Our newsletter gives you access to a curated selection of the most important stories daily. Don't miss out. Subscribe Now.

Role of mother language in multilingual education

Role of mother language in multilingual education

Multilingual education based on the mother tongue(s) in the early years of schooling plays a key role in fostering respect for diversity and a sense of interconnectedness between countries and populations, which are core values at the heart of global citizenship.

As such, it contributes to the fostering of learning to live together …. UNESCOAll languages are equally important in endowing users with intelligible communication and legitimate worldview. The world’s histories of enslavement and colonialism have resulted in the categorisation of languages into major and minority languages. Currently, English is considered the first language, French second, and Spanish third, the positions determined by the number of global users. The position of English is not surprising, considering that the British controlled a quarter of the globe at one point.It eludes many, even some intellectuals, that language anchored European Imperialism which rolled out in slavery and colonialism. When European explorers set off to explore the world around them, they were not prepared for other cultures. When they encountered people, cultures and languages completely different from theirs, instead of acknowledging and respecting the differences, they ignorantly labelled the encountered cultures savages, barbarians.

In other continents, some indigenous language became extinct from the imperial onslaught. The fact also remains that the indigenous languages had resilience, so imperial powers failed in the total annihilation attempt. The colonised survived the human occupation, and so did their cultures, through their languages, albeit, not at par with the coloniser’s. The current respective mainstream and minority statuses of the former colonising and former colonised languages prove the success of the imperialist’s marginalising strategy.

It took centuries for humanity to grasp that differences should be celebrated, not disparaged. Yet, the notion of equating languages remains elusive. Formal education, English and Literature studies gradually enabled the former colonised to interact assertively with the former coloniser. 20th Century names such as Chinua Achebe, Ngugi Wa Thiongo, Wole Soyinka, Ayi-Kwei Armah, Edward Said, the

Father of Postcolonial studies come to mind but just tip of the iceberg. Those children from former colonised cultures could look the former coloniser in the eye, stand shoulder to shoulder and assert in the coloniser’s own language: Our cultures are legitimate worldview, have dignity and resilience.

However, before they could traipse so confidently in the former coloniser’s tongue, they had been firmly grounded as children of indigenous cultures. Solid indigenous language root was a pedestal for the firm grasp of the second tongue. Transfer of linguistic skills occurs in second language acquisition. Teaching children in the mother tongue or first language(s) effectively aids the children, not only in language acquisition, but also in better understanding of the world they are growing up in.

The quotation above from UNESCO aptly sums up the broad goal and role of language instruction at the formative level. Before the child begins school, parents and the community are expected to have introduced the child to the worldview of the mother culture. In that way, what is learnt at school becomes a parallel legitimate worldview, so that the child learns to balance respect for all cultures.

In the Twentieth Century, Bangladesh sacrificed dearly for indigenous language. That was the momentum UNESCO utilised to “establish the notion of ‘multilingual education’”. Long before that, however,

Ghana had a policy of bilingual education, dating back to colonial times. The nation had a strong educational system because it was hinged on sound language skills. The policy effectively aided learning and smooth transition of children through the learning stages. I am yet to meet any educated elite from Twentieth Century Ghana who cannot handle her/his mother tongue.
“Ghanafo binom ka se wͻye scholars nanso wͻntumi nnka wͻn kasa; obi ntumi nnye scholar bere a ͻntumi nnka n’ankasa ne kasa,” literally a cross-section of Ghanaians claims to be scholars yet cannot handle their mother tongue. A person cannot be a scholar when s/he lacks proficiency in the mother tongue. That was my Twi Teacher, Mr Obuobi, introducing us to the concept of the mother tongue in secondary form one.

At the time, I thought he was making a language statement. During postcolonial studies in graduate school, I grasped that he was making a cultural statement. Now, I perceive that he was making a profound human statement.

The language policy of the country is not hampering competent English language acquisition; misconception about language does. Many erroneously believe that mere ability to speak English paves the way for success. No; rather, excellent language skills explored to acquire legitimate knowledge and skills.

Proficiency in a language enables users to develop solid communication skills through reflective listening, critical reading, analytical writing, decorous speaking abilities. Such skills underpin successful learning. Proficiency is not the cosmetic trend being witnessed. Thus, poor attitude is derailing the noble objectives of the Language Policy.

Ghana’s conundrum is that educated, semi-educated even illiterate parents currently speak English with their children. At a marriage ceremony in Accra, when a parent comforted her child thus: *“A mosquito has bit you”, I did not just wince in pain, but bemoaned the hefty work I would have to do to wean that child from poor English, should she enter my classroom. The fact that such a poor starter might not unlearn the errors heightened my apprehension.

While UNESCO advocates multilingualism to dignify all languages, many Ghanaians champion monolingualism – promote English while demeaning indigenous languages. Asians have developed strong economies because their educational systems are based on first languages. Westerners have maintained quality education because they have consistently prioritised language and compelled foreign students to language proficiency.

Ghana has neither adopted one indigenous language nor been bold enough to design a common language, as East Africa did with Swahili. Research is replete with evidence that the mother tongue or first language aids learning at the formative learning stages. In the UK and US, educational systems support immigrant children to learn through the mother tongue.

An ironic trend is emerging in Ghanaian tertiary classrooms, at least, in the TVET system. I have observed that instructors use the bilingual approach. They teach in English and translate in Twi before students grasp contents. Increasingly, I find myself using Twi proverbs and idiomatic expressions in class to emphasise crucial points. Learners then readily grasp content. Mother tongue to the rescue!

Evidently, the language policy is pragmatic.

The writer is a Senior Lecturer, Language and Communication Skills,
Takoradi Technical University,

Connect With Us : 0242202447 | 0551484843 | 0266361755 | 059 199 7513 |