Many countries have serious issues in their educational sector – from access to quality…. In Niger, gross enrolment rates at the primary school level are 72.5% and even lower for girls (66.8%). Yet even as students enter schools in greater number, the quality of learning is low – many reach 6th grade with a 2nd grade level, unable to read or even write their own names. Countries are turning to mother-tongue education as a means to tackle the ‘quality’ challenge and use what remains one of the most basic principles of pedagogy, “going from the familiar to the new and the unfamiliar”. Some even view this as the last frontier in educational policy in African countries – teach children in their mother-tongue and learning would follow… but is this always true?
Recent fieldwork in Niger proves that mother-tongue education when done right could be a powerful tool to impart knowledge and rekindle minds. An experimentation started in 1973 under “ecoles experimentales” has been reviewed and has consistently shown remarkable results in the past. Countries like Tanzania have been even more revolutionary – primary education is in KiSwahili – despite resistance from some parents who view in the “foreign” language as a ladder for social mobility. Beyond the immediate learning outcomes, what language in mother-tongue does is that it reifies the importance of that language in its context and validates it as a means for the quest of learning. If introducing mother-tongues could keep children in school longer with better outcomes, then it becomes a matter of social justice. But does it always?
Mother-tongue education is not a silver bullet… In fact, if done ‘badly’ it can severely backfire. Some preliminary results from my ongoing research, observations and (non)cognitive skills tests in the bilingual schools in Niger show abysmal learning outcomes. A recent study done across 10 African countries shows that 91.5% and 92.4% of Nigerien children in 6th grade did not reach the minimum “required competency and skills” in reading and math respectively (see Table below, PASEC 2016). As something that seems like a desperate last resort to meet the challenges of a fast growing school population (Niger has the fastest growing population in the world), the country has adopted bilingual education in public primary schools. This will be rolled out gradually and is already effective in 5000 schools across the country. It could work, if done well… and could in fact open up learning opportunities for underserved students, left at the margin of learning.
Studies in various parts of Africa compiled in a rich book entitled “Optimising Learning, Education and Publishing in Africa: The Language Factor” shows that while mother-tongue education favours learning, it could have disastrous effect when the transition to the other language (in the case, French) is done too early or done in an inadequate manner. My PhD research shows similar results. Students in bilingual schools perform poorly and less than their peers in “conventional” schools in numeracy and literacy. This is not to say that bilingual education must not be done. However, if we are to embark on that road, it has to be done right. Based on what I have seen on the ground, there is much to be done to produce the type of positive changes we are hoping for.