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Why not just teach people English?

A valid question some ask is why we invest so much in the development of orthographies and literature in smaller languages. Why don’t we rather teach people to become literate in English or the national language? They argue that there is already so much literature available in dominant languages. Education systems are in place, with books, teachers and other resources available. On the other hand, the cost and effort involved in developing orthographies and producing literature for speakers of minority languages is enormous. Surely it makes sense to use what is already available? Besides, if people are literate in the language of wider communication, further education will be accessible to them since they are proficient in the language of education.

Although the investment to develop the system and materials for mother tongue literacy in non-dominant languages is great, it is worth every cost and effort. Language and identity are so closely interwoven that we are what we speak. If people value their language and heritage, then they value themselves. Promoting literacy in only a major language implies that their language is not good enough to be educated in. Children often become alienated from their home culture when they are expected to abandon their home language in favour of the language of education in schools. On the contrary, literacy in the mother tongue affirms the value of a person, their language and culture. Language is not only an instrument of communication but can also be a symbol of cultural identity (Jandt, 2003). Affirming their language can help to preserve the language and culture of a community through promoting a positive social identity and upholding their cultural distinctiveness. Non-dominant language groups may perceive themselves as inferior to more dominant language groups. Where they experience discrimination and marginalisation, literacy in the mother tongue helps to buffer this, giving people a voice to assert their rights. And when speakers of minority languages are able to express their language in writing, they often feel that they have been placed on the map; they have been recognised. They can raise their heads high and are esteemed.

There are many cognitive, psychological, linguistic and social benefits to becoming literate in the mother tongue. People who learn to read and write in their mother tongue first have an advantage over those who learn in a second language first. This is because they are learning a new skill in a context that has meaning for them. They understand what they read and it is relevant to their daily lives and culture. The foundation in the mother tongue provides a secure foundation for education in a second and third language and children are less likely to drop-out from school. The research is very clear about the importance of bilingual children’s mother tongue for their overall personal and educational development. Studies show that children who have a solid foundation in their mother tongue develop stronger literacy abilities in the school language. They learn concepts and intellectual skills through the medium of the mother tongue that are equally relevant to their ability to function in a major language. The knowledge and skills learned in the home can be transferred to the majority language. (Baker, 2000; Cummins, 2000; Skutnabb-Kangas, 2000) cited in (Cummins, 2000). This phenomenon is becoming increasingly recognized by governments, educators and NGOs, with many efforts to facilitate the inclusion of the mother tongue in basic and primary education. Mother tongue literacy is foundational to this. It is the starting block through which policies, such as UNESCO’s Education for All (2000) can be successfully implemented.

The price that is exacted from minority communities when their children are alienated from their home language and culture is beyond calculation. Many minority languages are endangered, and it is

eminently worth investing in the preservation of the mother tongue. Revitalization of minority languages contributes to preserving the beauty found in the unique identities and cultural heritage of ethnolinguistic minorities. They find their place from a place of strength. They maintain their distinctiveness in a global world.

“…when children’s mother tongue is encouraged to atrophy and its development stagnates, children’s personal and conceptual foundation for learning is undermined.” – Jim Cummins (2000)


Cummins, J. (2000). Bilingual children's mother tongue: Why is it important for education? Retrieved May 20, 2019, from http://www.lavplu.eu/central/bibliografie/cummins_eng.pdf

Jandt, F. E. (2003). Intercultural Communication. California: SAGE Publications, Inc.

UNESCO. (2000). The Dakar Framework for Action. Education for all: Meeting our Collective Commitment. Retrieved May 20, 2019, from http://www.undp.org.lb/programme/governance/institutionbuilding/basiceducation/docs/dakar.pdf

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