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Multilingual Education
A special session at the American Anthropological Association (AAA) Conference

Abstract for "Mother-Tongue Education for Speakers of Ethnic-minority Languages"

American Anthropology Association Session Abstract, submitted by M. Gregerson, Ph.D.

In 1997 when Wayne Thomas and Virginia Collier published the results of their longitudinal study, School Effectiveness for Language Minority Students, educators who supported using the mother tongue for at least some part of the initial education of language minority students were elated! This was confirmation of what they already knew: as the best approach for working with those who speak a language in their homes which is not the national language is to begin their education using the tool they knew best: their own first language. In the school effectiveness study Thomas and Collier investigated over 700,000 school records of 42,317 students in five large school districts in various parts of the United States over an eight-year period from 1982-1996 and continued through 2001. Their conclusions stemming from that study included the following:

  1. The deeper a student's level of cognitive and academic development in his first language, the faster he progresses academically.
  2. All language minority students benefit enormously in the long term from academic work in their first language appropriate to their grade level.
  3. With first language instruction, it takes a minority language student 4-7 years to reach the 50th percentile NCE (normal curve equivalent) of native speakers of the majority language, but with no first language instruction, it takes 7-10 years (or more) to reach that point.
  4. When students have the opportunity to do academic work through the medium of their first language, in the long term they are academically more successful in their second language.
  5. Children who reach full cognitive development in two languages (usually by age 11 or 12) enjoy cognitive advantages over monolinguals.

That study gave overwhelming encouragement not only to using the mother tongue for initial education, but to use it on higher levels as well.

Can the conclusions above also be used to apply to adults who are learning to read and write their own minority language? Some of the papers in this session will give enlightenment in the area of using the mother tongue in adult education.

Some educators in developing countries, while supporting mother-tongue education, feel that it is only valuable transitionally as a bridge to learning the national language. They do not think of it as a way in which minority language speakers can express themselves, write about their own present-day heroes, preserve their own history and oral literature, or strengthen pride in their own identity. Also, they may pass off the Thomas and Collier study, with the rejoinder: “This study was done in the United States, so it can not possibly have any relevance to us.” This response, of course, shows the need for longitudinal studies to be done in various parts of the world which will serve as models useful to educators in those areas.

This session will focus attention on educational programs in different parts of the world which are built upon education in the mother tongue but usually including oral learning of the national language followed by learning to read the national language. Of particularly concern to CAE members is how those programs can be deeply rooted in the culture of the minority group as reflected in the written materials, how those materials are scrutinized by native speakers before publication, the venues in which the class is held, the time periods set for classes, the way teachers are selected and supported, the ways lessons are taught, and the cultural learning styles of the students.