By Benta A. Abuya, Associate Research Scientist, APHRC
Fifty percent of the world’s out-of-school children live in communities where the language of schooling is rarely, if ever, used at home. This presents the biggest challenge to achieving Education for All (EFA). Research provides convincing evidence that a second language is learned best when a first language is learned well. When children learn to read in the local language, they will internalize faster and better the second language of instruction.
When children are taught in their local languages, countries stand to reap various benefits including; increased access and equity, improvement in learning outcomes, reduced repetition and dropout rates, sociocultural benefits and lower overall costs of education. According to evidence adduced by the World Bank, bilingual programs are often instituted in rural areas, among the vulnerable and more marginalized populations. In the course of time, these children stay in school longer, attain higher levels of education, and improve social mobility, all leading to improved access to school and equity.
As has been proven in Mali and in Guatemala, these programs have the capability of improving learning outcomes. Use of first-language instruction has been instrumental in reducing repetition and dropout, as we’ve seen from studies in Mali. Mastering a first language promotes the cognitive development that children needed to learn, master, and internalize a second language.
Other success stories include: Brazil, where teaching in the first language has been linked to better acquisition of literacy skills; Burkina Faso, where children who learned the Mooré language before beginning instruction in French achieved better results in French and mathematics than students who had been taught in French only schooling. Most importantly, the use of local languages also makes it possible for children to bring to school what they already know, forming a basis for further learning.
Finally, the use of local languages for instruction promotes socio-cultural benefits as it leads to inclusion of more local content in the curriculum and improved participation of parents and community members as classroom resources. Parents are in a better position to become involved in the school and to feel that their knowledge is valued.
A country that adopts the local language instruction is not off the mark. The questions that countries should be asking are: do they have financial resources and the implementing capacity to roll out the new initiative? How does this decision play into the teacher development and deployment which are decentralized in many countries? Are parents and teachers convinced? Teachers are the implementers of classroom policies, while parents are often the financiers of the teaching and learning process. Overall, a country that attempts to institute the first language policy must carefully manage its respective policy environment, while ensuring that the reforms are linked to the development priorities as well as the global agenda. Instituting a first language policy demands adequate investment in training and planning.