MLIP recap July 2015: Language in education in multilingual contexts: beyond ‘mother tongue’ education

A recap of last night’s Melbourne Linguistics in the Pub, by Kellen Parker van Dam (La Trobe University).

The topic of MLIP was ‘Language in education in multilingual contexts: beyond ‘mother tongue’ education’ and the discussion was led by Felix Ameka (Leiden University).

Topic and description as posed by Felix Ameka in the original MLIP announcement:

Linguists promote the benefits of “mother-tongue” education, especially in the first years of primary education. Linguistic human rights advocates argue that if a child is not taught in their first language, then the child’s basic linguistic human rights are violated (e.g. Babaci-Wilhite 2014). However the notion of the ‘mother tongue’ is inappropriate in highly multilingual contexts (see e.g. Lüpke and Storch 2013). In these contexts, children can be disadvantaged by ‘mother tongue’ policies in education that favour the use of a single standardised language in education. I will discuss the case of Ewe-speaking children in Sokode, Ghana who use a colloquial Central Ewe variety at home and struggle with the standard Ewe used in the school. I advocate a multi-lectal, multilingual, multi-modal approach to language in education that eschews an opposition between so called exoglossic national languages and local indigenous languages.


In addition to many of the regulars from Melbourne’s various Linguistics departments, the evening’s talk saw a number of people from the field of Education in attendance, many of whom were able to share their own views on the subject of Mother Tongue education.

The main topic being introduced for discussion by Dr. Ameka was both the role and definition of native language in educational environments, many times in a postcolonial context, and very often in what are actually multilingual environments. Dr. Ameka presented a number of benefits of native language education. For one, receiving primary education on one’s native variety can facilitate a transition into a formal education environment. Additionally, if a student knows the language of instruction, they are better able to develop literacy which in turn assists in their development of literacy in other languages which may be used in higher education later in life. In addition to these apparent benefits, there is also the question of linguistic rights. Namely, that everyone should have the right to be educated in their own language regardless of it is the official state language or not.

A problem with this approach and one which formed the backbone of much of the evening’s discussion is that the premise of the argument is flawed. It presupposes that the environment in which the student is growing up is monolingual. The notion of “mother tongue” supposes that there is a single mother tongue for the student when in many cases they may have many primary languages in which they are comfortable and proficient. The idea of mother tongue education is based on a monolingual interpretation of the situation, and in addition to ignoring multilingual situations it also ignores things like regional variation within a single language. The students are in many cases both multilingual and multidialectal.

In this context some recent cases in Africa where a single often external language is used in education were presented and then discussed. One example was Malawi, where there’s been a push to institute an english only policy for education, with some having done this and then gone back on the decision. In Tanzania, Swahili was introduced for secondary education. The main idea behind these cases was that there’s a general notion that there should be one language for education.

The problem is not solved by implementing the local language variety as the language of instruction. Even if it is the child’s primary language, the form being used for education will likely be different than the variety they would be using at home. In many cases the standard is often not actually used by anyone natively, being a hybrid of various forms. This then creates prescriptions that the student cannot understand or which do not match up with the child’s intuitions or usage.

Combining with this problem is the fact that minority communities often already have multiple languages. The language of the community is often not used in school, and the more widely used language which might be getting used in school is not being used in the same form that they use at home. For many students they have only encountered this language in a mixed form, and so the unmixed form to which they are exposed in the classroom feels foreign or other to them. It defeats the purpose of mother tongue education to use a language variety that they are unfamiliar with.

There was some discussion regarding UNESCO’s arguments of mother tongue education at this point, but with general agreement that students should be able to be education in a variety with which they are very familiar. How this should best be implemented was not so easily worked out. There was also discussion regarding doing away with mother tongue language, as it is an inherently monolingual idea, and instead embracing a multilingual approach to education where another language — English in the case of Ghana — should be accepted.

That is, we should work toward a multilingual, multi-modal, multi-knowledge-system approach to education. The main point is not that we should not use the local language, but that we should use the truly local language, the vernacular, and not the abstract standard form of the local variety.

Finally, the desire was expressed to see greater research on people growing up multilingually, addressing what cognitive affects that situation may have for people who have become multilingual not by learning languages serially, but by growing up truly multilingual from day one.

Kellen Parker van Dam (La Trobe University)


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