Multilingual education: Mother tongue and language rights

Principal Investigator:
Jessica Ball (Professor, School of Child and Youth Care, University of Victoria)

Community Partners:
Various partners in Bhutan, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Canada
We live in a multilingual world. Multilingualism is an advantage for children and adults in the interconnected, multilingual world in which we live.

Project background

Globally, there are at least 50-75 million 'marginalized' children who do not attend school. Children whose primary language is not the language of instruction are more likely to not be enrolled, to fail early grades, and not receive any education credential. A child’s first language is the best language for learning and literacy throughout primary school. However, in spite of growing evidence, many educational systems around the world insist on exclusive use of one (or more) privileged languages. Language of instruction is often the dominant language of a country or an international language, like English, Spanish, or Mandarin. This means excluding non-dominant languages and, often, the children who speak them.

For an overview of this project topic, see Jessica Ball's presentation at the Global Summit on Childhood in Vancouver, Canada.

The risks of a foreign language of instruction

When teachers use a language that children and parents cannot understand, children are less likely to be enrolled in school at all and, when they are, are often not able to engage successfully in learning tasks. These early experiences of school failure can create years of social, career, and educational setbacks. Further, teachers are likely to feel frustrated by children's inability to participate. While some children do succeed in these difficult situations and are able to adapt to majority languages, there is the risk that they will fail to become linguistically competent members of their own families and communities and lose the ability to connect with their cultural heritage.

Some children are able to develop proficiency in their first language and succeed in school in a second language. However, this does not happen automatically and can lead to an inability to communicate fluently with parents and grandparents. This contributes to the rapid depletion of the world's repository of languages and dialects and the cultural knowledges that are carried through them.

Preserving mother tongues

Many language communities are becoming vocal about the need to ensure that the youngest members of their communities keep their linguistic heritage. Some governments, such as in the Philippines, have recently established language-in-education policies that embrace a multitude of mother tongues. Jessica Ball evaluated a recent policy shift in Cambodia that allowed Indigenous children to attend school in their Indigenous language for the first three years. Other countries are exploring variations of mother-tongue based, multilingual education.

Children learn better in their mother tongue

UNESCO has encouraged mother tongue instruction in primary education since 1953 (UNESCO, 1953).

Advantages of early mother tongue education include:
  • Children are more likely to enroll and succeed in school
  • Parents are more likely to communicate with teachers and participate in their children's learning
  • Girls and rural children with less exposure to a dominant language stay in school longer and repeat grades less often
  • Children in multilingual education tend to develop better thinking skills compared to their monolingual peers
Some educators argue that only those countries where the student's first language is the language of instruction in the primary grades are likely to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

The success of mother-tongue based and bi/multilingual education depends on many contextual factors, illustrated here. There are also important dimensions within these factors, such as quality, potency, and consistency.
financial and technical resources tree

Project outcomes

Projects by Jessica Ball and colleagues have yielded a synthesis of research on bilingual and multilingual learning in preschools. These include program evaluations, knowledge mobilization tools, and presentations to teachers, community leaders, and government representatives, particularly in East and Southeast Asia and Canada.

More research needed

With increasing political will and recognition of the potential of mother-tongue based multilingual education, research is needed to answer key questions.

  1. Under what circumstances can education in the mother-tongue combined with multilingual education support children to become proficient in their home language while laying the foundation for learning in additional languages?
  2. What resources are needed to achieve this?
  3. What are the costs and benefits of alternative approaches directed at the individual, family, community, school, region, and nation? What are meaningful yet efficient ways to measure these costs and benefits?
  4. What are the implications of MTB-MLE for recruiting, educating, and mentoring teachers and teacher assistants and for creating and evaluating curricula in diverse language classrooms?
  5. What are the contributions of family and community in formal and non-formal MTB-MLE, and how can these be measured?
  6. What steps can be taken in the early years and during the transition to school to prepare children for the mix of language(s) that will be used in primary school?

Family members play an important role as children's first teachers. Research should explore how informal education and family interaction in a child’s mother tongue may promote literacy, numeracy, and higher order cognitive skills. We need to involve family and community members with diverse language skills in formal school and train teachers to be effective in MTB-MLE classrooms. As knowledge develops, we must get better at communicating research findings so that practitioners, policy makers, and donors are informed and motivated by evidence about how MTB-MLE can be harnessed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.


View all reports and resources related to this project.