Bridging the language gap

September 8, 2016
Written by Kieran McConville
Photo by Kieran McConville

Back to school has a whole new meaning when it’s not taking place in your mother tongue. Find out how we’re easing the transition from children’s local language to that of their nation.

Daki Guyo at St. Peter's Primary School in Kenya

Six-year-old Daki Guyo, at St. Peter’s Primary School in Sagante, Kenya. Photo: Kieran McConville

Imagine how you’d feel if you showed up for your first day at school and the teacher started talking to you in a language you didn’t understand. And then you were expected to learn to read and write in that language. Worse still, imagine if there were TWO new languages to be learned… and you’re just four years old!

For most kids in Kenya, that’s exactly the scenario they face when starting school. For example, in the northern county of Marsabit, kids first learn to speak the local Borana language, but when they start school, classes are taught in Swahili and English.

Behind from the start

The results from an educational perspective are disastrous — despite years of schooling, many kids end up being essentially illiterate. “What we learned (from carrying out assessments) is that by the time they’re in grades six, seven, and eight, children still can’t read and can’t write,” said Concern Kenya Country Director, Wendy Erasmus. “They can recite what’s in a book — but they don’t understand it.”

Learning Through Mother Tongue in Kenya

Pupils at St. Peter's Primary School in Marsabit, Kenya ease into formal education through their native language.

“In Haiti…76% of first graders, 49% of second graders, and 29% of third graders could not read a single word in Haitian Creole.”

Of course, it’s not just a Kenyan problem. Thousands of miles across the Atlantic, in Haiti, a World Bank-supported study showed that 76% of first graders, 49% of second graders, and 29% of third graders could not read a single word in Haitian Creole. Similar results were found when students were tested in French.

Learning Through Mother Tongue in Kenya

Pupils at St. Peter's Primary School in Marsabit, Kenya have benefited from easing into formal education through their native language.

Darline Alténor Fadner in Haiti

Eight year old Darline Alténor Fadner, a participant in the Concern-supported mother tongue education initiative in Ecole Bon Samaritan De Durverger, Saut d’Eau, Haiti. Photo: Kieran McConville

Rewriting the rules

One solution that’s showing promising results in countries like Kenya, Haiti, Liberia, and Niger is the idea of teaching earlier grades in students’ mother tongue.

“Children can get comfortable with reading and writing in a language that they know,” explains Wendy Erasmus. “Then over year three and four they phase into English and Swahili. What we’ve seen is terribly exciting… we’ve seen an impressive increase in these children’s ability to read and write.” Concern has been supporting these initiatives with curriculum design, teacher training, and learning materials, with the intention to expand their reach.

“This really enables children to learn in school more effectively, because it is a continuation of what they have learned at home”

Meanwhile, in the second grade classroom of St. Peter’s Primary School in Sagante, Kenya, six-year-old Daki Guyo leaps enthusiastically to her feet in response to a question from her teacher, Mr. Sode. It’s plain to see that she knows her topic and is eager to show off her knowledge. The class is being conducted in Borana. Watching on, Concern’s Benson Thuku remarks, “This really enables children to learn in school more effectively, because it is a continuation of what they have learned at home… and what they learn in school is also reinforced at home.”

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