The significance of mother tongue education for learner agency and educational equity

Posted on April 13, 2015 · Posted in Blog, Raeln

by Dee Rutgers

Highlighting the central role of language in education and learning seems like ‘stating the obvious’. After all, language provides the key tool through which we humans are able to share knowledge across generations. Yet, the full implications of language for teaching and learning are often insufficiently acknowledged and incorporated in educational practice. In particular, despite living in a highly (and increasingly) multilingual world, monolingualism is still the norm in the majority of schools. As a result, education systems around the world continue to fail learners from minority language and migration backgrounds, these, in fact, now making up the majority of learners in schools in many parts of the world. So, what would be the effect of adopting multilingualism as the norm for education? Time to ‘restate’ what has long been ‘obvious’ in educational practice, now from a multilingual perspective.

I think most people would accept as obvious that being able to understand what you hear and read is crucial to learning. Although this may be a taken-for-granted notion for parents of monolingual children, it is not for the many parents whose children go through education in a language other than their mother tongue. Dee_Apr2015When rephrasing this statement to academic achievement and later chances on the labour market largely depend on understanding the language of school instruction, the full significance of this basic principle for minority-language learners becomes more apparent. The ‘language of school instruction’ is a complex phenomenon: it does not simple refer to the language (e.g. English, French, Spanish, etc.) in which knowledge is encoded, but schooling also reflects a specific sociocultural practice that requires the acquisition of highly specific ‘academic’ language skills to be able to participate. Parents and teachers will know that the multiple transition from home to school, from play-based to formal learning, from oral to literacy skills is a huge challenge for even the best of children. In addition to facing the challenge of having to learn second language oracy and literacy skills at the same time, research conducted in the US has highlighted that it can take migrant background students a minimum of 5 to 7 years to catch up with native speakers in acquiring the language of schooling. Monolingual education thus provides a simply unfair challenge to minority-language learners, an ethical issue that schools have a responsibility to address.

A second widely-accepted principle in education is that learning is most effective when building on what a person already knows. For children where the language of the home is the same as that of schooling, the mother tongue functions as a stable link and a rich resource for school-based learning. Minority-language learners are often asked to leave this resource by the classroom door. This happens despite the fact that using the mother tongue is known to help the learning of additional languages (second and third). Specifically, second language learning – particularly in the early stages – naturally occurs by linking new knowledge in the unknown language to existing knowledge in the first (and strongest) language, the mother tongue thus providing access to the language of school instruction and education. Explicit inclusion of a child’s mother tongue skills in the classroom helps guide and support this naturally occurring process by raising a child’s awareness of language and developing important cross-linguistic skills crucial for school performance and further learning. Moreover, as Vygotsky reminds us, language is intrinsically linked to thinking: although we sometimes find ourselves ‘lost for words’ when trying to describe our feelings, a large part of our thinking – higher-order thinking in particular – occurs in and through language. Language helps us regulate self and other, guides us in our decisions, and allows us to reflect on our learning process. By side-lining a child’s mother tongue, we might inadvertently be silencing their inner voice and deny them this crucial tool for learning.

Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs leads us to a third core principle of education, namely that meaningful learning occurs in a safe and supportive learning environment. This model – as familiar to most teachers – explains a very simple fact, namely that the struggle for safety, belonging and trust will interfere with learning, with a child’s sense of inner potential suffering in particular if these needs are not met. Here the deep connection between a child’s mother tongue and his or her identity should not be underestimated. To put it simply; when you reject a child’s mother tongue, you reject the child. The need to belong and to feel included in the classroom is perhaps stronger in minority-language students, who often experience discrimination or stereotyping outside school. In fact, research has shown that stereotypical views of culture and racial bias affect the treatment they receive at school as well, impacting on teachers’ expectations and speech toward ethnic minority background students, who tend to receive less positive speech and encouragement in the classroom. In addition, being judged as ‘smart’ or ‘not smart’ is often affected by a child’s linguistic performance in the school language, the acquisition of the latter – as we now know – being a particularly tall challenge for minority-language learners.

In ‘restating the obvious’ from a multilingual perspective, new light was shed on the complex – but beautiful – relationship between language and learner agency, revealing language to be a key part of a learner’s repertoire of tools enabling him or her to act within the socio-culturally and linguistically mediated practice of education. Yet, language is never neutral. It both shapes and is shaped by sociocultural factors and power dynamics, with multilingualism existing in a world characterised by competition for material and symbolic resources. Including the mother tongue in educational practice provides a highly powerful means to break down the language barrier that is currently preventing equal access to education for many children around the world, and empowers minority-language learner by giving them the linguistic tools necessary for full participation and effective learning in formal education settings. Multilingualism as the norm – let’s embrace it!