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Kathleen Heugh is an international expert in bilingual and multilingual education with the University of South Australia. Ms Heugh was the keynote speaker at events organised by VVOB’s programmes in Belgium last month, eNSPIRED and, and we listened intently. Here are just a few of the take-aways about current pressing linguistic issues in education.

So, what are the challenges? Societies worldwide are diversifying. If we do not anticipate on these changes, societal pressure will ensue. This is the case for our education systems too. We need to make sure all children can learn in school, regardless of their linguistic background. Because if they fall through the cracks of our system that early on, it will be ever so hard for them to participate fully in society as adults.


Of course, governments want all their learners to become fully functional members of their societies. But the same governments are still quite reluctant to make room for learners’ mother tongues in education policies. Governments want learners with a different linguistic background to be submerged in the dominant language, often the language of instruction in schools. This despite ample research showing that this approach is counterproductive: Learners who do not understand what is going in class, cannot do maths or science either. They drop out of school and the formal economy system and become vulnerable in society. Girls especially are at risk.


By not taking into account learners’ mother tongues, governments are not taking into account the daily reality faced by many teachers. Learners with a different linguistic background do fall behind. At the eNSPIRED event too, we heard that the attending Belgian teachers and teacher trainers are indeed unsure about how to integrate mother tongues in their classrooms due to this gap in education policy.



Mother tongue-based multilingual education (MTB-MLE) has been internationally recognised as the most effective model for learning, i.e. for making sure learners with a different linguistic background become bilingual learners, stay in school and actually learn. In a system of MTB-MLE, the mother tongues and instruction languages coexist. In the beginning, the mother tongue is dominant. Its use fades gradually over time as it makes more room for the language of instruction.


Research shows that at least six years of MTB-MLE are needed before learners with diverse linguistic backgrounds can continue schooling in the dominant language of instruction without falling behind. In some cases, eight years is the necessary minimum. Systems implementing anything less than six years will not see their drop-out rates reduced in the long run.


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Multilingual Education Working Group, UNESCO: MTB-MLE is about so much more than just changing the language in the textbook, the test, or that the teacher uses in the classroom. It is about re-envisioning learning so that it centres on the critical thinking and wider social skills needed in a rapidly changing world. And it is about challenging power dynamics in the learning environment so that students can direct their own learning in ways that are meaningful to them.


MTB-MLE requires the use of the mother tongue as a language of instruction in the classroom, however, it is not about restricting access to national and international languages. Rather, MTB-MLE is about properly preparing children to learn these languages well. Starting in the language they know best allows children to build a strong foundation, which then enables them to make an effective transition into other national or international languages in due course.

Children do and feel better in school if their mother tongues are appreciated in the classroom. In a multilingual model, learners feel prioritised and included, so their wellbeing and confidence increases. Learners can turn to one another in their mother tongue for help, so their learning improves. And making room for learners’ mother tongues in the classroom also supports their mastery of the language of instruction, so their valued place in society when they grow up is better secured. Just the way governments intended it. In the long run, the cost of implementing MTB-MLE is significantly lower than the cost of learners repeating grades, dropping out of school and falling outside of the formal economy.


Talking about inclusion and wellbeing in learning makes us think of the Sustainable Development Goals, and SDG4 in particular. Ms Heugh concurs. If SDG4 is indeed about an inclusive quality education for all, it needs a multilingual approach. What is more, multilingualism is best embedded transversally in all policies, because most societies are multilingual. If that becomes the case, multilingualism is more easily extended to include education policies.



Teachers should take their time to integrate their learners’ mother tongues into their classes, in a mindful and useful way. Some fear that they will lose control, because they will not be able to understand what learners are talking about amongst themselves, or that learners will bring new knowledge into the classroom unbeknown to the teachers.


But those interactions could be such a rich source of new information! Not only can the children learn something new from their peers, so could the teachers. Welcoming mother tongues in the classroom creates opportunities for learning something new about the culture, traditions, knowledge… that accompany these languages.


Ms Heugh shared with the Belgian teachers and teacher trainers that their peers in less affluent countries achieve this using cheap and easy tools and methodologies, often developed by the teachers themselves. It is all about common sense and finding a balance that feels comfortable for both the teachers and the learners. But of course, the policy environment needs to be in place too.

Kathleen Heugh’s guest lecture for eNSPIRED (Belgium), 13/11/2019