A similar effect was seen in Ethiopia after the downfall of the Derg, a communist military dictatorship, in 1987. The Derg had mandated that education be in Amharic, a Semitic language with its own script, very different from Oromigno, a Cushitic language spoken by the Oromo people and written in the Latin script. A study from 2017 looking at Oromo children educated just before and just after the change showed an 18-percentage-point increase in literacy. Newspaper readership was also 25% higher among the mother-tongue educated people, which very likely meant greater political participation.
Of course, parents may be more concerned that their offspring speak English, rather than that they learn history or arithmetic. They may think it worth sacrificing some of the knowledge and understanding that can be gained from being educated in the mother tongue for better prospects in the labour market. But there seems not to be a trade-off. A forthcoming study looked at 12 schools in Cameroon which taught children in Kom rather than, as is standard practice, English, during the first three years of school. Not only did Kom-medium children perform better in all subjects than English-medium ones in third-year tests; in the fifth year they even outperformed English-medium children in English.
“Parents are right that speaking English works for a child,” says Zia Abbas of The Citizens’ Foundation (TCF), a charity that runs 1,500 schools in Pakistan at which children are taught in Urdu. “But they don’t understand the difference between English as a subject and English as a medium of instruction. The children end up not learning English, and not learning anything.”
Some governments have taken this on board. In Pakistani Punjab the new Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government, which took power in the province last year, is to reverse the previous government’s move from Urdu to English. “We don’t have enough qualified teachers,” says Murad Raas, Punjab’s education minister, “and children in the rural areas can’t learn in English. They must be taught in a language they understand.” Punjab is developing a new Urdu-medium curriculum.
Uganda has implemented mother-tongue instruction for the first four years in 12 different languages, and seen big improvements in learning in some languages, though not all. Kenya, too, is moving in the mother-tongue direction. Last month the government introduced a new curriculum which includes a half-hour lesson in “literacy”— in the mother tongue—every day.