Many countries with low learning levels are linguistically diverse. Nigeria and India are both home to speakers of more than 400 languages. Most of the countries with low learning levels are home to people speaking more than 50 languages.
Governments face many competing pressures in addressing linguistic diversity. Ensuring that all children learn a common language can help them to be successful in life and can help to increase national integration and cohesiveness. In particular, many countries are under pressure to teach in English from the early grades. In India, for instance, English is taught from grade one in 18 out of 28 states.
There is, however, strong evidence that children learn best in their own language, particularly during the earliest grades (for a summary of the evidence, see, www.unesco.org/education/EFAWG2009/LanguageEducation.pdf or http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0017/001787/178702e.pdf). Children find it much more difficult to grasp basic concepts and acquire literacy when they are taught in a language they do not use at home or at least hear around them in the community. Where the teacher is also unskilled in the language of instruction (as is often the case with English), the quality of teaching and learning declines even further.
In addition, across many countries, children who are not taught in their own language are much less likely to attend school. Children from language communities for which schooling is not provided in the mother tongue are up to two and a half times more likely not to attend school.
Even where the ultimate goal is proficiency in English, teaching in the mother tongue for the first few years is still the best way to achieve both generally literacy and proficiency in English. When children are taught in a language they are not familiar with during the first few grades, they generally fail to acquire literacy in both their mother tongue and the new language. Conversely, when children are taught in their mother tongue for the first two or three years and then start to learn a second language, their fluency in the second language at the end of primary education is actually higher than if the second language is taught from grade one. This is because it is easier for students to learn a new language once they have a foundation of basic literacy in a language with which they are already familiar.
The Kom Language Project
A randomized control trial in Cameroon, called the Kom Language Project, tested the impact of mother-tongue instruction compared to teaching in English.
Students taught in their mother tongue acquired basic numeracy and literacy faster than students taught in English medium schools. Remarkably, they also learned more English. Because they had a foundation of literacy in their mother tongue, they were able to learn English faster, despite having less exposure to the language.
Gopinathan, S., Education and the Nation State, 2013.
Pinnock, H., Language and Education: The Missing Link, CFBT and Save the Children, 2009, www.unesco.org/education/EFAWG2009/LanguageEducation.pdf
Smits, J., Huisman, J., Kruijff, K., Home language and education in the developing world, 2008, http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0017/001787/178702e.pdf
Taylor, S., Coetzee, M., Estimating the Impact of Language of Instruction in South African Primary Schools: A Fixed Effects Approach, 2013
Walter, S., Chou, K., The Kom Experimental Mother Tongue Education Pilot Project, 2012, http://www.mlenetwork.org/sites/default/files/The%20Kom%20MLE%20Project%202012.pdf