Teaching young children in the language they speak at home is key to ending learning poverty

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WASHINGTON, JULY 14, 2021 – Children learn more and are more likely to stay in school if they are taught first in a language they speak and understand. Yet an estimated 37% of students in low- and middle-income countries need to learn in a different language, which puts them at a significant disadvantage throughout their school life and limits their learning potential. According to a new World Bank report Loud and clear: effective policies on language of instruction for learning, effective language of instruction (LOI) policies are essential to reduce learning poverty and improve other learning outcomes, equity and inclusion.

Teaching takes place through language – written and spoken – and children’s learning to read and write is fundamental to learning all other academic subjects. the Loud and clear The report puts it simply: Too many children are being taught in a language they don’t understand, which is one of the main reasons why many countries have very low learning levels.

Children most affected by these policies and choices are often disadvantaged in other ways: They are in the bottom 40 percent of the socio-economic ladder and live in more remote areas. They also lack family resources to cope with the effects of ineffective language policies on their learning. This contributes to higher dropout and repetition rates, higher learning poverty, and lower learning overall.

“The devastating effects of COVID-19 on learning put a whole generation at risk” said Mamta Murthi, Vice President of the World Bank for Human Development. “Even before the pandemic, many education systems put their students at a disadvantage by forcing children to learn in languages ​​they don’t know well – and, in far too many cases, in languages ​​they don’t know at all. Teaching children in a language they understand is essential for recovering and accelerating learning, improving human capital outcomes, and rebuilding more efficient and equitable education systems.

The new LoI report notes that when children first learn in a language they speak and understand, they learn more, are better placed to learn other languages, are able to learn other subjects such as math and science, are more likely to stay in this language. school and live a school experience adapted to their culture and the local situation. In addition, it provides the most solid basis for learning a second language later in school. As effective LoI policies improve learning and progress in school, they reduce national costs per student and thus enable more efficient use of public funds to improve access and quality of education for all children. .

“Linguistic diversity in sub-Saharan Africa is one of its main characteristics – while the region has 5 official languages, there are 940 minority languages ​​spoken in West and Central Africa and more than 1,500 in sub-Saharan Africa, making it education even more difficult. more pronounced, “ said Ousmane Diagana, World Bank Regional Vice President for West and Central Africa. “By adopting better language of instruction policies, countries will enable children to have a much better start in school and be on the right track to building the human capital they need to support productivity.” and the long-term growth of their economies.

The report explains that while before COVID-19 the world made enormous progress in getting children to school, near universal enrollment in primary education did not lead to near universal learning. In fact, before the onset of the pandemic, 53 percent of children in low- and middle-income countries lived in learning poverty, meaning they were unable to read and understand suitable text. at their age before the age of 10. In sub-Saharan Africa, the figure was closer to 90 percent. Today, the unprecedented double shock of prolonged school closures and the deep economic recession associated with the pandemic threatens to make the crisis even more severe, with early estimates suggesting learning poverty could reach a record 63 %. These poor learning outcomes are, in many cases, a reflection of inadequate language of instruction policies.

“The message is strong and clear. Children learn best when taught in a language they understand, and this provides the best basis for learning in a second language ”, stress Jaime Saavedra, World Bank Global Director for Education. “This deep and unfair learning crisis requires action. Investments in education systems around the world will not bring significant improvements in learning if students do not understand the language in which they are taught. Substantial improvements in learning poverty are possible by teaching children the language they speak at home.

The World Bank’s new policy approach to language of instruction is guided by 5 principles:

1. Teach children in their mother tongue starting with early childhood education and care services through at least the first six years of primary education.

2. Use a student’s mother tongue for teaching academic subjects beyond reading and writing.

3. If pupils have to learn a second language in primary school, introduce it as a foreign language with an emphasis on oral language skills first.

4. Continue teaching the first language even after a second language has become the main language of instruction.

5. Plan, develop, adapt and continuously improve the implementation of language of instruction policies, in accordance with national contexts and educational objectives.

Of course, these language of instruction policies need to be well integrated into a larger set of policies to ensure alignment with political commitment and the educational coherence of the system.

This approach will guide World Bank funding and advisory support to countries to deliver high quality basic and early childhood education to all their students. The World Bank is the largest source of external financing for education in developing countries – in FY2021, it broke a new record and committed $ 5.5 billion in IBRD resources and IDA in new operations and, in addition, committed $ 0.8 billion in new grants with GPE financing, through a total of 60 new education projects in 45 countries.


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