Children learn best when they’re taught in their mother tongue

Early education in the mother tongue could serve as a crucial factor in learning new languages, fostering understanding, confidence and a love for learning.
Early education in the mother tongue could serve as a crucial factor in learning new languages, fostering understanding, confidence and a love for learning.

Summary

  • For early stage learning, linguistic familiarity is key. Embracing the country’s rich tapestry of languages for schooling will help ensure that no child gets left behind.

Learning begins at home, where we absorb our first language from our family, shaping our identity and sense of belonging. This mother tongue is a source of comfort and cultural connection for all children. However, when children step into pre-school or school at the age of 3 or 4, they may face a daunting challenge. They are suddenly immersed in a new language environment, struggling to comprehend words they’ve never heard, spoken or written before. Their parents, often unfamiliar with this language, struggle to support them, leading to a higher risk of children dropping out from schools within a few years.

The importance cannot be overstated of inclusive policies and practices for multilingual education linked to achieving Sustainable Development Goal 4 of quality education and lifelong learning for all. Unesco calls on all member countries to implement mother language-based education and pursue a policy of multilingual education. India’s National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 recognizes the significance of learning in one’s mother tongue. Most children are enrolled in school, yet many aren’t learning effectively. The National Achievement Survey 2021 and Foundational Learning Study 2022, conducted by the ministry of education, for example, show that children from Tribal communities perform poorly in school compared to others.

To ensure equitable learning and foster inclusive societies, we must delve deeper into societal and contextual factors at work. Early education in the mother tongue could serve as a crucial factor in learning new languages, fostering understanding, confidence and a love for learning. It enables a deeper grasp of concepts, encourages critical thinking and strengthens cultural connections. This approach is likely to notably reduce drop-out rates, as evidenced by the research findings.

“I can do this!": Indian education policies have recognized the mother tongue’s value in early years of schooling. The NEP 2020 focuses on multilingualism and the use of familiar language for learning until at least Grade 5, but preferably till Grade 8 and beyond. The policy recommends preparing textbooks and related reading material in home-languages and asks teachers to use them for communication in the classroom.

Socio-linguistic complexities: There is a dearth of data on children’s language proficiencies when they first join school at the age of five or six. Addressing these complexities requires a collaborative effort involving key stakeholders. With India being home to varied languages, an understanding of the language contexts in schools and classrooms is a prerequisite for developing apt strategies for inclusion of children’s mother tongue in teaching processes. Socio-linguistic mapping is crucial for devising effective strategies.

Unicef supports state governments in Assam, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha and Rajasthan to promote inclusivity and facilitate learning experiences for children by aligning educational material with linguistic backgrounds. In partnership with the Language and Learning Foundation in Chhattisgarh, Unicef conducted a school-based language mapping initiative covering over 400,000 first-grade students and 30,000 teachers across government schools. The findings reveal the diversity of languages spoken, with 24 identified, including 11 spoken by Tribal communities. Three-fourths of students and nearly half the teachers reported minimal or functional understanding of the medium of instruction. In response, the state developed a handbook for teachers and provided training on multi-lingual education, resulting in enhanced student-teacher engagement and better vocabulary acquisition of Hindi, the second language.

Linguistic challenges are also faced by speakers of other regional languages like Chhattisgarhi, Surgujiya, Bhageli, Bhojpuri, Bundelkhandi Marwari, Mewari and Doondhari.

The Jharkhand government and Unicef initiated a pilot programme for multi-lingual education in 259 schools. This initiative involved the development of resources and content in the Ho, Mundari, Khariya, Santali and Kurukh languages spoken by Tribals. Among other steps, standard operating procedures were issued for classrooms, bi-lingual books were placed in libraries, and local stories, poems and crafts were offered as learning resources. This pilot initiative had many positive outcomes that led the state government to expand it to cover 1,000 schools.

Odisha’s department of women and child development, with Unicef, created ‘Nua Arunima,’ (New Horizons) a mother tongue-based early childhood education curriculum available in 21 languages. It is designed to serve children aged 3-6 years attending Anganwadis (child development centres).

Way forward: In India, a multilingual educational approach that uses familiar languages as a foundation could deliver positive outcomes. Effective implementation on the ground requires sustained efforts from diverse stakeholders. Empowering teachers through multilingual training, developing mother tongue-based learning materials that are engaging, and supporting local communities in the advocacy of their languages are all crucial steps. By learning from initiatives like Chhattisgarh’s and Rajasthan’s language mapping and by embracing the linguistic tapestry of India, we can unlock the potential of every child, ensuring that they find expression, understanding and joy in the language they know best.

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