How to teach a mother tongue… when it no longer is a mother tongue?

Posted by Colette Grinevald et Bénédicte Pivot on December 18, 2010

By Colette Grinevald and Bénédicte Pivot, linguists at the University of Lyon 2 Dynamique du Language (DDL – language dynamics) laboratory.

When an ethnic language is not a mother tongue but an endangered language bearing strong symbolic identity value for its community, how does it fit in formal education?

For all existing ethnic groups, the UNESCO recognizes linguistic rights in favor of the development of bilingual education programmes. These programmes are based on scientific discourses that have proven school-based education and the cognitive development of children to stem better results when instruction was provided in their mother tongue (see Tove Skutnabb-Kangas’ articles).

While intentions are worthy, however, previous discussions have shown how difficult these programmes were to put together, including when there was still a fair number of speakers left.

So what happens when adding to the lack of speakers, the ethnic language is no longer a mother tongue, in the sense of the vernacular language used in the earliest stages of childhood education, but remains their language in the eyes and heart of its community, thus willing to have it revitalized through formal education?

The Rama are Amerindians of the southern Caribe coast of Nicaragua. Out of the near 3,000 people forming the Rama community, only around thirty still speak their ethnic language. The language spoken within the community nowadays is a variant of English-based Creole, which was introduced by the dominant Creole population. Spanish, the official language of Nicaragua, is nothing to them but a second language mastered by only very few.

But in the context of the national and Amerindian indigenous identity claim movement during the 80s, and while this language, Rama, which themselves referred to as a « primitive » tiger language, was disappearing, leaders of the community requested its revitalization. A process of revaluation followed, supported from the start by a team of external linguists.

25 years later, the Rama’s attitude towards their ethnic language has changed: it has become a precious « asset » they are proud of, one they refer to as their « treasure language ». It is « their language », our language, one they own and that makes them identifiable individuals, distinct from other ethnic groups, and most of all, different from the Creoles.

Today they contribute to developing the online Rama encyclopaedic dictionary (, actually « capitalizing » their linguistic knowledge one word after the other. Being able to learn from it has brought satisfaction to them, answering that « yes, they know the language, as they speak one one word… »

This language is also a way for them to claim sovereignty over their own territory (recognized by law since 2009), with toponyms they have now relearned in Rama.

Thus has changed the status of Rama; it has become a « treasure language » bearing strong symbolic identity and demonstration value, a language that has no purpose of ever being spoken fluently again, a language that isn’t and probably never will be a mother tongue again, like Zapara in Ecuador. But the demand remains strong in the community to have this treasure language revitalized within a formal education programme for school children.

Yet the only institutional response nowadays, based on international linguistic rights, is carried out through bilingual education programmes unable to make a distinction between an ethnic language and a mother tongue. A confusion pointing out the current lack of reflection upon the particular status of these endangered languages of strong symbolic value, which become objects of revitalization programmes with no aim for revernacularization. Their transmittal raises the question of a relevant didactic approach, yet to be invented at this point.

If this challenge isn’t faced, there will remain a great confusion in the minds of revitalization local players and an education system claiming to be multicultural and bilingual (or multilingual) but doesn’t acknowledge the special status of treasure language.

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Greenland Inuits and problems in language teaching

Posted by Jean-Michel Huctin on December 13, 2010

Jean-Michel Huctin is a PhD student at University Paris Diderot and lectures in Arctic Anthropology at University Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines. Since 1997, he regularly stays in a North Greenland Inuit community, whose language (Kalaallisut) he speaks. Engaged in the promotion of Inuit culture and in educational activities for the local youth, he is also co-author and co-producer of « Inuk» (, to be released in 2011), the first fiction feature film entirely in the Greenlandic language.

© Jean-Michel Huctin

Until the end of the 1970′s, the educational system in Greenland (where 90% of the 57,000 inhabitants are Inuit) was giving priority to Danish, the colonial language, to the detriment of the majoritarian native language, Kalaallisut (West Greenlandic, of the Eskimo-Aleut languages group). As a result, Kalaallisut was threatened, the level of instruction of the population was stagnating at a very low level, and generations of adults (over age 30, who have received secondary or higher education in Denmark) prefer to read and write in Danish rather than in Greenlandic, when they have the choice (« it’s faster » they say).

Through the action of the first indigenous government in 1979 (upon finally becoming autonomous Greenland remained a part of the Kingdom of Denmark), Kalaallisut became the official national language and primary language of instruction. With the increasing number of native teachers, instruction in mother tongue contributed to saving Kalaallisut, now one of the strongest languages in the Arctic, and to continuously increasing the educational level of the youth : official statistics show that the number of people having completed their education almost doubled in the last ten years (Statistics Greenland, 2005 and 2009).

However, this remarkable success in elementary and middle schools failed to end the supremacy of the former colonial language, which today remains the key to academic success. The reasons being that a large majority of the High-school teachers are Danish (often the most skilled and in positions of direction), many textbooks are not translated, the level of high schools is sometimes considered better in Denmark, Greenland’s only University offers few curriculums, etc. Most young people who successfully complete their education are those who master Danish, including children of mixed couples who have not learned their mother tongue. Some Greenlanders even argue that there are too many students who cannot get further education because they cannot speak Danish.

In addition, Inuit students from Greenland, like other young people of the world, must also learn English which will broaden their international horizon more than Danish. The education system is therefore trilingual and these students spend much of their time learning languages.

As for students from the East Coast, they learn Tunumiisut (around 3000 speakers) within their family, while those of Thule in the extreme Northwest speak Inuktun or Avanersuarmiutut (around 1,000 speakers), all of which are regarded as dialects by Greenlandic authorities. They must moreover, just like their fellows on the West Coast, learn three languages at school: Kalaallisut, Danish and English.

The educational system thus involves using three languages, sometimes four! The huge linguistic efforts required are a source of discouragement and finally contribute to school failure. The problem is not only one of cognitive overload: together with having to abandon their own mother tongue for the prescribed mastery of more or less “foreign” and sometimes formerly “colonial” languages, students in Greenland are judged according to new ways of thinking, they undergo different teaching contents, methods and modes of evaluation, and are compared with students who have not been compelled to make similar efforts. Some students “feel degraded”, complains Aviâja E. Lynge (Greenlandic anthropologist and education specialist), “because they must adapt to Western standards and because the education system is too different from their own culture.”
The old debate on language is not over : it regularly revives the passions of this post-traditional and ex-colonial Inuit society…

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Why should children be taught mainly through the medium of their mother tongue for the first 6-8 years ?

Posted by Sorosoro on December 4, 2010

By Finnish sociolinguist Tove Skutnabb-Kangas who has specialized in multilingual education, among other research topics, and is involved in mother-tongue education projects in Nepal and India.
Last week Tove explained why it is essential to school children in their mother tongue first, in order to help them grow into « thinking and knowledgeable » persons. The exploration of this topic continues here on the question of the recommended duration of mother-tongue education, with field inputs from Nepal, Ethiopia and India.

Nepal - © Katia Buffetrille

All research studies in the world show that the longer the child has the mother tongue as the main medium of education, the better the child learns the subjects and the better s/he also becomes in the dominant language of the counrty and in additional languages.

In Nepal, the teachers in the multilingual education programmes know both the children’s mother tongue and Nepali. They all teach Nepali as a second language subject from grade 1 or 2.

Then, when the child is already high-level bilingual in the mother tongue and Nepali, she learns English and other languages faster and better than if she starts English learning as monolingual in the mother tongue. She needs fewer years and less exposure to English to learn it well.

So, what is the recommended duration of teaching in mother tongue ? 3 years of mother tongue teaching is much better than having all the teaching in Nepali (or in English, which is even worse), but 3 years is NOT enough. 6 years in the mother tongue is an absolute minimum, but 8 years is better.

Ethiopia, one of the poorest countries in Africa, has a decentralised education system where 8 years of mother-tongue-based multilingual education is recommanded. Some districts have chosen to have only 4 or 6 years of mother-tongue-medium. Comparing results from the whole country, a large study shows that those who have 8 years of mainly mother-tongue-medium and who have studied Amharic (the dominant Etiopian language) and English as subjects, have the best results in science, mathematics, etc., and also in English. Those with 6 years are not as good, and those who have switched to English-medium already after grade 4, have the worst results, also in English.

Many studies in India show that children in English-medium private schools initially know English better than children in mother tongue or regional language government schools. But at the end of grade 8, the knowledge in the various subjects of the students in English-medium schools is lower than in the government schools, and their English is no better. In addition, they do not know how to read or write their mother tongues and do not have the vocabulary to discuss what they have learned, in any Indian languages. They have sacrificed knowledge of Indian languages and much of the knowledge of school subjects but they only get a proficiency in the English language, that is not high-level. This is partly because the English language competence of teachers is generally not very high, but also because the children have not been able to develop a high-level cognitive-academic language proficiency, neither in the mother tongues nor in English.

The number of years in mother-tongue-medium education is also more important for the results than the parents’ socio-economic status. This means that multilingual education also supports economically poor children’s school achievements.

> Next week we’ll be setting off for Greenland! Anthropologist Jean-Michel Huctin will tell us about danish/kalaallisut bilingualism in the Greenlandic school system.

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