National Language Versus Native Language Literacy: Choices and Dilemmas in School Instruction Medium

Baker, Victoria
Date of publication: 
Mon, 1996-01-01

While studies continue to show the advantages of educating children in their mother tongue---both for their later
acquisition and transference of reading skills to other languages, and for their total gain from educational input---the
mother tongue as medium of instruction still meets with resistance from many of the very participants who might profit
by it. From remote African villages to Australian aboriginal communities, from South or Southeast Asian settings to the
Peruvian Andes, examples can be found where the concepts of empowerment and usefulness---as perceived by hopeful parents---prevail over other considerations. At the same time, the notion of national unity through a single official language is defended by policy makers, who point out the practical and financial drawbacks involved in teaching in the vernacular in multilingual nations.
This paper adds to the ongoing examination of variables and the debate over whether literacy acquisition in multicultural societies should be provided in the native tongue of the children in the classrooms. The findings from numerous grassroots-level case studies made by the author (e.g. Senegal, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Malawi, northern Thailand, Papua New Guinea, and Sri Lanka) are presented as a source of participants' perceptions and desires. Additional comparative data from other countries are brought in to attest to the complexity of the debate, and to underscore the recurring themes of usefulness and social advancement on the one hand, and national unity and progress on the other.