Promoting access to quality, safe, and relevant education for all persons affected by crisis

Language Matters

3 December 2012

Karina Kleivan is Emergency Education Coordinator at IBIS, a Danish NGO specialising in education and particularly teacher training in Africa and Latin America.  IBIS is a member of the Working Group on Education and Fragility.

Only too seldom do children who begin schooling in fragile and conflict-affected contexts receive instruction in their mother tongue (MT). On the contrary, the first linguistic encounter at school is more often than not with the dominant language, be it the colonial language or the ethnic majority language. Which signal does it send that ‘your language is not good enough for education’ and which effect does it have?

Any discussion on language of instruction most often takes its starting point in a scenario which is basically wishful thinking, namely the monolingual state, a construction that hardly exists, but which is still taken as the norm. Why? Maybe because acceptance of multiple languages would mean dealing with possible multiple realities, be they ethnic, cultural, historic or political, since language is never neutral – and even less so as language of instruction -  imbedded as it is with identity, memory, norms and connotations.

To control or even monopolise the language of instruction is to control the society. It has more to do with power and fear of empowerment of linguistic minorities than it has to do with sound education, since there is no doubt that successful learning is more likely to happen when the point of departure is the learner’s own context and language.  Our MT is our initial language of abstract thinking and if we are not allowed to access it as we learn we will perform below our cognitive capabilities. We need to recognize not only the right to MT instruction but also the sound pedagogical wisdom of MT instruction.

From a linguistic-didactic point of view there is really no discussion whether the home language of the child as the starting point of learning is pedagogically sound or not. It is - full stop. However, quality matters, a lousy implemented MT programme will not create good results. But this cannot be taken as proof of the superiority of teaching in a second or foreign language.

From a conflict preventative perspective we also need to look at the possible harmful impact of not dealing with the symbolism of language recognition, since lack of recognition of a language is basically lack of acknowledgement of the individual speaker’s identity, ‘your language does not count = you do not count!’.  Suppression of language identities is thus also a major driver of fragility and conflict.

If we want better learning outcomes, we need learners who step by step can deal with abstractions. This will seldom happen if we institutionally surpass the home language and jump to a second or even foreign language; it will only result in drop-outs and potential hatred of schooling (the place where you are linguistically and intellectually humiliated). But we do not necessarily need to turn schooling into MT only. From all parts of the world we have evidence-based examples of how quality bilingual or even multilingual schooling is viable and creates good learning outcomes as well as contributes to nation-building and a healthy sense of citizenship. 
Allow me to call upon all of us, whether we are policy makers, practitioners, representatives of NGOs, UN agencies or donors, to be language-sensitive actors. We cannot hope to design conflict sensitive education programmes without dealing with language. MT should not be the only vehicle for quality education but it is without doubt a crucial parameter when we want to ensure not only good learning outcomes but also conflict sensitive education, and even potentially conflict-transforming education.

Language matters!