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Local language education is key to better learning outcomes in Africa

On Tuesday we celebrated International Mother Language Day, in recognition of the multitude of indigenous languages spoken around the world. This year’s theme was “Linguistic diversity and multilingualism count for sustainable development”, acknowledging the vital role that local languages play in eradicating poverty and achieving the SDGs.

 

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On the continent of Africa, 2,144 native languages are in daily use, forming a cornerstone of local identity and a key tool for preservation of Africa's diverse cultural heritages. Yet the value of local language is not reserved for cultural preservation alone - local languages play an undeniable role in educational attainment, and their absence in education systems has the power to significantly hinder the academic achievements of children around the world. This must change.

 

Maternal Languages

Unfortunately, many African higher education systems still operate solely through a foreign language – Portuguese, French or English. These artefacts of colonialism continue to be taught on the belief that a working knowledge of an international language is helpful for students, and that one language can strengthen national unity, boost economic growth, and improve the career prospects of younger generations. Indeed, across sub-Saharan Africa, English is often the medium of instruction in basic education. Yet legitimate questions arise when assessing whether this is truly the most effective method to enhance education and communication for African children. 

In Mozambique, Portuguese is the language of instruction in most schools. When a child who speaks a local language at home enters a classroom where lessons are taught in Portuguese, they struggle to understand the teacher, which typically contributes to low academic performance. This is a scenario played out in schools across sub-Saharan Africa, where children suffer unnecessarily at the hand of archaic education systems. Thankfully, the situation is beginning to change.

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As part of a USDA-funded consortium to support primary education, improve learning outcomes and assist in government-led literacy programmes, I have been a part of an ongoing project that is demonstrating the benefits of using the local mother tongue as the first language of instruction. Our project partnership - which includes Planet Aid from the United States, ADPP Mozambique, and Cambridge Education - have measured significant progress in learning outcomes when the local languages of Changana and Rhonga are taught in schools. Our results are consistent with an overwhelming body of evidence that indicates that those who are taught in their mother tongue fare far better academically. 

To make mother-tongue language instruction a reality in Mozambique, ADPP Mozambique, in collaboration with the Ministry of Education, has produced teaching and learning materials in two Mozambican languages: Changana and Rhonga.  The materials include a sequenced array for both 1st and 2nd grades of reading practice books, read-aloud books and de-codable books. With access to these new reading materials in their mother tongue, children have developed reading and writing skills more easily and quickly, and are able to use it as a foundation for learning to read and write in Portuguese. This is a key and vital step in helping Mozambique achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 4: Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning.

To help reach SDG 4, others are joining the mother-tongue movement.  Last week, the BBC launched two new language services – Igbo and Yoruba – that will join Amharic, Afaan Oromo and Tigrinya among the other languages commissionedOther stakeholders strongly supporting bilingual education in Mozambique include USAID and UNESCO.

Of course, the question of mother-tongue instruction resonates deeper than achieving SDG 4, and the question of cultural identity remains an important one. Allowing students to learn to read and write in their maternal language is a crucial part of preserving Mozambican culture and identity. More widely, respect for cultural and linguistic diversity leads to peace, social cohesion and sustainable development. 

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We cannot allow indigenous languages to fade; they carry complex implications for identity, communication, and social integration and are key to fostering sustainable development. It has been proven that children learn better in their mother-tongue, and, as such, colonial languages must not continue to dominate curriculums. Schemes that encourage learning in a student’s mother-tongue must become common practice for educational institutions across the continent, to ensure an inclusive and quality education for all.

Birgit Holm is the director of ADPP Mozambique, a Mozambican development organization that has been implementing education, health, agriculture and community development projects for more than 30 years.  Planet Aid, Cambridge Education, the World Initiative for Soy in Human Health and ADPP Mozambique are together implementing a comprehensive US Department of Agriculture–funded education project in Mozambican primary schools, which is providing students with a daily lunch, building needed infrastructure, training teachers, and, as described here in, developing a pioneering mother-tongue literacy program.