Five Reasons Why We Should all be Learning in our Mother Tongues


The world-renowned education advocate Nelson Mandela once said that “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” On no other day is this concept more important than today, February 21st – also known as International Mother Language Day. Started by UNESCO in 2000, the day serves to celebrate the diversity of the over 6,500 spoken languages throughout the world. Not only does it celebrate them, but it calls for understanding of the necessity to preserve them and the cultures woven within them. Teaching in mother languages is one of the easiest and most effective ways to ensure language preservation. Thus, in celebration of the importance of International Mother Language Day, let’s take a look at five reasons why all global learners should have access to education in their mother tongue.

1. Teaching in Mother Tongues Ensures that Everyone in the Classroom Understands

According to UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring Report, 40% of the world’s population doesn’t have access to education in a language they understand. That’s over 3 billion people worldwide that miss out on basic numeracy and literacy skills. Without these fundamental skills, further education and skill-development is exponentially more difficult. Since the main reason for this inequality is language standardization, such as in Senegal with French, the most intuitive solution is to promote mother-language classrooms and learning environments. Everyone understands the teacher when s/he speaks in the same language you hear at home.

2. Mother-Tongue Education is Proven to be More Successful

According to a study by Stephen L. Walter of the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics, mother tongue education programs produce literate and capable readers within two to three years of schooling. The numbers were not as impressive for second-language classrooms, in which it takes roughly five years to attain the same reading level. As if those statistics are not astounding enough, the study also showed that average-performing students benefit the most from mother tongue education, while only advanced students flourish in a second-language environment. This makes it abundantly clear that mother language education gives the most children access to quality education – children should not have to wait nearly five years to be able to read, nor should only advanced students be able to excel in the classroom. Mother language education solves both of these problems!

3. Languages are Dying Faster than Ever Before

UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger shows that over 2,500 languages are currently endangered. Since 1950, some 230 languages have gone extinct. That’s 230 heritages lost, forgotten, and not preserved. As world-renowned linguist Kenneth Hale once said, “when you lose a language, it’s like dropping a bomb on a museum.” As a global community, we cannot allow another 2,500 languages to have bombs dropped upon them by language-standardization efforts. Teaching in a mother language ensures that languages – and therefore the cultures embedded within them – will survive for generations.

4. Linguists Say that Dutch’s Days are Numbered

Here’s a great example of how fast languages are dying. According to an article by Željana Pancirov Cornelisse of the University of Zagreb, linguists are worried that Dutch will eventually be replaced by English as the first language of The Netherlands. Some experts, such as writer Harry Mulisch, believe that the replacement could take place in as few as 75 years. This is mainly due to an intense focus on English-only classrooms in universities and secondary schools. If this can happen in a developed nation like The Netherlands, the consequences could be tenfold graver in a nation like Zambia, which has over 72 indigenous languages/dialects but lacks many of the infrastructural resources to protect them.

5. Mother-Language Instruction Provokes Better Literacy in All Languages

As previously mentioned, many studies support the theory that language of instruction is strongly linked to a person's ability to learn how to read and write. A study in Zambia found that students who practice basic reading skills in their mother tongue make more progress in oral reading fluency in other Zambian languages as well as in English. Thus, mother language instruction would be especially beneficial to students in countries with low rates of literacy and/or high rates of linguistic diversity. Since countries that fall into these categories are often underdeveloped, mother language instruction is clearly an effective tool for international development.

Studies such as the one above have sparked a heated debate about mother tongue protection in Zambia. Reshma Patel, Executive Director of education and e-learning nonprofit Impact Network, laments that Zambian parents face a dilemma. On the one hand, they “want their children and communities to learn English from a young age, as they are aware of opportunities that speaking the language can offer.” On the other, “emphasizing too heavily on English-education diminishes local culture. Chewa culture is so embedded in Eastern Zambia that there are words and stories that simply could not be described or understood through English.”

Impact Network poses a solution to parents facing this challenge. The organization’s schools embrace the eSchool 360 model, which was pioneered to deliver high-quality, low-cost and sustainable education to children in under-served areas. In partnership with Mwabu, they provide teachers with tablets and projectors to deliver class lessons taught in the mother tongue of students and teachers. All of this is accomplished for less than $5 a month per student.

Zambian parents are pleased with Impact Network’s schools thus far, which Patel attributes to the fact that the schools are devoted to finding “an equal balance between honoring Zambian culture and emphasizing the importance of English.”

In short, if there is one lesson to be taken away from this year’s International Mother Language Day, it’s that mother-tongue education is necessary, feasible, and successful.