Mother language education in Africa

On February 21, we celebrate International Mother Language Day

Celebrated every year on February 21, International Mother Language Day reminds us of the key role mother tongue education plays in achieving learning outcomes and improving the quality of education.

In Burundi, one textbook is generally shared by four pupils. Credit: UNICEF Burundi/Krzysiek
Des manuels scolaires en Kiswahili. Centre TuTu de Mnyimbi, Province du Nord, Zanzibar. Tanzanie, avril 2017.<br>Crédit : GPE/Chantal Rigaud

This blog post is the first for the year 2018 of a series of collaborations that began in 2017 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 – has been celebrated every year since February 2000 to promote linguistic and cultural diversity, as well as multilingualism.

The date of February 21 was chosen to honor the students killed by the police in Dhaka (today, the capital of Bangladesh).  The students had been staging a demonstration to have their mother language, Bengali, declared the second national language in what was then Pakistan.

Why is it important to teach students in their mother language?

Mother language instruction is a part of the broader vision for the diversification of education and for more dynamic lifelong learning, and contributes to the attainment of the objectives of the 2030 Global Agenda and Agenda 2063 of the African Union, on education and development.

The 2015 Global Monitoring Report on Education for All highlighted the fact that multilingualism and linguistic policies in education are key factors in achieving effective learning outcomes.

Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 of the 2030 Agenda specifically recommends that “bilingual and multilingual education should be encouraged by imparting early education in the children’s first language or in the language that they speak at home.”

In view of the many pedagogical advantages associated with this policy, today we rest assured that the main debate is less about the relevance of mother language instruction, but rather on “how may this be achieved.”

This year’s theme, “the preservation of linguistic diversity in the world and the promotion of multilingualism for achieving the sustainable development goals,” lines up with the efforts underway to apprise different stakeholders of the many technical and sociopolitical challenges that are relevant to the use of mother language in the pursuit of knowledge and sustainable development.

In this regard, the adoption of an explicit language policy that recognizes the value of mother languages is, for example, an essential element in the framing of decisions on educational reform. It can serve as both an incentive and a stimulus for research, while at the same time, promoting ownership by communities and the administrative and political authorities of the process of integrating mother languages into the educational system.

The mother language is, without doubt, the starting point for acquiring knowledge of any kind that can then be subsequently enriched by knowledge of other languages or by familiarity with other multicultural and multidimensional realties of the world today. In order to put an end to the debate on the various definitions of “mother language,” attention is invited to the fact that the language referred to in the current educational context is essentially the language mastered by the learner.

What is happening in Africa and what is the major challenge?

The policies that African States adopt to enhance the status and role of mother languages in bilateral or multilingual educational contexts have clear implications for the way such languages relate to other languages, and particularly to foreign languages

In the majority of African countries, mother languages are introduced as subjects and vehicles of education, alongside other widely spoken international languages (official/foreign languages).

Against this background, one of the biggest challenges is how to effect the transition from the current predominantly subtractive or early-exit bilingual education models toward late exit models that are capable of producing additive or balanced bilingualism.

In other words, the challenge is to work toward the sustainable use of mother languages in education throughout the years of schooling and to change the perception of the current model that has often been derided in public opinion as a dead end. 

Mother language education is abruptly abandoned during the school cycle, leaving only the official/foreign language in place. These subtractive or early-exit (transitional) models do not facilitate the conduct of summative assessments in mother languages, a drawback that contributes significantly to a lack of motivation on the part of the entire educational community (for example, learners, parents, teachers, etc.).   

This reliance on a single-prong mother-tongue based education strategy underscores the extensive work that remains to be done to adopt a comprehensive, structured and representative model that reflects the educational continuum and that must form the basis of any successful pedagogical project.   

Possible solutions to address the quality of learning outcomes using a bi-/plurilingual approach

Achieving the objectives of the policy choices mentioned above will require an in-depth reflection on the didactics of language and its implications for, and impact on the quality of, learning outcomes in the context of a bi-/plurilingual approach.

The decisions on these options are closely tied to the capacity of African countries to learn from previous reforms in this area and to successfully anticipate the technical implications of any policy adopted.

Provisions should be made, in particular, for: pedagogical training of teachers; the availability of appropriate language software to facilitate qualitative document production; the implementation of a consistent editorial policy to guarantee the availability, in terms of both quantity and quality, of didactic manuals and supplies; the judicious choice of methods and their optimization in terms of ICT, etc.

This approach should be reinforced by an effective delineation of the roles to be played by different stakeholders, and by promoting national synergies through the exchange of best practices and peer learning.

These proposals were reiterated at the African Regional Workshop of the Global Book Alliance (GBA) – organized from January 22-25, 2018 in Abidjan by the Working Group on Books and Learning Materials (WGBLM) of the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA), in collaboration with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). 

The workshop participants prepared a draft joint action plan that revolved around five pillars.  The plan seeks to promote and implement innovative and effective measures for the production, acquisition, distribution, management and utilization of textbooks and reading material in mother languages. 

The five pillars are: 1) advocacy, policy dialogue and promotion of reading; 2) training, research and preparation of books; 3) local languages; 4) partnerships in the area of publishing; and 5) sale and distribution of books.

The contribution of ADEA

Through its operational structures, such as the Inter-Country Quality Node on Literacy and National Languages (ICQN-LNL) and the WGBLM, ADEA aims to continue, in collaboration with its partners, to promote a policy dialogue and to strengthen the technical capacity of countries, with a view to contributing to an overall improvement in the quality of education in mother languages and to promoting positive values and ideas of pan-Africanism.