How should mother languages be included in national education systems?

February 21 is International Mother Language Day

For African countries, introducing mother languages into national education systems can offer both equality of opportunity and success to all children, while also improving the quality of education. But several barriers exist to fully implementing mother tongue education.

Wayalghin Primary School in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Credit: GPE/Olivier Badoh

This blog post is the third in a series of collaborations between ADEA and the Global Partnership for Education (GPE).

International Mother Language Day, proclaimed by the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in November 1999, is celebrated each year on February 21 in order to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism.

Linguistic and cultural diversity in Africa

The issue of mother languages has always been viewed in different ways, in particular in the context of reflecting them in the education systems of countries that are developing in a multilingual context. The linguistic and cultural diversity of Africa constitutes a valuable resource and offers potential for maximizing creativity and African skills in development activities, provided that this diversity is viewed positively and is well managed.

Several high-level meetings have concluded that there is an urgent need for African States to adopt specific policies on the use and promotion of mother languages.

In this regard we note the Intergovernmental Conference of Ministers on Language Policy in Africa, organized in March 1997 in Harare, Zimbabwe, by UNESCO, the International Organization of La Francophonie (IOF), and the African Union (AU); and the African Conference on the Integration of African Languages and Culture into Education, in January 2010 in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.

As early as 1953, UNESCO stressed the importance of educating children in their mother language. The 2005 Education for All (EFA) Global Monitoring Report also emphasized the fact that the choice of the medium of instruction and of language policy in schools was a critical determinant of the effectiveness of education. Further, a definitive study on the quality of education in Africa conducted by ADEA in 2004 demonstrated that the language factor was one of the most influential factors in determining quality.

The major challenges for African countries

What are the primary expectations of such a language policy for countries? What is at stake in the use of mother languages in national education systems? What is the aim of using mother languages in education? What are the advantages and major difficulties? All these questions arise on a daily basis.

Implementation of a language policy to promote mother languages presents major difficulties for the majority of African countries. Little has been done in the way of robust initiatives, since their independence, toward explicit acknowledgment of the status of the languages in question, that is, clarification of their status or standing and the guarantees accorded each of them by means of legislative or regulatory instruments or provisions. The reality is that in the majority of countries the official language, that accorded legal status as the working language of government and official acts, remains the language of the colonizer.

The term “national language,” which is often applied to mother languages, is symbolic. It says nothing about the status of the languages in question.

The precise definition of national language varies from country to country.

In certain countries, a language may have the status of a national language recognized by law, in which case there may also be a legal definition or criteria for attributing that status. In other countries the concept of national language is confounded with that of official language.

In terms of language policy, not all countries are at the same level. The difficulties faced stem from political will, technical experience, and development of the capacities to embark firmly on the necessary reform of policy and practice regarding the use of mother languages in education.

Nevertheless, many African countries have legislation on languages. This indicates that efforts are gradually being made to promote local languages, in particular in the context of research, testing, and tackling illiteracy.

Burkina Faso

In Burkina Faso the 2007 Education Organization Law provides, in its article 10, that “the languages used in Burkina Faso as a medium of instruction are French and the national languages for both pedagogical and assessment purposes.” Further, in 2010 the government approved an editorial policy of promoting and encouraging the production, in terms of quality and quantity, of documents in national languages. Various other strategies to promote mother languages may be noted, including the translation of repositories and other basic official documentation into mother languages, signs in offices and other public places, etc.

Thus concrete action by States in terms of the status and functions of mother languages is critical in orienting school reform initiatives, for example, and may stimulate further research in this area.

Indeed, in the context of reform of education systems, characterized in many countries by bilingual education (local languages in conjunction with foreign languages), the formulation of new curricula could be more transparent and more productive if such initiatives were backed up by a specific language policy.

Intra-ethnic and inter-ethnic languages

In terms of the functions of mother languages, a broad distinction may be drawn between intra-ethnic and inter-ethnic languages, whose main functions relate to general communication, teaching, and religion. With regard to education, the use of mother languages in education systems depends on the options available in each country and the aims, often linked to the quality of learning, preservation of cultural identity, etc.

In a certain number of cases, mother languages are introduced as subjects and mediums of instruction, in conjunction with other languages, in particular foreign languages.

There are already lessons to be learned from previous reforms, and there must be anticipation of the technical and political implications, including the pedagogical training of educators, the availability of textbooks and teaching materials, the selection of one or more methods, and the support of communities and of administrative and political authorities.

Introduction of mother languages in schools to promote learning

The decision to introduce mother languages into the education system has psycho-pedagogical and andragogical components. The essential aim in making such a choice is to facilitate basic learning. The student learns more easily and more quickly in a language he or she masters.

Introduction of mother languages into national education systems offers, on the one hand, equality of opportunity and success to all children; and, on the other, improves the quality of education. 

Such an innovation promotes national culture by fostering positive cultural values and constitutes a factor for both accelerated and improved educational offerings.

The ideal would be to make it possible for any language that has been described and duly endowed (that is, has been the subject of systematic studies on its phonetic, prosodic, phonological, morphological, syntactical, lexico-semantic, and graphical aspects) to be used as a language for the promotion of literacy and basic education.

Endowment of such languages requires the availability of an alphabet and rules for transcription of the language, grammars, basic glossaries, specialized glossaries, dictionaries, textbooks, and cultural, scientific, technical, and technological works.

It also involves the many possibilities for usage offered by information and communications technologies (ICT). This includes the formulation, validation, and uploading online of thematic glossaries of scientific and technical terms and of grammar and orthography reference sources in the mother languages taught.

Such an initiative is fully in line with the diversification of educational choice, offering more dynamic, life-long learning, and contributing to attainment of the objectives of the 2030 Global Agenda and the Agenda 2063 in terms of education and development in Africa.

A suggestion

We are conscious of the difficulty of promoting all the mother languages of a country at the same pace in education, especially at the secondary and higher levels. Overreaching may mean falling flat on one’s face.

One strategy would be to begin with certain languages, without this implying a policy of exclusion, with the risk of replacing colonial monolingualism by African monolingualism. Rather, the process should allow for a pattern of language development that would permit other languages to progressively take their place in an orderly manner at different levels of education.