Mother Knows Best

An African experiment lends considerable weight to the argument for mother-tongue education

For the last five years, 24 schools in Central Africa’s Cameroon have taken part in an experiment to determine the efficacy of mother-tongue instruction. The schools in the country’s northwest Boyo Division were chosen because of their similarity to each other but, in this experiment, twelve schools have been using the local, indigenous language – Kom – as the medium of instruction for the first three grades, whereas the other twelve have been providing instruction only in English like the rest of the schools in Cameroon.

After Grade 3, children in the experimental schools return to the standard practice of English-only instruction. The results clearly show that children taught in the language they understand perform much better in reading and math. Perhaps surprisingly, they also do better in tests of English. The test scores in all subjects are typically more than twice as high as those of English-taught students who, on average, do no better on the multiple-choice examinations than if they had guessed randomly. Once the Kom-educated children switch to instruction in English in Grade 4, their advantage declines but it does not disappear.

At the end of Grade 5, standardized testing was once again completed for children in both comparison and experimental schools.

The Grade 5 assessment revealed the following:
1. The performance of students who had been in the experimental program has dropped quite dramatically though it is still statistically better than that of students coming from comparison schools.

2. Performance on all subjects tested was low with math being especially low.

3. English and reading comprehension are the two areas where the Kom-educated students show the greatest advantage over the comparison students – a relative gain or advantage of over 30%. Performance in math was almost the same for both groups.

Taken as a whole, the Grade 5 assessment suggests the following:
1. The three-year period of the intervention is not long enough to adequately prepare students for an effective transition to L2 instruction. (Note: Those who have been in English-only schools for all five years are even less prepared for the demands of Grade 5 than are the children from experimental schools.)

2. The students coming from the experimental schools still show in Grade 5 some of the educational benefits derived from having been in the experimental program.

3. The teaching of math in the area is woefully inadequate especially when done in English.

4. The overall level of proficiency in English reading proficiency and comprehension is probably at about Grade 2 to 2.5 compared to a native-speaking population.

The final section of the report presents a series of suggestions for improving the quality of educational delivery in Boyo Division based on the evidence of the research done over the 5-year history of the project.

Although a better-designed and longer experiment than most, this study has produced results very similar to many others. A recent literature review found decades of research in Africa showing that learning in one’s mother tongue for as long as possible improves education outcomes across the board, including in the acquisition of foreign languages. Nor is this insight particularly new: UNESCO has been advocating first-language instruction since 1953.

However obvious and research-based the recommendation, few countries have followed it in sub-Saharan Africa where nearly all education, from the earliest grades, is delivered in English, French, or Portuguese.

There are some practical reasons for retaining colonial languages in education like simplicity. There are so many languages in some countries that it would be prohibitively expensive to produce multilingual educational materials and train teachers who can instruct in a variety of languages. Another challenge is that the selection of one or several indigenous languages for instruction could, in several countries, be seen as a sign of favoritism for the communities who speak them compared to smaller groups whose languages were left out for ostensibly practical reasons.

Perhaps surprisingly, another factor is that colonial languages still retain considerable status. One of the most common identifying traits setting apart members of the African elites from the rest of the population is their command of European languages. Finally, those looking to improve opportunities for their children often dismiss the value of their own language and believe that monolingual education in English or French is more likely to lead to improved standards of living.

The full report on the Kom Experimental Mother Tongue Education Pilot Project Report for 2012 is available on the Mother Tongue Based-MultiLingual Education Network’s website

Kathleen Heugh, “Theory and practice – language education models in Africa: research, design, decision-making and outcomes”, in Adama Ouane and Christine Glanz, eds, Optimising Learning, Education and Publishing in Africa: The Language Factor, UNESCO, 2011.”