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Alba Iulia
Tuesday, January 19, 2021

UNESCO Research Shows the importance of Mother Tongue Education

Columns UNESCO Research Shows the importance of Mother Tongue Education

File:The use of local languages as a medium of instruction in schools of lower grades has impressed Government has most learners have responded positively. Here, Education Deputy Minister David Mabumba monitoring the use of icibemba at Ray of Joy Primary School in Nchelenge
File:The use of local languages as a medium of instruction in schools of lower grades has impressed Government has most learners have responded positively. Here, Education Deputy Minister David Mabumba monitoring the use of icibemba at Ray of Joy Primary School in Nchelenge

Despite overwhelming evidence of the positive impact of using mother tongue as the preferred language of instruction for primary school learners, many African countries continue to use the colonial language as the primary language for teaching and governance.

“These languages are not even the second language for most children,” said Kathleen Heugh, Associate Professor in Applied Linguistics, at the University of South Australia.

Heugh was presenting a UNESCO report co-edited by Christine Glanz in a session hosted by Oxford University Press at the combined 9th Pan African Reading for All and the 10th Reading Association of South Africa (RASA) Conference on Friday, 4th of September.

The report, which followed the UNESCO Education for All framework, analysed language policy, implementation and practices in 25 African countries. What emerged was a clear indication that a firm foundation in mother tongue instruction, coupled with learning colonial language, is critical for understanding new concepts and expressing what has been learned.

“The quality of education and the level of learning depends on the synergy of the curriculum with the social and cultural environment,” Heugh said. “But the fact is that African realities are still largely ignored in the development of policies and curricula.”

For Godfrey Sentumbwe from the Ugandan NGO Literacy and Adult Basic Education (LABE), the answer is clear.

“Long periods of ‘colonialisation of the mind’ have led people to believe that their home languages are worthless in education, governance and legal matters,” he said. “There are also hurdles to putting research into practice. We have many good policies on paper but the implementation is poor because the research on which the policies are based is inaccessible and incomprehensible to a wider audience.”

The top down approach from governments is also often met with fierce resistance from teachers and parents, and even when a new curriculum is introduced, the teachers are hamstrung by limited training and resources.

“The important thing is to build on what we have,” he said. “We cannot afford to be contented, but we also must make sure that we work with both the governments and the communities if we want to achieve a lasting solution. And we must widen our horizons beyond the early grades if we are to return to the Africa that existed 200 years before Christ, with centres of learning and excellence in our own languages that were renowned around the world.”

Heugh’s research in Ethiopia and other parts of Africa confirms Sentumbwe’s opinion.

“In Ethiopia we have seen that students who have the highest scores in English and maths are the ones who have had the longest number of years in mother tongue education,” she said.

“Three years of mother tongue education is better than none, four years increases the opportunities, six years increases the opportunities to reach secondary school and eight years offers the best chances to reach the end of secondary school successfully.”

During this time, the colonial language is still taught, but as a secondary subject so that children are prepared for when that language becomes the main medium of instruction.

Heugh’s research has also shown that the resilience of rural communities is a big advantage for their children’s education. Because they do not expect to have help or support from their governments, they take matters into their own hands and make their own learning and teaching resources. The parent and community engagement in the cities is far less and the achievements of the students are much lower.

The UNESCO reports and studies like Heugh’s have travelled far and wide, with a strong move towards mother tongue multicultural education in South East Asia, China, US, Russia and Northern Europe.

“The question really is why has it not been implemented in South Africa, where this research really had its genesis?” Heugh concluded.

About the Pan-African Reading for All Conference
Pan-African Literacy for All conferences, are important literacy events in Africa, providing a platform for literacy professionals and researchers to engage with policy makers in government and the donor community. The conferences have taken place bi-annually since 1999 in countries including Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Swaziland and Uganda. This year’s event will be run in association with the International Literacy Association (ILA) and the International Development Committee-Africa (IDC-A). It will be organised by RASA—a leading South African literacy organisation which regularly organises conferences that draw together most of the South African experts on literacy.


  1. I have been writing about this for years and months and nobody listened. Buti, when the whites write about it, then now the information is credible. the same ignorance of not using our language in education is the same ignorance we show when we dont appreciate afrocentric scholarship, or value our traditional name, or culture. remember you can not be said to be independent if you dont practice your culture at all times, all places and all circumstances. You can not exploit your full creative potential if you dont practice your culture. We hardly have our own religions anymore. religion is the deification of a culture. but how can we worship our ancestral gods if we dont have culture. All our presidents have had foreign names, but i aint never seen a european leader later on ordinary…

    • european with an african name. buti ifwe ni edgar,michael, rupiah(pakistani/indian name), levy, frederick, kenneth david. i know some might say what have names got to do with education? but we forget that a name is a verbal representation of our self. how are we presenting ourselves if the first thing that speaks of us is borrowed. It shows already a conflict within self between what we ought to be and what we think we should be. if these two are not one from the onset, there is already wasted energy around us. this makes us a fraction less efficient because we still dont know who we are. how can we make decisions then if we are in doubt subconsciously of who we are and our destination? be unapologetically african everything about you should say africa, zambia, lundazi, tumbuka etc.

  2. I think those who threw mud at Wynter Kabimba for driving this must have egg on their face now. Love him or hate him, I think Wynter kabimba has been vindicated here. I walk away with humble pie on my face. Congrats Mr Kabimba, I hope some day you now win your first court case

  3. Comment:
    That policy, though well-meaning, has, sadly, contributed to retardation of many citizens in one African country, where even people with very. advanced tertiary education qualifications fail to effectively compete favorably at the International level.

    • You must be mad. Retardation of people because they use a language that is theirs! You Zambians are really full of inferiority complexes! Cant you ask yourself why just in your neighbourhood the Boers are clinging to their language while you are busy trashing yours? How many people speak afrikaans in the world? Less than a million but these settlers are people who are proud of themselves unlike you the conquered species. They want to teach their children in their language and they aren’t talking about being retarded. You clearly went to school to pass exams. Go to school and discover yourself.

  4. But why haven’t you guys used your mother tongue in your comments.
    Language is just that, language, a medium of communication.
    Tanzanians have adopted swahili as their medium. Its not the mother tongue for every Tanzanian.
    The problem is this mentality that english is colonial. I can still worship Nyambe, Lesa, Nzambi in english without losing anything. But if I worship the Jewish deity in lozi or bemba I would have lost my heritage. Culture is beyond language. Its an embodiment of thought process.
    Its also wrong to look at english as a measure of education. Its just a language. Its my “mother tongue” as its the only language I have predominantly used for close to half a century.

    • Platform my brother platform. Thus platform is for English speakers you can’t join it and start using Russian or Lala. You won’t be heard. Create mother tongue platforms. Noone stops you

  5. Ever wondered why this language issue is so profound in anglophone africa & not in the francophone region.
    Our colleagues speak french just like any other local language. That’s the same with portuguese in Angola.
    Here if you speak english ninshi mwalisambilila.
    Also be wary of institutions like Unesco, they are the neo-colonialists. They work on your mind to make you develop an inferiority complex. You start doubting your own identity.

  6. This is what I tell parents who prefer to teach their children English as their first language. By doing so they think they are clever and westernized. It is an inferiority complex. Have you ever seen a British person or Chinese person ranching the child Bemba? No the child is taught the mother tongue. Zambians by teaching your child English first and ignoring your mother tongue you are telling your child that, “your mother tongue is inferior.” Children who learn the mother tongue first are at an advantage because they can transfer the skills into English. Zambians wake up and use your mother tongue to your children. Level of English is poor. Who speaks English to your child at home when you are not there? The maid!

  7. ..there are things which are so good an paper…I mean theoretically very good and convincing……the implementation may just prove to be difficult especially along the line of rail or urban areas….Personally as a parent I would want my child from day one to start learning and speaking English all the way up to university….along the way especially when he or she is still a toddler…as parents we will speak to him/her in our mother tongue as well….30% local language 70%English…(infact in some homes its worse…5% local…95% English)…..and believe it or not that’s what you will find or witness in most of the homes…that’s a reality and that’s a fact….

    • ….there are a lot of things which came with the white man….there are things which we have embraced and adopted…and things which we are still struggling to adopt into our culture….for example wearing a suit and a tie in offices…opting for conventional modern medicine as opposed to our tradition concoctions….hugging your mother or father in law….wife calling the husband by his first name….u find some of these this we have wholly accepted and embraced them but other we are still divided…..
      …Talk of Christianity….why have we forsaken and abandoned the way our ancestors used to worship before Christianity or Islam was ‘forcefully’ introduced to us…??…not just because a white lady says teach your children in mother tongue first before introducing English…and I…

    • You are speaking Gibberish precisely because you were taught in English. You are lamentably failing to express yourself. You would have made your point more succinctly in your mother tongue

  8. I have never heard of any race on earth demanding to learn foreign languages. It is only the Africans who want to speak foreign languages and kill off their own languages. Whats wrong with Africans?

  9. I repeat there is no race that demands to learn foreign languages on earth except Africans. Everyone wants to further their language and culture but Africans think it is being clever learning other conquerors’ languages. How Uncle Tom can you get?

  10. I am interested in the views being shared here. My questions are: Is the problem just about either foreign language or local language/mother-tongue medium of instruction? Which of these languages promote comprehension of concepts especially in the early years of schooling?
    I think it’s about time we consider the language that helps establish solid academic foundation in learners so that they can build academic edifices on it. It is true English language is a global language now but we should also remember that it takes quality education to compete in the global world. Let’s think about the language that enhances comprehension especially in the early years of schooling which in turns promote quality education.

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