Bridging the language divide in education

Over the last ten years remarkable progress has been made in getting more children into school. There has been a surge in primary school enrolments, more children are progressing through to secondary school, and gender gaps in education are narrowing.

However, there’s increasing recognition that the learning levels of these very children are still far below expectations.

The Global Partnership for Education estimates that approximately 200 million children who are in primary school are learning so little that they are struggling to read basic words.

The language used at school is critical to educational success

One of the least recognised but most critical barriers to the educational achievement of children in low and middle income countries is the very language in which they are taught. The Washington based Centre for Applied Linguistics estimates that 221 million children worldwide are speakers of local languages not used for teaching.

Those children start school, only to find their teachers are speaking to them in a language they don’t understand. Some of them are lucky enough to have teachers who start by communicating with them in their own language, but as soon as written words and numbers are introduced, teachers use a different language.

Faced with the prospect of attending classes where their children won’t understand what’s going on, many families elect not to send their children to school at all. Many of those children that make it to school quickly decide it’s not for them and drop out, while others fail their examinations and spend years repeating grades.

Whilst national governments often have powerful reasons for choosing a school language that children do not know there is overwhelming evidence that if the language used at school is different from the language children use at home, this can be a major cause of educational failure, wasting precious resources and robbing children of the opportunity to master basic skills.

Practical action to improve education for ethnic minority children in Vietnam

In remote parts of Vietnam, many students from ethnic minorities didn’t like going to school. Conversant only in their local dialects and unable to speak Vietnamese—the official medium of instruction for schools in the country—they found it difficult to understand lessons.

Since 2010, more students have been attending school, often arriving early to enjoy local language books available in their new school library, thanks to a project designed to improve the quality of basic education for Vietnam’s ethnic minority children.

Funded by the Japanese Social Development Fund and managed by Save the Children and the World Bank the project has two key features which have helped to bridge the language gap.

Firstly, locally recruited teaching assistants, who speak the children’s dialect are employed in all classrooms to work alongside state qualified teachers. These bilingual teaching assistants explain lessons to students in the local dialect, ensuring that children have access to what’s being taught.

Secondly, the project supports the production of local language reading material, much of which is generated by the teachers and students themselves. Not only is the content of these books in their local language it also reflects their lives and culture making the material more relevant. Teachers report that the children have consequently become enthusiastic readers, motivating them to read, including in Vietnamese in which a wider range of material is available.

Applying this principle more broadly, the project has also worked to incorporate more of the children’s minority culture into the education they receive: ethnic costumes, cultural items from festivals and musical instruments are displayed in classrooms, while local history and fun facts about life in the community are used as teaching and learning aids.

6,500 teachers benefited from the project through regular training courses and meetings to exchange knowledge and experience. They also improved their teaching skills by producing customized learning materials.

Student enrolment, retention and transitions have all improved.

“Before 2010, we had a lot of children dropping out of school,” says Bui Kim Dong, Education Department Official of Van Chan Commune, Yen Bai Province. “We no longer have this problem in remote areas.”

Urgent need to acknowledge the importance of language in education

Until we stop using traditional approaches to school language that treat children as if they naturally understand the language of teaching, when they do not, we won’t address the learning crisis in which millions of children in school currently fail, among other things, to read.

But change is possible.

Along with the example from Vietnam there are other well documented approaches which give children from linguistic minorities access to quality schooling without damaging their education or their linguistic rights and heritage.

Save the Children has been working to strengthen mother tongue based multilingual education for many years and has produced various reports and detailed guidance to help schools in low- and middle-income  countries respond to children’s language needs.

Greater awareness of the ways in which language can exclude children from education together with practical action in support of mother tongue learning are fundamental to addressing the global learning crisis.

A version of this post was published on the Education for All blog.