school worldwide are in countries with large linguistic divisions and limited access to mother-tongue education. A recent report from Save the Children and CfBT Education Trust provides more information.

At the same time there is huge pressure on governments, particularly in developing countries, to get everyone using international languages for the global market. Many governments want to bring the country together with one national language, and worry that encouraging diverse local languages will break up the nation.

They think that if children don’t have access to national or international languages at home, surely it has to be introduced through school. But if using one language to teach doesn’t work for many children, how much money is being wasted on schools which are doomed to fail?

There are answers, such as teaching in children’s first language and gradually introducing other languages as well. New languages are introduced and used in the classroom once children have understood the concepts in their first language. This type of ‘mother-tongue-based multilingual education’ is recommended to continue for at least the first 6 years of a child’s education.

However, it’s not necessarily simple to move towards this type of teaching. Many teachers don’t have the skills to teach a second language. It’s impossible to teach children to read and write in their first language if materials or writing systems are not available. There are worries about what to do when a primary school has different mother tongues in one class. Parents may worry that their child won’t do well in life unless all teaching is in English.

What’s to be done then? We want answers, and this is a good time to ask. Each February there is a global focus on language issues, with International Mother Language Day on 21 February. This year International Mother Language Day coincides with the meeting of the High Level Group on Education For All in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The Education For All Global Monitoring Report shows that teaching in an unfamiliar language combines with other barriers such as poverty to deprive many children of education.

In 2010 we want to get more attention on how to solve language barriers to education. The need for change is urgent, but despite many successful bilingual education projects, we’re not seeing enough large-scale action from the international and national leaders who decide how schools are run.

As part of research we are doing with CfBT Education Trust, we want ideas on how to move towards education which is based on children’s language and culture, and teaches second languages successfully. We want to pass these ideas to international and national decision makers in multilingual countries. We will also use the ideas generated on this blog to help us develop a pack of guidance materials for education leaders and managers.

So please give us your views. We would appreciate any thoughts on language and education, but we’re particularly keen to get opinions, experience or advice on the issues listed below.

The big questions we would like help to answer:

  1. How can primary school teachers be supported to gain skills to introduce second language/s to children?
  2. How can parents be reassured that being taught in a mother-tongue and then taught a second language is likely to work? What steps should governments take to reassure parents on this?
  3. How can leaders be persuaded to adopt education in local languages if they are worried about national disunity?
  4. How can teacher training be updated to help teachers teach second languages to children successfully?
  5. What are some of the best ways to address difficulties in finding teachers who speak the children’s local languages?
  6. How can children’s literacy be supported when it’s difficult to find written forms of local languages?
  7. What should donor agencies do to address these challenges? What type of leadership and funding should donors provide on language and education?
  8. Have you had any experiences of making education easier for pre or primary school children who don’t speak the official languages? What is the learning from these?
  9. Have you had experience of helping children transition from one language of teaching to another? What learning did you get from this?
  10. What advice would you give to teachers managing classes where several children speak different languages at home, and national or international languages are not used in children’s home life?

Please post your comments in the box below by Thursday 18 February. If you would like to share documents, please post a link in the comments box. We will make this information available online for as long as possible.

If you would like to send any documents on multilingual education directly to us for posting online, please email me: h.pinnock(at)savethechildren.org.uk

Thank you!

This blog will stay open for comments until 19 February 2010.

More information on what we do in language and education

Other useful publications can be found here.

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