Bilingual education

In countries where more than one language is spoken, education systems face the challenge of deciding which language to use in schools. Learning a new language is a particularly difficult task for a child. Instead, learning in a language a child already speaks can better support academic and literacy outcomes.

A common approach in multilingual communities is bilingual education, where teaching takes place in both a mother tongue and an official language. There is ample evidence that early experience of two languages, whether at home with bilingual family members or at school as part of a bilingual education program, can be beneficial for language skills. children’s spoken languages. These skills—vocabulary and awareness of speech sounds—predict children’s early reading abilities. This evidence has been found in sub-Saharan Africa and beyond.

However, we wanted to learn more about how language environments at home and at school support skilled reading in multilingual communities with low literacy rates, such as in rural areas of Côte d’Ivoire. Our aim was to understand whether bilingual environments at home and at school can benefit children’s language and reading skills in this context. We also wanted to understand what factors might influence literacy outcomes in such contexts.

We conducted research in Côte d’Ivoire from 2016 to 2018. Over 70 languages ​​are spoken in Côte d’Ivoire, but French remains the language of instruction in most primary grades. The results are mediocre: only 53% of young people aged 15 to 24 are literate. We measured the children’s language and reading skills in their mother tongue and in French, and compared the results between children attending a French-only or bilingual school, who grew up in monolingual or bilingual homes.

We found, as expected, that children in bilingual homes had better language and reading skills than their monolingual peers. But unexpectedly, children in French schools performed even better on language and reading tasks. The reason seemed to be the resources available in French language schools. The implication is that efforts to use multiple languages ​​in education must also be supported by better resources such as teacher training and school materials in mother tongues.

The research

Most rural households in Côte d’Ivoire do not speak French, so many children are first exposed to the French language when they start school. This mismatch between the language spoken at home and the language spoken at school may contribute to the fact that 10% of children repeat a year, only 73% of children stay in school until the end of primary school and only 53% of those aged 15 to 24 are literate.

Côte d’Ivoire launched a nationwide program called Projet École Intégrée in 2001, offering classroom instruction in a mother tongue alongside French. Our research team investigated how children’s spoken language and reading skills differed across home and school situations in multilingual rural communities with low literacy rates.

We looked at the differences between: bilingual (mother tongue and French) and monolingual (mother tongue only) homes and bilingual schools in the Integrated School Project program and traditional French-only schools. We assessed the oral language skills of 830 children both in their mother tongue (Abidji, Attiè, Baoulè, Bètè) and in French, and tested their French reading skills.

As expected, based on previous research linking early bilingual experience to advantages in language and reading skills, children from bilingual homes outperformed their peers from monolingual mother tongue homes on all measures. language and reading tasks in both languages. But school results were not so simple.

Children in bilingual schools repeat a year less often than children in traditional French-only schools. This suggests that teaching in the mother tongue may have helped them better understand the school curriculum. But overall, children attending bilingual schools performed worse on language and reading tasks in both languages ​​than children attending traditional French-only schools. This result was the opposite of what was expected based on previous research on bilingual education.

This may have reflected differences in the quality of education children received between the two types of schools. These quality differences were related to the use of mother tongues in bilingual classes. Teachers did not have sufficient training or school materials available to teach in mother tongues. Traditional French schools have not faced the same challenges because teachers are trained in teaching French and have enough French teaching materials.

Teachers in bilingual schools faced barriers that limited their ability to deliver high quality bilingual education. They had to deal with perceptions within their communities that the mother tongue was not an effective learning tool. As a fifth-grade teacher in the village of Moapè told us, they also lacked adequate resources to teach in native languages: We don’t have a pedagogical orientation to teach in the local language. I have to prepare the lessons and write each exercise by hand in the 40 student notebooks in my class… I prefer to give my lessons in French… Also, from the start, we were not trained in bilingual teaching. We are assigned to a class based on our ethnicity, not on our proficiency in the techniques of the language of instruction.

These constraints on the quality of bilingual education may have prevented children’s early literacy skills from flourishing. Therefore, it is not enough to implement a bilingual education program and expect learning and literacy outcomes to improve. Education systems should invest in bilingual education programs to ensure teachers have the resources to deliver high quality bilingual education.

Go forward

Bilingual education deserves to be invested. It reduces repetition and dropout rates and improves literacy scores. Including a child’s native language in education enhances their culture and can improve learning outcomes by increasing a child’s confidence and self-esteem. Improving the quality of bilingual education can also convince communities of its value and reduce negative perceptions of education in the mother tongue.

Recognizing the need to improve the quality and outcomes of bilingual education programs, Côte d’Ivoire has transitioned to the Organization Internationale de la Francophonie’s School and National Languages ​​in Africa (ELAN) program, which aims to improve the quality of bilingual education. Monitoring quality improvement will be important to the success of schools.

-The conversation

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