Many native languages across the world are dying at an alarming rate. As a result, all possible efforts must be made to sustain them. According to a United Nations General Assembly paper (fifth session of 2003), “Language is an essential part of, and intrinsically linked to, indigenous peoples’ ways of life, culture and identities.
In countries where English is not the first language, many parents and communities believe their children will get a head-start in education by going ‘straight for English’ and bypassing the home language. However, as Professor Kioko points out, the evidence suggests otherwise.
Many governments, like Burundi recently, are now making English an official national language. Their motivation behind this is to grow their economies and improve the career prospects of their younger generations. Alongside this move, we are seeing a trend, particularly across Sub-Saharan Africa, to introduce English as a medium of instruction in basic education.
However, research findings consistently show that learners benefit from using their home language in education in early grade years (ahead of a late primary transition stage). Yet, many developing countries continue to use other languages for teaching in their schools.
Languages embody many indigenous values and concepts and contain indigenous peoples’ histories and development. They are fundamental markers of indigenous peoples’ distinctiveness and cohesiveness as peoples.”
However, according to this paper, many school going children continue to be taught in languages they neither use nor understand.
Learning in a language the learners are familiar with will make it easier for them to construct their own understanding and look for meaning in their daily experiences, thus reinforcing their unique strengths.
Cultural heritage and knowledge is passed on throughout each generation by language.
In Kenya, the language of instruction is English, and some learners in urban and some cosmopolitan settings speak and understand some English by the time they join school. But learners in the rural areas enter school with only their home language. For these learners, using the mother tongue in early education leads to a better understanding of the curriculum content and to a more positive attitude towards school. There are a number of reasons for this.
First, learning does not begin in school. Learning starts at home in the learners’ home language. Although the start of school is a continuation of this learning, it also presents significant changes in the mode of education. The school system structures and controls the content and delivery of a pre-determined curriculum where previously the child was learning from experience (an experiential learning mode).
On starting school, children find themselves in a new physical environment. The classroom is new, most of the classmates are strangers, the centre of authority (the teacher) is a stranger too. The structured way of learning is also new. If, in addition to these things, there is an abrupt change in the language of interaction, then the situation can get quite complicated. Indeed, it can negatively affect a child’s progress. However, by using the learners’ home language, schools can help children navigate the new environment and bridge their learning at school with the experience they bring from home.
Second, by using the learners’ home language, learners are more likely to engage in the learning process.
The interactive learner-centred approach – recommended by all educationalists – thrives in an environment where learners are sufficiently proficient in the language of instruction. It allows learners to make suggestions, ask questions, answer questions and create and communicate new knowledge with enthusiasm.
It gives learners confidence and helps to affirm their cultural identity. This in turn has a positive impact on the way learners see the relevance of school to their lives.
But when learners start school in a language that is still new to them, it leads to a teacher-centred approach and reinforces passiveness and silence in classrooms. This in turn suppresses young learners’ potential and liberty to express themselves freely. It dulls the enthusiasm of young minds, inhibits their creativity, and makes the learning experience unpleasant. All of which is bound to have a negative effect on learning outcomes.
A crucial learning aim in the early years of education is the development of basic literacy skills: reading, writing and arithmetic. Essentially, the skills of reading and writing come down to the ability to associate the sounds of a language with the letters or symbols used in the written form. These skills build on the foundational and interactional skills of speaking and listening.