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How to achieve High Level Multi-lingualism?


For the interest of our visitors, we are publishing this interesting text sent by Ledikasyon Pu Travayer, on the importance of using the mother-tongue as medium of instruction in school. The text is based on the Report of the International Hearing held in 2009 in Mauritius, on the Harm Done to Children by the suppression of the Mother Tongue in School.

Children need to be taught mainly through the medium of their mother-tongue for the first 6-8 years of school

 When children come to school, they know the basics of their mother tongue already. They can talk about things they can see and touch. They can respond instinctively, “Mo pa ti ule dir mang, mo ule enn banann, mwa.” They speak fluently. They speak with confidence. They ask questions immediately. Their accent is perfect. They know the basic grammar. Their vocabulary is already quite developed in terms of concrete words. They have what experts call “basic interpersonal communicative skills” (BICS). This is enough for the first grades in school, where teachers are talking about things that the child knows. But, later in school, children need to get a grasp of abstract ideas. They need to acquire intellectually and linguistically more demanding concepts. They need to be able to understand and talk about things far away (e.g. in geography, history) or things they can’t see (e.g. mathematical and scientific concepts, about ideas like honesty, the Constitution, fairness, democracy). They need to be able to solve problems using no other support than language and abstract reasoning, without concrete demonstration (e.g. “Si mo fer A, lerla swa D swa E pu arive; si lerla mo swazir K, posib ki X arive, ubyin mem Y; alor, li meyer pu fer B uswa C avan”.) This needs what experts call “cognitive-academic language proficiency” (CALP). CALP develops slowly from Grade 3 onwards – in primary school, through secondary school and later in life. Children need to develop abstract concepts on the basis of what they already know in their mother tongue. If the development of the mother tongue CALP (which mainly happens through formal education) is cut off when the child starts school, they may never have an opportunity to develop higher abstract thinking in any language.

This is grave. And yet this is what is happening in Mauritius, until today. And it is 50 years since Independence.

If teaching is in a language that a Kreol-speaking child does not speak naturally (e.g. in English or French), the child sits in the classroom the first 2-3 years without understanding much of the teaching. The child may repeat mechanically what the teacher says but without understanding properly. Therefore, the child does not develop his or her capacity to think with the help of language. The child learns little about the subject being taught. This is why many Kreol-speaking children leave school, not having learned much English or French, not having learned properly how to read and write, not having developed their mother tongue, and almost without any school-acquired knowledge.

If children have Kreol as the teaching language, they understand the teaching, learn the content, develop the CALP in Kreol and have very good chances of becoming a thinking, knowledgeable person who can continue towards multilingual education.

 Parents want children to learn English, and French. If Kreol is medium, how do they learn English and French?

 All mother-tongue-based multilingual education programmes should teach English as a second language subject from Grade 1 or 2. As the CALP part of language develops in the mother-tongue, much is shared in with English (and other additional languages such as French) as they acquire it. The child needs to learn reading-and-writing only once in life. This is easiest in a language they know. When the child has understood the relationship between what one hears-and-speaks and the reading-writing system in the mother tongue, this understanding is easily transferred to other languages. When the child has learned many abstract concepts in Kreol, all they need to learn is the different “labels” in English. All new languages we learn rely upon what experts call “a common underlying proficiency” that is shared with the mother-tongue. The child develops this proficiency in the language he or she knows best, Kreol. Then, it is easily transferred to other languages. And when children are already high-level bilingual in Kreol and English, they learn French and other languages faster and better. They then needs fewer years of French in order to learn it well. All research in the world shows that the longer the child has the mother-tongue as the main medium of education, the better the child learns the subjects and the better the child also becomes in English and additional languages.

 Isn’t it enough if children have the first 3 years in Kreol and then teaching is in English?

3 years of teaching through Kreol is much better than all the teaching being in English, but it is not enough. The CALP development is nowhere near a high enough level in the mother-tongue after only 3 years. 6 years in Kreol is an absolute minimum. 8 years is better.

 The most conclusive research so far is David Ramirez’s 8 year longitudinal study in the US in 51 schools amongst children who have Spanish as mother-tongue.[1]  2,000 students were divided into three categories according to the language policy of the school they were at. Those who were taught more through the mother tongue did significantly better in all subjects, including English.

  Parents want English-medium schools. What are the likely results?

Many studies in India show that children in English-medium private schools initially know English better than children in Indian-language-medium schools. But at the end of grade 8, the knowledge in the various subjects of the students in English-medium schools is lower than in mother tongue schools, and their English is not better either. In addition, they do not know how to read or write their mother-tongues and do not have the vocabulary to discuss in any Indian language, what they have learnt. They have sacrificed knowledge of Indian languages and much of the knowledge of school subjects but they only get a proficiency in English that is not at a high level. This is mainly because the children have not been able to develop a high-level CALP.


Mother-tongue-based multilingual education for the first 6-8 years, with English as a second language and French and other languages as additional language seems to be a good research-based recommendation for Mauritius.

[1] J.David Ramirez, Director Centre for Language Minority Education and Research California State University Long Beach, 1250 Bellflower Boulevard, Long Beach, California 90840.