The Mother-Tongue Dilemma

United nation educational, scientific and cultural organization

Studies show that we learn better in our mother tongue. But then it has to be taught in school, which is not the case of all minority languages. More convinced than ever of the value of multilingualism, certain countries are trying to promote learning in a number of languages. However, the political and economic obstacles are enormous.

Many were outraged in 1998 when Californian voters, by a 61% majority, imposed English as the state’s sole language in publicly-funded schools despite opposition from a coalition of civil liberties organizations.

Approval by referendum of Proposition 227, as it was called, meant resident foreign-born children, mostly Spanish-speaking, could no longer be taught in their own language. Instead, they would have an intensive one-year course in English and then enter the general school system. The move was watched closely nationwide because 3.4 million children in the United States either speak English badly or not at all.

The episode was not trivial. First of all, it showed the passions that anything to do with language stirs up. It also reversed a decades-long trend towards acceptance of the mother tongue and, more broadly, the benefits of multilingualism.

“Teachers have known for years the value of teaching children in their mother tongue,” says Nadine Dutcher, a consultant with the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington D.C.Better results

Many studies have shown children do better if they get a basic education in their own language. This is important because about 476 million of the world’s illiterate people speak minority languages and live in countries where children are mostly not taught in their mother tongue.

In New Zealand, a recent study showed that Maori children who received basic education in their own language performed better than those educated in English only, notes Don Long, who produces books and teaching materials in the country’s minority languages.

In the United States, a research unit at George Mason University in Virginia has monitored results at twenty-three primary schools in fifteen States since 1985. Four out of six different curricula involved were partly conducted in the mother tongue. The survey shows that, after eleven years of schooling, there is a direct link between academic results and the time spent learning in the mother tongue. Those who do best in secondary school have had a bilingual education.

“Learning in the mother tongue has cognitive and emotional value. Minority pupils feel more respected when it is used,” says Dutcher. Clinton Robinson, an education and development consultant and former head of international programmes at the Summer Institute of Linguistics in the United Kingdom, says “children who learn in another language get two messages – that if they want to succeed intellectually it won’t be by using their mother tongue and also that their mother tongue is useless.”

Revising language policies
Some rich countries have become more aware of the issue and have started revising their language policies. The idea that integration means giving up your mother tongue is no longer sacred. “The Jacobin tradition of punishing children for using dialect languages at school has changed,” says Michel Rabaud, head of the French government’s inter-ministerial task force on mastering the French language. “Speaking a language other than French, regional or otherwise, is no longer a handicap for a child.”

The countries of the North are taking in more and more immigrants and have to adapt to their presence. In 2000, more than a third of the population of Western Europe under 35 was of immigrant origin, according to a recent UNESCO report on linguistic diversity in Europe.

It quotes a study done in The Hague (Netherlands) showing that in a sample of 41,600 children aged between 4 and 17, about 49 per cent of primary and 42 per cent of secondary school pupils use a language other than Dutch at home, such as Turkish, Hindi, Berber or Arabic. This makes it hard to continue with the old policy of linguistic assimilation.

“Despite this, there aren‘t many laws about immigrant languages, unlike with regional ones,” says Kutlay Yagmur, a researcher in multilingualism at the Dutch University of Tilburg and co-author of the study. “But this will change because population patterns are changing.”

Some countries have already responded. They include the Australian state of Victoria, where bilingualism has been steadily introduced in all primary schools over the past twenty years. In 2002, compulsory courses in “a language other than English” involved forty-one languages in primary and secondary schools. Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, German and French are the most popular.

Huge obstacles

Mother tongue education and multilingualism are increasingly accepted around the world and speaking one’s own language is more and more a right. International Mother Language Day, proclaimed in 1999 by UNESCO and marked on 21 February each year, is one example.

Encouraging education in the mother tongue, alongside bilingual or multilingual education, is one of the principles set out by UNESCO in a new position paper.

On top of this, languages are now regarded as an integral part of a people’s identity, as shown in the UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity (2001), which recognizes the importance of languages in promoting cultural diversity.

Yet, despite this growing awareness, many obstacles remain, especially political ones. “Every decision about languages is political,” says Linda King, Senior Programme Specialist with UNESCO’s Division for the Promotion of Quality Education. “But technical issues of how to teach them are involved too. The main thing is to respect local languages and legitimize them within the school system as well as giving pupils access to a national and foreign language.”

French author Louis-Jean Calvet puts it bluntly in his book La Guerre des langues et les politiques linguistiques (Hachette, 1999). “The war of languages is always part of a wider war,” he says.

A political decision

Minorities are usually the victims and the first thing they get hit by is typically a ban on using their own language. Just one example is the systematic repression of Indonesia’s Chinese community during President Suharto’s regime, when use of Chinese was officially forbidden.

But encouraging the mother tongue is usually a calculated political decision. After independence in Africa, one of the first steps by the new governments was to rehabilitate local languages.

Swahili became Kenya’s official language in 1963 and Guinea launched a linguistic decolonization by proclaiming the country’s eight most widely used languages to be official ones and launching literacy campaigns.

But when General Lansana Conte seized power in Guinea in the mid-1980s, he restored the use of French only in the education system. Kenya’s ruling class today speaks English more readily than Swahili. “A symbolic decision is not enough,” says Annie Brisset, who teaches at a translators’ and interpreters’ school in Ottawa and is a UNESCO consultant on language issues. “In some African countries, the old colonial language still carries such prestige that parents prefer their children to be taught in French or English because it still means going up in the world.”

Robinson says that “for a multilingual approach to work, governments must see linguistic diversity as a boon and not a problem to be dealt with. The speakers of those languages must also support it.”

Revival of local languages

The Mali-based African Languages Academy was founded in 2001 to encourage use of the continent’s languages. Since 1994, Mali has been applying “convergence” in its schools, which means teaching children in their mother tongue for the first two years of primary school.More recently, Senegal has launched a scheme to revive local languages and, since the 2002 school year, children in 155 classes throughout the country have been taught in Wolof, Pulaar, Serere, Diola, Mandingo and Soninke, which were chosen from among the twenty-three languages spoken in Senegal. Children are to be taught entirely in their mother tongue at pre-school, 75 per cent of the time, during the first year of primary school and 50 per cent of the time, during the second and third years of primary. After that, French will become dominant.

But technical obstacles can add to political ones. For countries such as Nigeria, which has more than 400 languages, the task is more difficult. Which languages should be chosen for teaching and why? The ones chosen must also be adaptable to modern life.

Adapting languages

“To be teaching tools, they must go beyond just describing the legends of the forest and be able to handle things such as scientific plant evolution and the greenhouse effect,” says Ibrahim Sidibe, a programme specialist with UNESCO’s Division of Basic Education. But how can a language come up with new words to describe a computer programme or an Internet browser when it is kept out of the mainstream and confined to daily conversation?

The languages spoken in the former Soviet republics had tough competition from Russian for about 70 years and today lack suitable words and terms to describe the modern scientific and technological world.

“Azerbaijani became the official language of Azerbaijan in 1992, for example, and the first step was to replace the Cyrillic alphabet with the Latin one,” says Brisset. “Now it’s only used for daily conversation. So terminological databases had to be compiled to review all the words and expressions in it and invent new ones to describe the legal, commercial, diplomatic and technological aspects of modern life. That’s essential before using it as a teaching language.”

The job is huge and costly, as Peru discovered in 1975 when it declared Quechua an official language. This involved translating all official documents and teaching it in schools. The government reckoned it needed 200,000 teachers to do this. The scheme has gradually been abandoned. But pressure for widespread bilingual education is now coming from the indigenous people themselves.

“They’re increasingly aware of their rights and demanding recognition of their culture,” says Juan Carlos Godenzzi, who teaches at the Université de Montréal (Canada) and is former head of the bilingual education department of the Peruvian education ministry.Such recognition requires above all promoting a culture’s language, the foundation of building any people’s identity.