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Learning in my Own Words: The Right to Home Language and Literacy in Schools

By Sarah CK Moore, University of Maryland College Park, USA

Learning in my Own Words: Global School Disparities

Research recently showed that in low- and middle-income countries, only 37% of students had a strong understanding of the language being used at school. About another 10% come from homes where endangered (typically Indigenous languages) are spoken. These are unlikely to be acquired by younger learners and represent critical global cultural, ecological, and linguistic capital, heightening the importance of their preservation, before the last living speakers are gone.

Students who go to schools where they don’t speak or understand the language do not functionally have access to school curriculum, which means they also do not have opportunities to develop literacy skills. This video illustrates how and why students who don’t understand the languages spoken by their teachers fall behind and ultimately become excluded by schools and teachers themselves.

What Can Help? Language of Instruction Policies

An important approach to rectifying the global inequalities of language access in schools is through creating Language of Instruction (LOI) policies that maintain students’ home languages, or L1. Despite progress made for expanding public schools, if children do not understand the languages used by their teachers, they are far more likely to drop out, less likely to develop strong literacy skills, and lag in all other measures of academic achievement. Conversely, as reported in a 2017 UNESCO publication:

"When the mother tongue is used as the medium of instruction for at least 6–8 years, the results are impressive: enhanced self-confidence, self-esteem and classroom participation by minority children, lower dropout rates, higher levels of academic achievement, longer periods in school, better performance in tests and greater fluency and literacy abilities for minority (and indigenous) children in both the mother tongue and the official or dominant language."

Education in Minority Languages is a Human Right

United Nations Special Rapporteur on minority issues, Fernand de Varennes reported in 2020 that language and education are fundamental to accomplishing Sustainable Development Goal 4 on quality education for all. In his introduction, Varennes stated (p. 5):

"Language is undeniably central to the identity of linguistic minorities. Language also refers to all of the world’s 6,000 or so recognized languages, including sign languages. Language issues are at times among the main grievances that may contribute to toxic environments of exclusion and claims of discrimination in education that can lead to tensions and even conflicts between minorities and authorities, as shown unfortunately in different parts of the world."

Further, de Varennes asserted that (p. 10):

"Inclusive and quality education for members of linguistic minorities means, as far as is practicable, education in their own language. Not using a minority languages as a medium of instruction where it is possible is to provide education but not which is of equal value or effect."

Scores of studies from multilingual communities around the world have shown that when children learn in their L1, they out-achieve students who don’t know schools’ LOI. The chart below (p. 17) is one example of academic results in South Africa when students are able to participate in schools where they understand the LOI. When home languages are the same as schools’ LOI, the national average of grade 6 students was 69%, as compared to 32% when students did not understand the LOI.

Practical Recommendations

Nation states and communities must promote LOI policies for mother-tongue and L1 education programs, just like where Oranee Jariyapotngam teaches in Chiangmai, Thailand. Programs should prioritize the following:

  • Use of students’ home languages during the majority of a school day.

  • Teaching content in students’ L1 through at least sixth grade, which is around the age that students become fully proficient in their first language.

  • A robust combination of opportunities for students to use all four language domains—listening, speaking, reading, and writing.

  • Students should be strongly encouraged to develop as readers and writers.

  • Schools should invite family, caregivers, and community members into schools to become teachers and share ways of being, linguistic repertoires, and knowledge construction.

  • If communities are already bi/multilingual, school programs should reflect the natural role of multilingualism for human interaction and communication.

If trained teachers are not available who speak students’ home languages, community members should be invited to lead instruction. If students’ home languages are not yet written, community members should direct, with guidance from linguists and others with similar expertise, creation of written sign systems, so students can also develop L1 literacy skills. As students develop their own linguistic repertoires, multilingualism, and literacy skills, schools should be participatory sites for engagement among all members of local communities. In the long term, primary schools should have articulated multilingual curricula, materials, and pathways to not only secondary, but also postsecondary levels.

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