In March 2012 I traveled once more to the Gambia, where the government is grappling with the problem of how to make its citizens literate. The 1.5 million people of this country speak nine languages, so English has been the language of instruction. However, most students have failed to learn reading due to the complex spelling of this language, so the government decided to teach first graders by using the five most common languages. A pilot has been underway in the 2011-2012 school year.
A cognitive psychologist from the University of Rome accompanied the mission. Through rapidly appearing words she tested students in all primary grades in English and Wolof. She found that most children did not even know letters. But those who did could 200 words per minute in Wolof, even though they had not learned explicitly how to read in it. Yet, they could only identify 30 words correct per minute in English. Their vocabulary was too small, and they did not know some common English words like scrub. Obviously the educational advantage of a well-known language was huge. But the students will never learn the complex math and science content in that language.
In most countries of the world, learning content in a foreign language seems odd. Nearly all countries in Europe, Asia, and Latin America teach in their official languages. Thus the Greeks, Albanians, Hungarians, Czechs study in their own languages all the way to the university. Linguistic minorities nowadays are given options. India for example, has a three-language formula. But nearly all African and Pacific Ocean countries are multilingual, and some have no local lingua franca. Politically and practically the former colonial languages were used as a uniting and equalizing tool.
It is commonly said in middle-income environments that learning multiple languages is good, and foreign-language immersion successfully challenges students. Furthermore humans seem set up to speak multiple languages, and most Africans know more than one. And globalization means that citizens should be able to talk to people on the other side of the earth. So let’s give to the poor the same advantage of foreign language immersion!
But somehow all but the best among the poor fail. Why is that? Here are some reasons.
- We learn languages through personal interaction. Our mind is set up to learn not from a single speaker (the teacher) broadcasting to everyone but from people speaking to each other. Thus, the same children who know too few English words to learn science may sell merchandise using multiple African languages.
- The better our vocabulary in one language, the easier it will be to learn more in another. Our knowledge is classified in intricate networks. If we already have a concept (e.g. “justice”) we can easily attach a new label to it. If the concept does not exist, a new item must open, and when these new items are too many, learning slows down. The more we know the easier it becomes to hook new items, so bilingualism is ‘additive”. But if students know too little of their own language, burdening them with a whole new set that is broadcast by one teacher may create ‘subtractive’ bilingualism; students end up not knowing any language very well.
- The poor have smaller vocabularies than the better off in their languages. Somehow schools should help them catch up, and students ought to be learning 2000-3000 words per year in English, French, or Portuguese. However, many African schools teach in fact for only about 2 hours a day. So an American 5th grader may know 40,000 words and lemmas, but African students may only know 1000 and thus lack the vocabulary to discuss science.
- The formal languages used in Africa (English, French, Portuguese) have complex spelling. To teach reading in them requires vocabulary, sight words, and prediction skills. Even for native speakers, English instruction in reading has a three-year horizon.
However, most languages of the world are spelled consistently. With phonics instruction in transparent orthographies decoding may be achieved in about 4 months. Students pronounce just the letters contained in a word, so they depend less on vocabulary knowledge or on predictions to decipher text; they also have less need of parents reading to them at home. And when students put words in their working memory fast enough and know the vocabulary, they typically understand. Automaticity in the same script transfers from one language to another, so reading fluency in an African language greatly facilitates fluency in English, French, or Portuguese.
Timeframes and subjects are often the subject of questions. Countries may decide to use local languages, but they stop them in grade 2 or 3, when due to schooling inefficiencies poor children may still be illiterate. And there has been little thinking what local language use is really good for. Besides reading, there is a need to consider arithmetic, whose verbal code should not change through life. There is science, which must be understood, with vocabulary that children may have not yet learned.
So how to facilitate early-grade instruction in multilingual societies?
Deal with expressed and tacit concerns. Languages carry the status connotations of their speaker groups, so some languages are more highly regarded than others. Evidently knowledge of the official language leads to expectations of higher-income employment, and parents are anxious to ensure that their children learn high-status languages. Since the middle-class children perform in official languages, some parents get the idea that these are for the rich and the local languages are for the poor. So there is a need to communicate clearly the advantages of the local language instruction. Several countries have done community sensitization campaigns using the local media, and these seem to work. Experiences in the Gambia suggest that communities may feel pride in their languages when these are used in schools.
Settle through some criteria which language(s) to use. It is not possible in many countries to use every single language. There are logistics pertaining to teacher assignments, textbook production, and the like Also in cities schools have students from multiple languages. On occasion there are political and religious conflicts defined along linguistic lines. However, the situation may be less complex than expected. In Africa people commonly use two or three local languages with relatives and neighbors, and many of the languages are closely related. The “language of the playground” in cities or the local lingua franca of rural areas can be determined through a process of social negotiation, where local leaders are asked to decide and approve. The Solidar Swiss NGO in Burkina Faso has developed extensive experience and guidelines for “social negotiation”.
Surely more research is needed on the children’s command of local languages. But it seems at this point that a consistently spelled language taught at a time when children still learn languages may address the logistical difficulties of teaching in all languages. One small study lends support to this hypothesis. Pulaar-speaking children in Cameroon scored higher in English and math after they had studied in a Kom language school than Pulaar speakers studying directly in English.