Mon, 19 Dec 2022 Feature Article

The Mother-Tongue Education Debate: To Teach and Learn in English or Ghanaian Language?

The Mother-Tongue Education Debate: To Teach and Learn in English or Ghanaian Language?

While many educators acknowledge the advantages of receiving education in one's mother tongue, they also understand the reality of our world and base their overall assessments on what works. English has emerged as a global language and has become the language of the global market: It is now the language of trade, technology, finance, medicine, education, and international politics.

Some experts maintain that children learn better when taught in their mother tongues, which their mothers and caretakers know best, and have inculcated in them. They argue that students learning in their mother's tongues give them the sense of security, love, and happiness they feel in their mothers' arms, causing all the brain to release happy neurotransmitters that motivate curiosity and the desire to learn, as well as critical thinking, imagination, and empathy. This is more so in their formative years.

All things being equal, students do well when they are taught in their mother tongues. Unfortunately, all things are not equal for some people: In some countries, instructions for children are written in languages that are different from their mother tongues. Furthermore, they test in languages that are not their mother tongues. In the Program for International Student Achievement (PISA), students who speak the test language (English) at home scored higher than those who do not speak the language at home.

Prof. Owusu Agyemang, a former minister of education, supported the notion of using mother tongue instruction when she was the minister of education during Mr. Mahama's presidency. Prof. Owusu Agyeman argued that countries such as South Korea had excelled economically because they instructed their children in their native language. I do not know the woman's understanding of development economics, but a cursory reading of South Korea's Economic development and growth points to a myriad of reasons with no significant weight attributed to monolingualism. She also forgets that, unlike Ghana, South Korea is a monolingual country, making the use of mother-tongue language in public school doable. One has to ask what local language or mother tongue a teacher in Accra should use to instruct his or her students whose parents may consist of Gas, Asantes, Nzema, Dagati, Ewe, and many more in one particular classroom. There are also instances where students may hear a language spoken at home but do not express themselves in that language.

It will surprise many of us to learn that many Ghanaians living in the cities cannot speak their first language well, even though they have difficulty speaking English. In other words, they are not in a position to teach their children their first languages. I remember a Ghanaian parent who could not construct one sentence in English correctly, saying, "As for me, I cannot speak Twi properly." I asked her, "Which language can you speak properly?" Often such important discussions are mired in partisan politics, making it difficult to separate the wheat from the chaffs. Let us remove the political husks from this technical debate and explore what the theory and the research say about the topic. The mother-tongue education advocates are working with the wrong operating assumption that the parents are competent in their first languages to teach them to their children. But that is not so.

Some education researchers have provided more rigorous, thorough, and systematic analyses to generate factual findings to help policy application. In a study, "Bilingual Effects on Cognitive and Linguistic Development: Role of Language, Cultural Background, and Education," one hundred and four six‐year‐old school children consisted of four groups: English monolinguals, Chinese‐English bilinguals, French‐English bilinguals, Spanish‐English bilinguals, were given three verbal tasks and one nonverbal executive control task to assess the effects of bilingual instruction on their academic development (Barac & Bialystock, 2012). The study revealed that all the bilingual groups performed equally and exceeded the monolingual groups on the executive control task; on the language tasks, the bilingual children whose language of instruction was the same as the language of testing performed better than the monolinguals. Rather than hurting them, bilingual instruction, therefore, benefits many aspects of children's development.

Cummins, J. (2000), one of the world's leading authorities on Bilingual education and second language acquisition, maintains that conceptual knowledge developed in one language helps to provide input in the other language making it comprehensible to the second language learner. If a child understands the concept of a chair (Akonwa) in her mother's language, then all she has to do is acquire the label for "akonwa" in English. The concept of "chairness" is not foreign to her. She knows what constitutes a chair, its uses, and its constitution. Likewise, any additional information she learns about a chair in English can help expand her understanding of "Akonwa" in the "Twi" language.

Cummins distinguishes between additive bilingualism and subtractive bilingualism. In additive bilingualism, the student continues to develop her first language and value her first culture while simultaneously adding on her second language and culture. Subtractive bilingualism is a situation where the second language is added at the expense of the first language and culture, thereby diminishing the first language and the first culture. Therefore, teachers of second language learners are advised to explore ways to incorporate the different cultural backgrounds of their students into Curriculum and instruction. Languages and cultures, as well as cultural diversity and linguistic diversity, are closely linked. Language curricula should include lessons on history, literature, and culture, as well as contemporary social, economic, and political phenomena, in order for students to acquire linguistic fluency and attain cultural literacy.

Our tasks, therefore, should be getting the student to learn the rigorous academic subject matter while simultaneously mastering a new language. It is irresponsible for educators in Ghana and officials from OECD to blame the low academic achievement of Ghanaian students on using the English language as the primary medium of instruction in Ghana. Prof. Agyeman cited South Korea's monolingualism as one of the reasons for their economic and educational success without telling her audience that the South Korean governments have been working very hard to create what they call English friendly country: there has been a call for sociolinguistic transformation, moving from monolingualism to English bilingualism. In 2007, President Lee Myung Bank made several attempts to reform the use of the English language in public education amid resistance from traditionalists.

The government argued that Korea produces "unlettered graduates" who cannot write and speak English. President Lee argues that better access to English through public education guarantees equality of social and economic opportunities. This is because, in Korea, as in Ghana, one's competence or skills in the English language is associated with success, social mobility, and international competitiveness. Thus, English competence is an important asset in gaining admission to Universities and highly placed international jobs. It may surprise us that none of the advocates of the mother tongue curriculum have educated their children in their mother tongues yet prescribed them for other people's children.

I do not think "Mother-Tongue Education" has much weight in explaining the declining student academic achievement in Ghana. Many problems explain the low academic performance of our students. Among these are ineffective and incompetent administrators, poor and outdated Curriculum and instruction, lack of basic educational infrastructure, basic supplies like textbooks and chalks, poor quality teachers, lack of professional development for teachers, poor nutrition for students, especially, K-5 students, and more importantly, lack of English Language Development methodology, and many more.

In policy analysis, the definition of a problem dictates the policy recommendation. If Prof. Agyeman defines the problem of Ghanaian education as the use of the English language as a medium of instruction, then her policy formulation and recommendations will be based on that definition of the problem. The problem she is talking about falls under the big umbrella of Curriculum and Instruction. First, she has to understand that all Ghanaian students are English Language Learners (ELL). Our Curriculum and instruction should, therefore, be designed as such. The policy question should be: how do we design effective instructional practices that support learning for English Language Learners? How do we train our teachers to teach second language students?

Almost every teacher in the United States understands SDAIE strategies (Specially Designed Academic Instruction for English Learners) for second language students. It deals with metacognitive development that provides students with the skills and vocabulary to talk about their learning. Teachers are also taught how to shelter instruction for second language learners, using their prior knowledge and experiences. Bilingual or biliteracy programs are used in most parts of Ghana. This can happen by design or default because many elementary school teachers have difficulties speaking English, so they often use our local languages to instruct their students.

The problem we have is not the use of the English language but the lack of it. We need to train our teachers in the theory and teaching of English as a second language. Stephen Krashen, one of the world's leading experts and researchers in language acquisition, observes, "Language acquisition does not require extensive use of conscious grammatical rules, and does not require tedious drill."

According to Krashen, "Acquisition requires meaningful interaction in the target language - natural communication - in which speakers are concerned not with the form of their utterances but with the messages they are conveying and understanding." Krashen summarizes the best way to teach a second language: "The best methods are those that supply 'comprehensible input' in low anxiety situations, containing messages that students really want to hear. These methods do not force early production in the second language, but allow students to produce when they are 'ready,' recognizing that improvement comes from supplying communicative and comprehensible input, not forcing and correcting production."

As a nation, we must provide opportunities for our students to become bilingual and bi-literate. We should provide opportunities for students to learn language skills in two or more languages: promoting students' metacognitive skills and allowing them to make appropriate language choices. There should be ongoing professional development for teachers on Curriculum, cross-cultural language instruction, and academic development. The design and delivery of instruction in the English language to our children should focus on an asset-based approach that recognizes the extensive linguistic and cultural assets students bring from their local areas and families to the classrooms.