Go to the id21 home page

id21 logo


id21 logo

insights education #5

Mother tongue first

Linguistic genocide?

Gender, language and inclusion

Revitalising indigenous languages

Bolivia revolutionises bilingual education

Policy and practice in Viet Nam

Bridging languages in education

Mother tongue and bilingual education

Mother tongue education is cost-effective

Linguistic diversity and policy in India

Web links

PDF version

Send us your comments on this issue

id21 Home

id21 Society & Economy

id21 Health

id21 Urban Poverty

id21 Education

About id21


Contact id21

Site map

Bridging languages in education

Sheglet Village, Gash Barka, Eritrea.
Sheglet Village, Gash Barka, Eritrea. The children come from Nara, Tigre, Kunama, and Tigrigna ethnic groups. There are nine national languages in Eritrea and texts and curricula have been developed for eight of these in addition to English. Credit: Ezra Simon (Larger version)

International awareness of the importance of Education for All has grown. Yet, the only schooling available in many non-dominant language communities uses a language students do not understand or speak to teach concepts that have very little to do with their way of life.

While there are many factors involved in low educational achievement, it is clear that students who cannot understand what their teacher is saying quickly become discouraged. Members of non-dominant language communities have higher dropout and failure rates and lower literacy rates and have less success finding and keeping paid employment.

Using dominant languages in education has also led to the growing loss of the world's languages and cultures. Current estimates are that at least 50 percent of the world's almost 7,000 languages are endangered.

This article presents a framework for turning a monolingual system into a bilingual or trilingual one: mother tongue-based multilingual education (MLE).

MLE programmes acknowledge the right of all learners to education in a language they speak and understand. Learners begin school in their home language and then add the official language of instruction, building fluency and competency in both languages for communication and learning. MLE programmes have three general goals:

  • Language: students will develop fluency and confidence using their first language (L1) and the official language (L2) for communication and for learning in school.
  • Academic: students will achieve grade-level academic competency in each subject and will be prepared to move successfully into and through the mainstream education system, which may be all or mostly in the dominant language.
  • Socio-cultural: students will maintain their love and respect for their heritage, language and culture and be prepared to contribute to the development of their own community and the nation.

In MLE programmes learners begin school in the language they know best and use that language for initial literacy. Then the new language is added - first listening and speaking, then reading and writing. As learners gain confidence in using the official language for everyday communication, they also learn the vocabulary and grammatical constructions for more abstract academic concepts.

We can identify five phases in bridging between languages in MLE. See Figure 1.

Figure 1: Five phases in bridging between languages in multilingual education
Figure 1: Five phases in bridging between languages in multilingual education
(Larger version)

In schools with L1 teachers who are not fluent in the official school language, the language education component of primary level MLE might look like Figure 2 below.

Figure 2: Possible model for primary level multilingual education
Figure 2: Possible model for primary level multilingual education
(Larger version)

Strong, sustained programmes require supportive language and education policies that:

  • recognise all the nation's languages as resources
  • protect the political, socio-cultural and linguistic rights of speakers of non-dominant languages, including the right to education in a language they understand and speak
  • give explicit directions to implementing agencies regarding the use of non-dominant languages as one of the languages of instruction in formal and non-formal education
  • provide implementers with strategies for establishing and sustaining MLE programmes (including development of unwritten languages)
  • ensure that MLE receives adequate long-term funding from governments.

Susan Malone
SIL International, 41/5 Soi Sailom, Phahol Yothin Road, Bangkok 10400, Thailand
F +66 2 270 0212

See also

Manual for Developing Literacy and Adult Education Programmes in Minority Language Communities, UNESCO: Bangkok, by Susan Malone, 2004

FREE Information Delivery services from id21:

Get updates by email: ID21 news

id21 is enabled by the UK Government Department for International Development and hosted by the Institute of Development Studies, at the University of Sussex, UK. Charitable Company No. 877338. id21 is a oneworld.net partner and a mediachannel affiliate

Comment on any of the issues raised in this Insights.
Read what others have said.

Top of the page

Views expressed on these pages are not necessarily those of DFID, IDS, id21 or other contributing institutions. Copyright remains with the original authors but (unless stated otherwise) any article may be copied or quoted without restriction, provided both source (id21, insights) and authors are properly acknowledged and informed. Copyright © 2006 id21. All rights reserved.