Quality of education: integrating mother tongue instruction, English proficiency

The language used to teach a child not only influences his or her ability to read and write, but has wider implications for education policy, funding and quality, a meeting of the Commonwealth civil society education representatives meet in Mauritius heard.

In many countries, students tend to learn in a dominant language, which is often not the language they – or their teachers -- speak at home and in their communities. Quality education can be compromised when neither the pupil, nor teacher fully understand the language of instruction.

Yet, despite this, in Anglophone countries, educational performance is widely measured by English-language international standardised tests. Country-by-country comparisons are made, where mother-tongue English speakers are evaluated against pupils who speak English as a second or third language.

These tests, in turn, are used by governments to assess quality and to shape policy. Donors too look at the results of English-based tests to demonstrate progress and value for money.

According to experts, evidence suggests that children learn better in their mother tongue at all ages and levels and further, that if educational performance is measured using mother-tongue tests, then the results are likely to be different.

Mother-tongue tuition is not without its problems, though. It can be used to uphold ethnic divisions and to further distance marginalised communities from English-speaking communities, both nationally and internationally.

Where multiple languages are spoken, mother tongue tuition can be costly and inefficient, both in terms of teacher supply and providing and distributing education resources.

On the other hand, there is evidence to suggest that English gives a country an economic advantage – it is the international lingua franca of business and of digital culture. It opens up international opportunities for work and further studying. In addition, teaching a shared language can promote national unity.

The demand for English from pupils, parents, teachers and employers remains strong and governments are faced with the dual challenge of ensuring that children have the opportunity to learn in the language most appropriate to them, while at the same time, facilitating demands for quality English instruction.

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