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The Importance of Native-Language InstructionIn schools across the world, students find themselves at an inherent disadvantage because their classes are not taught in their native language. Native-language instruction is crucial to optimize a student’s success, for many reasons.

Development of a student’s first language facilitates development in a second language. In other words, it is far easier to learn a second language when students already have a strong foundation in their first language. Knowledge and skills are also completely transferable from one language to another.

Native-language instruction also benefits a student’s overall well-being. Students enjoy school and are happier and more successful when they are taught in their own language. Conversely, students who are taught in a language other than their first language are more likely to fail early grades or drop out of school completely.

Girls are more likely to go to school and stay in school when the language of instruction is their first language, and parents are more likely to be involved in their children’s schooling. On a larger scale, native-language instruction emphasizes the importance of that language and its culture, and preserves the language for future generations.

Schools are typically taught in one of the national languages of a country. For example, Burundi recently declared that English was one of its national languages, so an increasing number of schools are now taught in English. This privileges urban students over rural ones. Urban students are more likely to already speak the national language or at least to have been exposed to it. Rural students are far more isolated and often enter school knowing only the language spoken at home.

In countries with large indigenous populations and a multitude of languages, the lack of resources is a barrier to adequate native-language instruction. It costs money to employ teachers who are fluent in each of the native languages, and to provide textbooks that are in those languages and are culturally appropriate.

In Mongolia, the Kazakhs are the largest minority. Until 2005, teachers were only given textbooks written in Mongolian, even when they were teaching in Kazakh. In Botswana, schools teach exclusively in English and Setswana, the national languages and the languages of the ethnic majorities. These languages are also core subjects in the national curriculum, and thus students are required to take and pass exams in those languages. This disadvantages indigenous children who enter school with no prior knowledge of English or Setswana.

There are many programs targeted at addressing bilingual students and bridging language gaps. In the Bronx, there are schools which alternate teaching in English and Spanish every other week, meeting the needs of students who are fluent in both languages and enhancing their bilingualism.

In the U.S. alone, 175 indigenous languages are still spoken. All but 50 of these are projected to be extinct by 2024. Project SEED (Scholarships for Economic and Educational Development) and AILDI (American Indian Language Development Institute) develop curriculum in, teach and work to preserve native languages. In Cameroon, indigenous peoples have created a culturally sensitive education policy called ORA (Observe, Reflect, Act) which is tailored specifically toward young Baka children.

For curriculum to be most effective, especially for disadvantaged and marginalized students, it should be in their language, culturally sensitive and incorporate indigenous culture and traditions.

Olivia Bradley

Photo: Flickr

Education in Malaysia
Whether in textbooks or spoken in lectures, language is crucial in effective education. Without a common means of communication, many students will be left behind. While education in Malaysia has predominantly used Malay, the country’s official language, in its classrooms, some Malaysian schools also include more English, Chinese and Tamil cultures into their curricula.

In most instances, immense diversity is a privilege to instill greater global awareness, but, in the Malaysian education system, it has hindered progress, especially in keeping up with other countries’ educational opportunities. To keep up in an ever-changing economy and job market, education in Malaysia needs to establish a common language for all schools.

Despite its linguistic differences, Malaysian education is goal-driven and focused on improving itself. The government released an ambitious Malaysia Education Blueprint in 2013. The detailed plan hopes to achieve universal access and full enrollment of all children from preschool to upper secondary school, improved student test scores, and reduced urban-rural, socio-economic and gender achievement gaps, all by 2020.

To meet such high standards, however, promoting a mother tongue language for education in Malaysia is key. The benefits of doing so include higher enrollment and success rates, especially for girls and rural-based students, and greater parent-teacher communication. The students that tend to feel the most marginalized, those from poorer households, are more likely to attend school, retain information, and participate in their learning.

Other countries in the region with similar struggles serve as examples of how to overcome potential language barriers. Laos has dozens of diverse languages that are mainly spoken in rural, impoverished communities. However, with education requiring fluency in Lao, the official language, children from different ethnic backgrounds were left out. With UNICEF’s support, the government took a “Schools of Quality” approach that starts children in their native language and slowly transitions them into Lao. The change has been a successful way to boost student morale and attendance.

Such benefits of a mother-tongue-based education will propel Malaysia to become a world leader in a digital economy. Students who face language barriers in their education have limited opportunities to reach their full potential. If students fall behind in understanding their studies, they will also fall behind when facing an increasingly technical-based economy. Acquiring skills in technology and STEM-related fields requires a quality, forward-thinking education as a foundation. That education appropriately requires a cohesive language to teach and learn.

Education should be an accessible service to every person, regardless of their language, ethnicity or socioeconomic status. Education in Malaysia is on the right path to improving its system, but an important step forward will involve overcoming language barriers. Other countries in the region serve as testaments to the positive growth in preserving the mother tongue, and, with continued support, Malaysia too can experience this progress.

Allie Knofczynski

Photo: Flickr

Learning to be Smarter: How Bilinguals Have a Cognition (and Communication) Advantage
Charlemagne once said, “To have another language is to possess a second soul.” Learning a language is something most of us strive to do. Whether it’s travel, business, new friends or even literature, learning a new language is something that appeals to people for a wide variety of reasons. At its core, language learning is kind of like finding a key that unlocks new countries, cultures, and people.

However, recent studies have shown that there’s an advantage to being bilingual beyond the ability to immerse oneself in new places. Researchers have found that those who learn a second (or third, or fourth) language have more gray matter in the “executive control areas” of their brains in the frontal and parietal regions. This extra tissue supports memory management, reasoning, planning and problem-solving. The cognitive control required to determine which language is spoken in what context requires increased tissue growth that leads to better control over other brain functions as well.

The study, led by Dr. Olumide Olulade, found that this advantage was only present in individuals who spoke both languages out loud. English-American Sign Language bilinguals did not have increased brain matter while English-Spanish bilinguals did. Communication, the greatest part of language learning, is key to increased development.

Beyond enforced executive control skills, people who speak more than one language have been shown to have improved listening skills, multi-tasking abilities, attention spans and vocabulary in their mother tongue. Beyond this, they learn to perceive the world in a whole different way and come into contact on a deeper level with a greater number of people.

And the fastest, easiest way to learn a new language? Visit a new country. Live amongst new people, visit local haunts, read books in the new language. Fully immerse yourself not only in a new language, but a new way of life. That way, when you become proficient enough to speak to your new friends, you’ll be a true inhabitant of this new place. Becoming a global citizen not only means being able to interact with people from around the world, but also sharing their mindsets, cultural references and perspectives. Global citizens are knowledgeable and, more importantly, compassionate about people in all corners of the world.

Jenny Wheeler

Sources: PsyBlog 1, PsyBlog 2
Photo: ZDNet

language_diversity_mother_tongue
“Tis the season to celebrate languages!”

As part of a global initiative launched by UNESCO in 1999, February 21st is now known as International Mother Language Day. The day is meant to promote language diversity and multicultural education, in support of the education for all Millennium Development Goal.

The date is a historic reminder of the 1952 “Language Movement” rally at Dhaka University in Bangladesh, when thousands of students protested the Pakistani imposition of Urdu as the official state language.

Bangla, the spoken language of the common majority in both Bangladesh and Eastern Pakistan, was legitimized as the official language as a result of the campaign. Today, February 21st signifies an even larger language diversity movement, validating the cultural autonomy of millions globally. Limitation on the legal recognition of languages spoken by lower class populations and ethnic minorities severely restricts their access to political agency.

Language repression has been used historically as a means of curbing the autonomy and political representation of the common people. Disempowerment through language permeates the level of education received, as well. When the common mother tongue is not also the language used in schools, the number of children who can access a proper education is depleted.

Usually the colonial language, most likely English or French, stands in its place, meaning that only the children from socially elite families are advantaged by the school system. For example, in Haiti the official language used in schools is French. Adversely, only 10% of the population actually speaks French fluently, as Creole has been the spoken language of the masses since the French were ousted from the island in 1804.

The archaic tradition of speaking only French in schools renders lessons incomprehensible to most students, eventually discouraging them from attending.  Research shows that even the majority of teachers only know the bare minimum of French, and cannot teach with ease or to the best of their ability.

A primary goal of International Mother Language Day is to support multilingual efforts in schools. Multilingual education is proven to increase the general aptitude of young students, as well as ease the transition to literacy. Once the mother language is grasped, there is then increased potential for learning a second national or international language.

There are also many broader advantages of a multi-linguistic education, such as cross-cultural understanding and unity. Since diverse communities are so often characteristic within developing nations, language acceptance can facilitate an array of advantages economically and socially.

-Stefanie Doucette

Sources: Global Partnership Organization, The Boston Globe, UNESCO
Photo: Flickr