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Embrace and enhance multilingualism inschools for improved educational outcomes

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By Musa Baldeh

With the abysmal performance of school children in external exams, especially in English and Mathematics, there is an urgent need to prioritize multilingualism (use of mother tongue) in schools, particularly in early grades. There is abundant evidence that shows that the use of children’s first language commonly known as L1 or mother tongue in early grades yields positive outcomes as it improves literacy, spurs academic growth, and enhances better acquisition of a second language.  While some believe that the use of the mother language in schools is a counterproductive and expensive venture that will only create difficulties for teaching and learning, the benefits are far more than the challenges.  Let’s take a look at the main factors that made it beneficial to consider the use of L1 and L2 in schools.

According to UNESCO, there are about 7000 languages in the world but four in every ten students are taught in languages they do not understand which creates a great barrier to effective teaching and learning. However, using children’s L1 and L2 in schools has been linked to significant improvement in learning outcomes and academic performance. This is because if children are taught the language they understand better, it will not only make them grasp the content faster but will also improve their literacy and numeracy skills quite better and easier. In the Gambia, many households are more fluent in their native languages, and as such, they communicate with their kids in those languages which results in making it difficult for the kids to understand the English language at an early age. So, using their L1 as a medium of instruction will significantly improve their academic performance and develop core skills better.

A recent survey conducted in the Gambia on Early Learning in National Languages proves that the use of L1 as the medium of instruction in the early grades of schooling significantly improves academic performance and fosters a greater understanding of the subject matter. Thus, with the current trend in our school system, we need to expand the use of national languages and give it all the due it deserves. If children are taught in the language they understand best, it will make it easy for them to translate concepts into ideas and solve complex problems in arithmetic. On the other hand, it will be extremely difficult for kids to translate thoughts into ideas if they have to first translate those thoughts into another language and then to ideas.

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Furthermore, the use of L1 as a medium of instruction is a great opportunity for teachers because many of them find it even easier to communicate in their L1 as well. This will remove the burden on them, especially at the lower grade which is a very important stage of a child’s development. Teachers will teach more effectively and there will be a positive atmosphere of learning which will result in positive outcomes for students. This will give teachers self-confidence in the classroom as a result they will deliver better.

Moreover, multilingualism in schools can create a sense of national identity and unity. English is a foreign language and regardless of how fluent we may be in it, it can never replace our national languages and identity. Learning in a multilingual environment will give kids and parents a sense of belonging, unity, and love for self which is a great prerequisite for self-esteem. A country without national identity is a country that with no culture and that is a recipe for national disaster of grave proportion. We should not allow that to happen as it will spell chaos for future generations.

Currently, according to studies, many languages in the world are extinct, some endangered while others threatened. When a language dies, a whole set of culture, heritage, and tradition goes with it and one way of ensuring that we protect our languages is to ensure that they are written, taught, and used and the school can play a significant role in that domain.

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Finally, I would like to make a clarion call to every stakeholder in education to fully support the Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education Language in Education Policy for the Gambia. It is a welcomed development and there should be a concerted effort in ensuring that the document is improved, approved, used and sustained for better educational outcomes and progress. Some significant progress has been made in other countries using their L1 as medium of instruction, thus we can learn a lot from them and join hands in making The Gambia a multilingual and progressive country for national development. 

Musa Baldeh is an aspiring educational professional who until his travel to the United States was an acting education officer with the Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education, Regional Education Directorate, 1. He holds a bachelors of science and education degree (BSc/Ed) Biology and Agriculture and a masters degree in Outdoor and Sustainability Education from Sweden.

He is an avid lover of National languages especially Pulaar where he authored several pieces geared towards the promotion of national languages in schools and society. He worked briefly as a language and cultural facilitator with the Peace Corps, The Gambia before leaving to the US for studies.

He is currently pursuing a Leadership Program on Educational Administration, Planning and Policy at Penn State University, US under the auspices of The Hubert H Humphrey Fellowship.

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