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Advocacy Brief

Teaching and
Education for

UNESCO Bangkok
Mother tongue-based teaching and education for girls: advocacy brief.
Bangkok: UNESCO Bangkok, 2005.

10 p.

Running title: Advocacy brief on Mother Tongue-based

Teaching and Education for Girls

1. Girls education. 2. Mother tongue instruction. 3. Bilingual education.

4. Basic education. 5. Educationally disadvantaged.
6. Educational opportunities. I. Title.

ISBN 92-9223-058-1

© UNESCO 2005

Published by the
UNESCO Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education
920 Sukhumvit Road., Prakanong
Bangkok 10110, Thailand

Printed in Thailand

The designations employed and the presentation of material throughout the publication
do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of UNESCO
concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area or of its authorities, or
concerning its frontiers or boundaries.
Mother Tongue-based
Teaching and Education
for Girls

Language and girls’ schooling be overcome in middle-class or elite

conditions, but it grows exponentially
Basic education is seen as the best when it intersects with poverty, hunger,
means for improving conditions for poor disability, remote rural conditions, social
and rural populations, disadvantaged marginality -- or simply being born female.
social groups, and females, in general.
One of the agreed goals of the Dakar Understanding the conditions under
Framework for Action is to ensure that by which marginalized populations live is
2015 all children, especially girls, children a crucial first step towards designing a
in difficult circumstances, and children school system that works on their behalf.
from ethnic minorities, have access to There are strong connections between
complete free and compulsory primary ethno-linguistic background, girls’
education of good quality. Another goal school participation, and educational
calls for higher literacy rates, particularly opportunities in Asia and throughout
among women. All countries have the world. An exploration of these
been given a clear mandate to remove connections reveals strategies that
barriers to progress for girls and women. policy makers, education advocates and
Meanwhile, one of the biggest obstacles practitioners may follow to improve the
to Education for All remains in place: the situation for girls and women. The guiding
use of foreign languages for teaching and principle is to adopt an appropriate school
learning. language, which makes a difference
for girls even more than it does for all
The Asia-Pacific region is characterized disadvantaged learners.
by rich ethnic, cultural and linguistic
diversity. Papua New Guinea, for
example, has about 800 languages, Language and marginality
Indonesia has 650 and India has 380.
In this context, children who have an The linguistic boundaries between rich
opportunity to learn through their mother and poor are usually quite clear. The
tongue or home language have the best elite speak the language of education,
chance of understanding what is taught, governance and other official domains,
making the connection between the while marginalized groups speak
spoken and written word and participating languages or dialects that are not
in their own learning. Yet, many others valued or even recognized outside their
must struggle to learn through a foreign communities. These groups are often
language or language variety that is not called “linguistic minorities,” but the
their own. Forcing children to learn a new term may be deceiving. For example,
language before they can learn anything such groups outnumber speakers of the
else creates an educational handicap dominant language in countries like Lao
that should not exist. The handicap may

Advocacy Brief on Mother Tongue-based Teaching and Education for Girls

PDR, where mother tongue speakers Girls, marginality and language
of Lao comprise between 35 and 45
percent of the population. Further, ethnic In 1993, linguistic researcher Corson
minorities in China may represent only found that the three groups most affected
8 percent of the population, but they by unjust language policies and planning
number close to 100 million people. in education are women and girls, the
Economic activities and language are poor, and groups with languages not
interrelated in these contexts. Over represented in formal structures. The
50 percent of citizens of low-income injustice is clearly greatest for those
countries work in the informal sector, who experience all three conditions
doing small trading or bartering locally. simultaneously. Gender research has
These activities do not usually expose demonstrated that unless girls and
either children or adults to the dominant women are working in markets or
official language that would help them factories, they are much less likely than
in school. The younger and more boys and men to be exposed to an official
disadvantaged people are, the more language because their lives are more
likely it is that the home language will often restricted to the home and family
provide the most viable means of access where the local language is spoken.
to education and to a more productive This means that girls are less likely than
future. This does not mean that people boys to understand school instruction.
do not want to learn official languages; Unfortunately, this difference goes
on the contrary, they are acutely aware of unnoticed because girls are given fewer
their economic importance. They are also opportunities to speak and are expected
aware that schools are not doing a good to perform less well than boys.
job of teaching these languages.
Indeed, researchers in bilingual education
A linguistic mismatch between school in Africa and Latin America have found
and community creates problems in that girls who learn in familiar languages
both access to school services and in stay in school longer, are more likely to
the quality of those services. First, it is be identified as good students, do better
difficult for families to send children to on achievement tests, and repeat grades
school if that school does not adequately less often than girls who do not get home
communicate regarding enrolment language instruction. This indicates that
procedures, dates and times, and what a change in the language of teaching and
is to be taught. Second, only some of learning can greatly improve opportunities
those who attend school will be able to for educational access and attainment for
learn the new language well enough to female students.
understand instruction and pass to higher
levels. Finally, constant and well-founded
fear of failure may cause learners to have
low aspirations for their own educational
Mother tongue-based bilingual
achievement and, thus, participate education
unwittingly in a vicious circle of dropout
and failure. The observable symptoms of Bilingual education starts with the
using a foreign language of instruction are learner’s knowledge and experiences by
high repetition, failure and dropout rates developing reading, writing and thinking
- all of which disproportionately affect skills in the mother tongue or home
marginalized populations in rural areas language (L1), while teaching the second
and, particularly, girls. or foreign language (L2) as a subject. If
time is taken to build second language
skills based on a solid foundation in the
first language, the results can be high-
level bilingualism and biliteracy, as wide-

Advocacy Brief on Mother Tongue-based Teaching and Education for Girls

scale longitudinal research in the north School-based conditions: Girls are
has demonstrated. A strong bilingual vulnerable to sexual exploitation by male
model such as this provides long-term teachers and students, especially where
benefits like higher self-esteem, greater there are long distances between home
self-confidence, and higher aspirations for and school. Schools that lack latrines do
schooling and life. not meet privacy needs. Teachers tend to
perceive girls as less academically able
Some countries in the Asia-Pacific region than boys, which may lead to derision
have taken steps to adapt to the language in class. Furthermore, they often give
or languages of the learner. In Papua girls domestic tasks such as cleaning
New Guinea, some community schools classrooms and carrying water for the
teach in the mother tongue for the first others.
three years, while others use Tok Pisin, a
regional lingua franca. Other programmes Girls’ own attitudes and experiences:
use the L2 for much of the instruction, Girls become exhausted from balancing
but reserve a place for the L1 and local household tasks with attending school
knowledge. This is the case in parts of and studying. They may drop out due to
Viet Nam, where the L1 is taught as a lack of female role models, inability to
subject, or in Indonesia, where part of understand instruction, low self-esteem,
the day is set aside for local curriculum. or feeling that the curriculum is not
Unfortunately, few programmes promote relevant to their needs or interests.
strong language and literacy skills in
the home language, whether due to In the Asia-Pacific region, there are some
misunderstanding of the learning theory additional considerations:
or failure to prioritize school language
policy. Even some use of the L1 promotes • Greater vulnerability of girls from
learning and self-esteem, but at this time, female-headed households
the biggest benefits of schooling go to • Engagement of female children in
boys and girls who speak the language wage labor, particularly in factories, as
that dominates the society. well as in the sex industry
• Relative irrelevance of formal
education in preparing learners for
Obstacles to girls’ education productive work in the formal or
informal sectors
and strategies to address them
All of these conditions work against basic
A surprising number of obstacles to education for girls, particularly those from
girls’ school participation are reported poor and otherwise marginalized groups.
worldwide by poor and even by some There is a need for workable strategies
richer countries. While these are in the Asia-Pacific region that respond
generalizations that can not apply to all appropriately to each context. Two types
contexts or countries, some of the most of strategies have achieved positive
common are the following: results thus far:
Family decisions: Families with limited 1. Strategies that attempt to overcome
resources tend to send their sons to traditional reluctance to send girls
school and use their daughters for to school by addressing marriage
household tasks or small trading to practices, family values, female
support the family. There may be cultural role models, and school conditions.
and/or religious biases against formal Incentive programmes in Bangladesh,
education for girls, and early marriage for example, have increased female
makes it difficult for girls to study. enrolment by giving food or monthly
stipends in exchange for regular school

Advocacy Brief on Mother Tongue-based Teaching and Education for Girls

attendance and agreement not to marry association, a familiar culture and set of
before age 18. Schools in Bangladesh values. Teachers in bilingual programmes
have experimented with shorter days, speak to students and their families
seasonal sessions and running in shifts in the L1, increasing family access
to allow for girls to complete housework. to information about enrolment and
The Bangladesh Rural Advancement schooling processes.
Committee (BRAC) programme has
increased female enrolment significantly Use of the home language in school
by offering inexpensive basic schooling to increases parent participation and
poor children and by allocating 70 percent influence. Improved communication
of their openings to girls. allows parents to participate in school
activities and decision-making so that
2. Strategies that attempt to bring about schools respond more to community
girl-friendly attitudes and practices, needs and values. The resulting
especially through teacher training curriculum may better meet local needs
and hiring practices. One example is to so that schooling becomes more relevant
train and employ more female teachers, for girls.
requiring an improvement of physical
conditions at teacher training institutions Teachers from the same linguistic and
and schools, themselves. Another cultural communities as their students
example is hiring female community are less likely to exploit female students.
members, a BRAC strategy. A UNICEF Teachers who interact socially with
project in Viet Nam is attempting to target students’ families are potentially more
vulnerable populations by incorporating trustworthy and/or more subject to social
strategies for teaching multi-grade control, reducing the risk that they will
classrooms, mother tongue-based abuse girls sexually or otherwise.
teaching and gender awareness into
teacher training. The above claims are substantiated
by worldwide studies documenting
parent support for bilingual primary
How mother tongue-based programmes, as well as by parent
learning breaks down barriers confidence in bilingual teachers. In the
Asia-Pacific region, mother tongue-
to girls based programmes promoted by NGOs
are made possible by high levels of
How can a change in school language community participation in L1 materials
policy break down barriers to girls and production and in school decision-
complement the strategies mentioned making. In Davao del Norte, Philippines,
above? for example, women in a mother tongue-
based literacy project asked that their
The following are some claims regarding children be taught instead, resulting in a
positive effects of mother tongue use on joint pre-school/adult class. Although they
girls’ school participation. Some claims did not mention girls specifically, parents
are backed by solid evidence, while in PNG were reportedly pleased that their
others are hypothesized on the basis children came out of Tok Ples schools
of what is known, with examples from with an ability to function in their own
the Asia-Pacific region where they are language and an appreciation of their own
available. culture, both of which were undermined
by the national school system.
More girls enroll in school when they
can learn in a language that is familiar Girls in bilingual classes stay in school
to them. Girls and their families may longer. Mother tongue-based schooling
be less apprehensive about attending a makes the home-school transition easier
school that uses their language and, by

Advocacy Brief on Mother Tongue-based Teaching and Education for Girls

and, since girls have less exposure to based programmes, especially if they are
the second language, they feel more able to return to their home communities
comfortable speaking and learning in the to work. If bilingual schools attract women
L1. They are more likely to enjoy school, from rural and previously marginalized
experience success, and perceive that groups, girls will have women like
schooling is relevant, which will give them themselves as role models.
the skills and confidence to continue their
school careers. The idea of recruiting female bilingual
teachers was taken up by an NGO
Girls learn better and can demonstrate in Bolivia, which has developed an
their learning in the mother tongue. Being innovative “pedagogical secondary
able to use a familiar language in class school” programme for indigenous
allows girls to express the range of their girls. This programme prepares them
thoughts and experiences, as well as to teach in the mother tongue in their
demonstrate what they have learned. In home communities, and partially solves
this way, teachers can make more realistic the problem of filling posts in remote
assessments of their capabilities and areas. A similar project for marginalized
teach by building on what they know, girls in Rajasthan, India has been
instead of requiring them to communicate successful in increasing the proportion
in a language they do not understand. of trained female teachers from the
students’ communities by creating
Bilingual teachers treat girls more fairly special residential training schools for
in the learning process. Because girls women, though it did not specifically
can communicate as freely as boys in the target language of instruction. Neither
home language, teachers see that girls project has provided teacher training
are more capable than they may have through official structures, but both have
thought previously. Their expectations allowed women from marginalized groups
become more optimistic, and they are unprecedented access to training and
more likely to assist girls in their learning, higher profile positions.
reducing repetition and failure rates.

These claims are related to pedagogical Promoting change

and affective factors that influence school
success and retention. There is evidence There are already powerful pedagogical
from African experiences that girls in and social justifications for using the
bilingual programmes repeat grades less mother tongue in school, but the fact
often and stay in school longer than girls that mother tongue use is linked to
and boys in dominant language schools. improvements in girls’ participation
Similarly, bilingual schools in PNG have should call attention to its potential for
reported higher enrolment, lower dropout, meeting Education for All goals. To make
and a higher proportion of girls than these links more solid, researchers need
in other schools. The key seems to be to collect data on school enrolment,
replacing recitation and rote learning with repetition, dropout, and graduation
greater communication and participation, that clearly differentiates between girls
a process which is not guaranteed, but is and boys. There should also be more
facilitated by using the L1. descriptive studies of peoples’ values,
attitudes and opinions in terms of gender
More women may become teachers and, and language.
thus, role models for girls. If women are
most comfortable and skillful at speaking How can the home language be brought
local languages due to their home into schools that have been dominated
experiences, they are more likely to enroll by another language for so long?
in teacher education for mother tongue-

Advocacy Brief on Mother Tongue-based Teaching and Education for Girls

Schooling systems must change along Work with teachers and communities
with attitudes to improve educational to operationalize local curriculum
opportunities for female learners. The components of school programmes.
following are some “foot in the door” In school systems that have already set
strategies that are likely to promote aside time for local curriculum, teachers
awareness and encourage participants need strategies for involving community
to re-evaluate unfair schooling practices. members and including local language,
When these measures lead to more active culture and knowledge.
participation of all disadvantaged children
and especially girls, space may be made
for more far-reaching reform: Conclusion
Authorize oral use of the mother tongue Using the mother tongue for teaching
in the classroom, especially where it has and learning does not in itself equalize
traditionally been prohibited. This will opportunities for female learners, but
take away some of the stigma associated there are clear indications that it improves
with the mother tongue and lead the way conditions for all learners, and especially
for more systematic use of both first and girls. Designing a school system that
second languages. recognizes the language, culture and
competence of the learner is an important
Organize teacher placement so that step towards providing “Education for
teachers are placed in communities All.” Bringing the home language into
whose languages they share. This is schools means that formal learning is no
likely to improve the opportunities for longer just for the dominant groups, but
classroom communication, along with for all children. Such a change promises
increasing the number of female teachers to dramatically improve education for
because they can stay in or near their rural, marginalized, ethnic and linguistic
home communities. minority children and, particularly, for girls.

Use the mother tongue for preschool

teaching, adult literacy, and other non-
formal education. It may be easier to
change the language of teaching in less
formal arenas, after which it is a logical
extension to change formal primary and
secondary levels.

Provide in-service training for teachers in

first and second language development.
These are themes that should be taught
wherever there is linguistic diversity,
and teachers need to understand the
theories and methods underlying bilingual
programmes before they can effectively
implement such teaching.

Add the study of mother tongue as

a discipline to the curriculum. This
involves no official change in the medium
of instruction, but gives learners literacy
support in their first language.

Advocacy Brief on Mother Tongue-based Teaching and Education for Girls

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Advocacy Brief on Mother Tongue-based Teaching and Education for Girls


Carol Benson comes from the multidisciplinary field

of Comparative and International Education, blending
educational development with linguistics and anthropology.
Her research and consulting work focuses on mother
tongue-based education, policy and planning. She is based
at Stockholm University, and currently has projects in
Ethiopia, Mauritius, Mozambique and South Africa.

Advocacy Brief on Mother Tongue-based Teaching and Education for Girls