Language a resource, not a barrier, say experts at CIES

By Natalie Lovenburg

March 27, 2018

MEXICO CITY— More than 220 million children worldwide are taught to read in a language that is not their mother tongue, and not the language used in their day-to-day lives. This language divide makes it challenging for teachers, parents and communities to support children’s literacy skills.

In highly diverse multilingual environments like Mozambique and Afghanistan, identifying the appropriate language for education can be difficult and the language of instruction can make a big difference in learning outcomes, said experts on a panel at the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) conference on March 26.

“Language absolutely affects children’s ability to learn – especially in a multilingual nation,” said Creative Associates International’s Corrie Blankenbeckler, Senior Associate for Instructional Systems and Governance. “In Mozambique, there’s a limited recognition of local languages and only 10 percent of people in the country speak the national language of Portuguese.”

For Blankenbeckler, who manages the USAID-funded Let’s Read! (Vamos Ler! in Portuguese) program, language mapping is an important tool to understand the nuances of delivering an early grade reading bilingual education program.

On the panel session called “Using Data for Language in Education Decisions: Part 1: Understanding the Multilingual Context; Language Mapping in a Conflict-Affected Multilingual Environment: Afghanistan,” Blankenbeckler said the Let’s Read! program aimed to better understand the number of languages spoken by students in Mozambique and the frequency they used those languages in daily conversations.

Among children who finish primary school in Mozambique, nearly two-thirds leave the education system without basic reading, writing and math skills. The Let’s Read! project is focused on changing that.

Working in more than 2,700 schools, the program is supporting the Mozambican government to improve the reading and writing skills of children in first, second and third grades through literacy materials in local languages. It is simultaneously supporting oral language skills in Portuguese to prepare students for the transition from their local languages to the national language in grade 4.

Creative implements the program in close partnership with the World Education, Inc.American Institutes for ResearchOverseas Strategic Consulting and Blue Tree Group.

“Most children said they were bilingual or trilingual on paper,” said Blankenbeckler. But the result of the language mapping study was most children were not fluent in multiple languages.”

Shaping literacy programs with data

Representing Let’s Read! with Creative’s Corrie Blankenbeckler, Pooja Nakamura, Senior Researcher at American Institutes for Research, outlined the program’s language mapping process and shared the study findings the team has leveraged to inform program design and policy decision-making.

“Most language mapping efforts rely on census data which assumes a child only speaks one language,” explained Nakamura. “But to better understand oral language proficiency in multilingual Mozambique, we used a semantic fluency test of multiple languages in a representative sample of students.”

Let’s Read! also conducted a qualitative study to examine the sociopolitical landscape and perceptions of Mozambican languages and language of instruction choices, said Nakamura.

“The results of the qualitative study revealed that despite the official language of instruction policy, many teachers in Portuguese-only schools use mother-tongue language when teaching,” said Nakamura.

Pooja Nakamura, Senior Researcher at American Institutes for Research; Corrie Blankenbeckler, Senior Associate for Instructional Systems and Governance at Creative; and Samima Patel, Ph.D., Senior Reading Specialist at Creative, share insights on the multilingual education Let’s Learn! program at the annual CIES 2018 education conference in Mexico City.

Turning language challenges into opportunities

From the multilingual contexts of Mozambique to Afghanistan, the panel discussion focused on the link between a language mapping study and its interaction with a conflict-affected environment.

“Afghanistan is a multilingual country with more than 40 indigenous languages,” said Agatha van Ginkel, an education and language expert with SIL LEAD. “Considering this linguistic diversity, the Afghan Children Read project conducted a language mapping study to document the linguistic landscape in and around schools.”

In partnership with Creative, SIL LEAD, International Rescue Committee and Equal Access are implementing the USAID-funded Afghan Children Read project, which works to ensure quality education service delivery through an evidence-based early grade reading program in four provinces throughout the country.

The project works closely with the Afghan Ministry of Education to develop its capacity to scale-up nationwide an early grade reading program in its two official languages: Dari and Pashto.

“When we were conducting the language mapping study in Afghanistan, we had challenges navigating through security barriers and gender and cultural norms,” explained van Ginkel. “We had less women involved in the data collection but we applied approaches to engage teachers, parents and students in understanding the dynamics of languages at the community level.”

Despite the challenges of conducting the study in a conflict-affected context, the language mapping study has revealed essential information that has been necessary in providing recommendations for the Ministry of Education, said van Ginkel.

“Further research is necessary to understand the language spoken at home and at school, as well as the limitation of accessing places and people due to security and gender issues,” said van Ginkel.

Whatever the context or barriers, understanding the environment and adapting multilingual education approaches accordingly is incredibly important, emphasized Paul Frank, Ph.D., Executive Director with SIL Lead in summarizing the presentations.

“We must look at the hard realities of languages on the ground through ongoing observation, testing and assessment to continue to shape dialogue,” said Frank. “There is a richness in language diversity and we must be careful to not approach languages from a deficit.”

“Language is a resource, not a barrier,” he said.

Attending CIES?

To visit Creative’s CIES 2018 Special Report hub, click here. For a full schedule of Creative’s CIES 2018 panels, including panelists, times and locations, click here. In addition to the panel sessions, stop by booth 54 to engage with education experts and to learn more about Creative’s global projects. Follow us on Twitter @1977Creative for live updates.

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