The following MTB-MLE FAQs provide responses to questions newcomers to multilingual education often ask.
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Mother tongue-based multilingual education is the provision of education in a child’s mother tongue, or a home language familiar to them, as well as providing them with an opportunity to learn a second (or third) language of wider communication. In MTB MLE programs, students’ gain initial literacy in their first language (L1) and the L1 is the only language of instruction in the early grades. At the same time, students begin learning oral and then written second language (L2). Once they have gained confidence in using the L2 for “everyday” communication, teachers begin introducing them to the more academic L2 terms they will need in higher primary grades. Both L1 and L2 are then used together for instruction to the end of primary school. In an environment where MTB-MLE is used, the education system will typically use a language other than a student's mother tongue as the language of instruction at some point in the primary or secondary cycle. The language is often a national or a colonial language that many children may have limited knowledge of or ability to use, and generally not to the same level of proficiency as with their mother tongue.
An estimated 221 million school-age children speak languages not used as the primary medium of instruction in the formal school system (Walter, cited in Dutcher 2004). In certain countries, almost the entire population of children may have little to no knowledge of the language of instruction, particularly if it is a former colonial language like French or English, which remain the sole language of instruction in some countries. Indeed, 44% of languages spoken by more than 10,000 people are not used as languages of instruction in education. If all languages are included, a stunning 2.4 billion people—almost 40% of the world’s population—speak languages that are minimally used in the education sector (Walter 2009, cited in Pinnock 2009).
Providing education in children’s first language, while at the same time providing them with support to learn a second language of wider communication, has several advantages: it increases access to school, as well as promotes equity in learning; it leads to improved learning outcomes; it reduces repetition and drop-out rates; and it can lead to lower education costs due to greater efficiency. In one study, analysis of data from 22 developing countries and 160 language groups revealed that children who had access to instruction in their mother tongue were significantly more likely to be enrolled and attending school. Conversely, lack of education in a child’s first language was a significant reason for children dropping out (Smits et al., 2008). Additionally, teaching children to read in their first language helps them to learn to read a second language, because language skills that are developed in a first language are transferrable to a second language. Moreover, mastering of the first language promotes cognitive development needed to more easily learn a second language.
No. In fact, MTB-MLE may be more cost-effective than current mono-lingual models of education, or education that is provided in language other than the mother tongue. This is due to the increased efficiency that results when fewer students repeat and drop out. Although the start-up costs of an MTB-MLE program may be higher than normal recurrent costs, they will be recuperated in the long term, as the system becomes more efficient, fewer students drop out, and more students learn and become productive members of the economy. One World Bank study in Mali found that mother tongue-based programs cost about 27% less for a six-year primary cycle than French-only programs, largely because of the decrease in repetition and drop-out (Bender et al., 2005). Another analysis shows that a 4% to 5% increase in a country’s education budget would cover the immediate costs associated with mother tongue instruction and reduce education costs in the long run (Heugh, 2006). Analysis from Guatemala and Senegal estimates that the cost of producing local-language materials would be 1% of the education budget where orthographies and other language development units already exist, while countries where orthographies do not exist might see an increase of 5% (Vawda and Patrinos, 1999). These additional costs are mainly related to teacher education and the cost of producing materials—costs that will be recuperated in the long run.
No. The evidence suggests just the opposite: The presence of strong institutions—including a well-functioning education system that provides all children with an opportunity to learn—in areas of high ethnolinguistic diversity actually decreases the likelihood of war and slow economic growth (Easterly, 2001). Indeed, a review of the most linguistically diverse societies shows that they are also the societies with the largest number of out-of-school children—a recipe for social unrest, since social exclusion prohibits some members of a community or country from becoming educated, therefore contributing to poverty and disenfranchisement from the larger economy. Therefore, providing education in languages that children understand therefore contributes to a stable society by producing well-education, productive members of society.