21st October 2021
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Thursday, 21 February is international Mother Language Day to promote linguistic, cultural diversity and multilingualism. According to the Education Commission report, there is strong evidence that teaching children in their mother tongue has a lot of benefits, yet half of all children in low-and middle-income countries are not taught in a language they speak.

I was part of an initiative that collected data on literacy and numeracy skills of children between the ages of 5 – 15. What I observed was that, sometimes, in order to establish the numeracy skills, assessment questions have to be explained in the mother tongue for some children to understand. For example, when asked orally in English, they might not be able to give the correct answer to the question 4 + 4. However, if explained in the mother tongue, they immediately brighten up and answer brilliantly. This confirms the more than abundant research evidence that teaching a child in the mother tongue can improve learning. When a child fails, teachers have to determine whether he/she is failing because of a lack of understanding of the concept being taught or a lack of understanding of the language of instruction.   

This reminds me of my undergraduate days studying French language. Sometimes, my lecturers had to explain difficult French grammatical concepts in Yoruba (the predominant language spoken in the area), before colleagues could understand. It was funny back then seeing the different languages at play: using English first and then Yoruba to teach French. If the language of instruction were Yoruba, the hassles both to teachers and students alike would have been reduced.  

In many countries in Africa today, mother tongue as a medium of instruction is embedded in the education policy but rarely implemented due to a variety of reasons such as lack of instructional texts, poorly trained teachers in the language, non-recognition of languages in the country etc. In Nigeria, every child is supposed to be taught in the language of the environment up until primary two but it is rarely implemented.  As the day is celebrated, we call on Civil Society Organisations and all actors in the education sector to hold government accountable for the implementation of the mother tongue policy in their different countries.  We also call on governments to make effort to document languages and develop texts in these languages in order to reap the many benefits of teaching in mother language.

Ides Ofune

Ides Ofune is currently a PhD Student at the University of Leeds. Her research focuses on civil society and accountability in improving the quality of education. She is the founder of Desert Bloom Initiative and editor of Desert Bloom Advisory. Ides is very passionate about education and creating an inclusive society. She speaks French and English fluently. She can be reached at info@desertbloomadvisory.com



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