Literacy, language, politics and money: Experts weigh in at CIES

By Ashley Williams 

April 18, 2019

SAN FRANCISCO – Decades of research show that children best learn to read in a language they understand and use, but it has taken extended and sometimes heated discussion to adopt mother-tongue education in many countries. Even after countries expand or scale-up these mother-tongue language programs, the debate continues.

Education experts from Creative Associates International, Chemonics, USAID and Cambridge Education came together to discuss the political challenges of mother-tongue instruction in a panel at the Comparative and International Education Society conference in San Francisco on Tuesday. Their session, titled “Literacy, language, politics and money: Impacts on scaling up reading reform programs,” covered the political nature of language and the impact on education in Morocco, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Senegal.

“We need to stop romanticizing school and we need to accept that working in education means working in a politically loaded environment,” said Mamdouh Fadil, Chief of Party for the Creative-implemented and USAID-funded Afghan Children Read project.

In Afghan Children Read program-supported classrooms like this one, students learn to read in in their mother-tongue language, either Dari or Pashto. Photo by Jim Huylebroek.

Language and politics in Morocco

Morocco sits at the gateway between Africa, Europe and the Middle East, which has influenced the country’s diverse language use. Moroccan Arabic, the country’s majority native language, and Berber, the indigenous language spoken, both have a vulnerable social status in Morocco. Standard Arabic and French, on the other hand, have strong social capital and are languages of instruction and administration.

“You can never really talk about education without bringing up the social debate around languages and around the social status of people who speak the language.”

Fathi El-Ashry, Senior Literacy Advisor, Creative
“You can never really talk about education without bringing up the social debate around languages and around the social status of people who speak the language,” said Fathi El-Ashry, Creative’s Senior Literacy Advisor who works on the USAID-funded National Program for Reading in Morocco.

The country’s curriculum had been in place for 19 years, but the Ministry of National Education and Vocational Training recently put language at the top of its reform agenda and developed new Arabic language curriculum for grades 1 and 2. The textbooks for the 2018/2019 school year reignited the language debate when a viral Facebook post questioned the propriety of using Moroccan Arabic words – for common food names with no Standard Arabic substitute – in a textbook written in Standard Arabic.

“The previous textbooks in Morocco were just abstract language. Now the authors are trying to [be more inclusive by acknowledging] these kids who live in the mountains and in the villages need something tangible that they can connect the words to,” said El-Ashry, explaining why local foods were included in the new books.

But the handful of Moroccan words sparked a national debate, with many people feeling it is best for their children to learn only in Standard Arabic or French.

“Politics is really attached to language in Morocco,” said El-Ashry.

While the language debate continues in Morocco, the National Program for Reading is working to foster literacy across the country.

Mother tongue language as a unifier or divider in Ethiopia

Mother tongue instruction has been in practice for over two decades in Ethiopia and is seen as critical to building a pluralistic national identity. However, the fact that some languages being used for primary instruction have not been successful in the classroom and the growing demand for English instruction are highlighting the balancing act of multilingual education.

“Why do we need mother tongue in the first place? Is it only because of identity? No. That is one part of it,” said Mesfin Derash Zeme, Senior Materials Development Specialist on the USAID-funded READ II program being implemented by Creative.

“Children learn best in a language they know. This is obvious … There is no learning if there is no common language between the teacher and students, because education is two ways. It’s not only the teacher speaking,” he said.

Derash Zeme went on to note that while he speaks and works in multiple languages, he thinks and dreams in his own language.

“If we let the children begin [school] in their own language it will be a springboard for them. It will be a foundation to learn other subjects, [such as] mathematics or even learn another language.”

Apart from the debate of which language to learn in, there are also sensitivities about how languages of instruction are use. “Oftentimes reading is used as a political football,” said Karen Tietjen, chair of the panel and Creative’s Principal Technical Advisor.

Speakers on the “Literacy, language, politics and money” panel represented programs in Morocco, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Senegal.

Making progress in a political environment

Whether in Morocco, Ethiopia or any number of other multilingual contexts, experts agreed that education programming should include dialogue at all levels in order to successfully navigate sensitivities, secure buy-in and ownership from government and community actors, and ultimately succeed in teaching young learners to read.

“A lot of the issues [with reading reform] that we dealt with over the last decade have been primarily technical,” said Tietjen. “These are all challenging problems, and I’m not going to say that we solved them all, but as we move to scale-up on the projects there is a whole new set of issues that ministries of education, donor partners and implementing partners confront in one way or another.”

Attending CIES?

To visit Creative’s CIES 2019 Special Report hub, click here. For a full schedule of Creative’s CIES 2019 panels, including panelists, times and locations, click here. In addition to the panel sessions, stop by booths 16-18 to engage with education experts and learn more about Creative’s global projects. Follow us on Twitter @1977Creative for live updates.

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