Learning a new language is hard. Words sound alien to our ears, writing looks indecipherable and it feels like we will never get better, never understand.
Imagine that this was your very first experience of education – your first opportunity to learn outside of the home, in formal education. Your teacher speaks in a language you don’t understand, writes on the board using letters that don’t make sense to you.
This is the experience of hundreds of millions of children across the world. In many multilingual countries, children are taught in a language they do not speak at home. This is especially the case for children in remote and rural areas who may not speak the national language.
The opportunity to learn in a mother language is particularly crucial in early primary education where foundations for learning are laid. This is where acquisition of reading and writing proficiency takes place. Without this foundation, children are held back from making the most of their education for the rest of their school careers and dropout rates can be high.
By instructing children in their local language at a young age, they are able to learn basic literacy skills more quickly and easily and are better prepared to learn a national or an international language when the time comes.
So days like today’s UNESCO’s International Mother Language Day are hugely important as a way of raising awareness about this great need. This year’s International Mother Language Day is celebrated under the theme ‘towards sustainable futures through multilingual education’:
“To foster sustainable development, learners must have access to education in their mother tongue and in other languages. It is through the mastery of the first language or mother tongue that the basic skills of reading, writing and numeracy are acquired. Local languages, especially minority and indigenous, transmit cultures, values and traditional knowledge, thus playing an important role in promoting sustainable futures.” – UNESCO
The importance of education in children’s own languages has been recognised internationally and many countries now prescribe mother tongue instruction in primary schools. Yet many schools lack the materials and teachers lack the training to make this a reality.
This is why, as part of our programmes, we provide grants for the purchase of local books in local languages and support partners’ projects like Africa Educational Trust’s work with Maa speaking children of Laikipia in Kenya. Adrienne Gregory, Head of Fundraising at Africa Educational Trust (AET) tells us more:
The Maasai community is traditionally nomadic but has become more settled in the Laikipia county. Still children walk an average of 4-5 km every day to reach school. Although Maa children are able to attend school, the languages of instruction – English and Kiswahili – are not understood by the majority of these pupils.
So Africa Educational Trust develop early-reader books and other materials in Maa to support literacy and numeracy. These books are not only in their mother language but culturally appropriate, derived from local stories and poems. As English is one of the languages of instruction in Kenyan schools, we provide brand new colourful, engaging and age-appropriate books to help ease transition to English:
Schools in remote rural areas like Kiwanja Ndege are the most under-resourced in Kenya. As a result, children in the semi-arid region of Kenya have the poorest school results in the country. Many of these schools do not have any books other than course materials. AET has been working with Book Aid International to help Kiwanja Ndege and 13 other schools in Laikipia County to improve local language teaching in Maa, help students transition from Maa to English and improve their academic performance. Book Aid International has provided thousands of new, relevant books in English for the schools and AET has provided Maa-language materials. Together we have established libraries in each school and teacher training in how to manage the library and promote reading.
Pupils at Kiwanja Ndege Primary School now have access to over 650 books. The library is very popular. On average, 60 pupils borrow books each day to read in class and in their own time. They read story and phonics books and teachers also use the phonics books to teach various activities in lower primary. Now if you visit the school you would find older children reading in their breaks. The children tell us that reading the books is helping with their English – they are learning new words and gaining more confidence. Teachers also say that the students are reading better.
Part of this piece was taken from a blog about our work with Africa Educational Trust, published in 2016. To read the piece in full, click on the links below.