SIL International Home

Literacy in the 90's
The Role of SIL

This informative booklet, now published here on the Web, was originally printed in the 1990s. As a historical document, it reflects SIL's work in literacy during that decade.


Previous | Next

Bilingual Education: Building New Bridges

Chiquietano children learning to read their own language in nonformal literacy classes.
Chiquitano children learning to read their own language in nonformal literacy classes.

The desires and needs of mother-tongue speakers need not contradict national aspirations for education in a standard or official language [UNESCO 1976, 191]. Through bilingual education, the mother tongue can be a very effective bridge to education in an official language.

Educators from several South American countries noted the value of bilingual education in 1978: "The linguist…prefers that the teaching of reading be in the mother tongue because functional reading and writing is thereby attained much more rapidly. Without difficulty, the reader can generalize the skill of reading and writing in his mother tongue to any other language he speaks." [Sola and Weber, C-10.]

For Tboli children of Mindanao, learning to read in their own language has helped them master English and Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines.
For Tboli children of Mindanao, learning to read in their own language has helped them master English and Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines.

SIL has helped to start significant bilingual education programs in Peru, Cameroon, Guatemala, and Papua New Guinea. In other countries—Colombia, Bolivia, Philippines, Chile, Vietnam, Togo, and Canada—SIL specialists have participated in the development of "vernacular components" for formal schools.

Such programs have been educationally successful by building initially on the familiar language of the child. Results can be surprising. In Peru it was found that many students who attended the bilingual program finished with a mastery of Spanish beyond that of mother-tongue speakers who had attended a school where Spanish was the only medium of instruction [Davis 1981, 239].

The bilingual approach has also helped deal with the problem of dropouts which afflicts many communities where the language of instruction is other than the language of the child [Bray 4-8]. Preliminary evaluations of programs in Papua New Guinea (Tokples schools) [Davis 1986 (general reference)] and Cameroon PROPELCA Project) [Tadadjeu 1987 (general reference)] suggest that children are less apt to drop out of school when their home language is the initial language of instruction. Furthermore, children tend to stay in school longer, with higher percentages of students successfully completing school [Tadadjeu September 1989].

Children of the Barai language group of Papua New Guinea learn to write.
Children of the Barai language group of Papua New Guinea learn to write.

Bilingual education programs often have unanticipated social and psychological benefits. Parents are more likely to be interested in a child's school activities when they see that the school is not turning the child against traditional customs and values.

An important product of such programs is the emergence of bilingual and bicultural professionals. These educators are interested in developing and maintaining the richness and vitality of their first language and culture. In this manner bilingual education becomes a source of vigorous cultural pluralism rather than mono-cultural hegemony.

Previous | Next