Principal Investigator:
Jessica Ball (Faculty, School of Child and Youth Care, U. Victoria)

Community Partners:
Various partners in Bhutan, Myanmar, Thailand and Canada

Project Background

Globally, there are at least 50-75 million 'marginalized' children who are not enrolled in school. Children whose primary language is not the language of instruction in school are more likely to drop out of school or fail in early grades. Research has shown that children's first language is the optimal language for literacy and learning throughout primary school (UNESCO, 2008a). In spite of growing evidence and parent demand, many educational systems around the world insist on exclusive use of one or sometimes several privileged languages. This means excluding other languages and with them the children who speak them (Arnold, Bartlett, Gowani, & Merali, 2006).

For an overview of this project topic, see Jessica Ball's presentation at the Global Summit on Childhood, April 2014, in Vancouver, Canada.

The risks of a foreign language of instruction

It is not hard to grasp all that is at stake: parents not enrolling their children in school at all, children not able to engage successfully in learning tasks, teachers feeling overwhelmed by children's inability to participate, early experiences of school failure, and so on. Some children do succeed, perhaps through a language transition program that helps them to acquire the language of instruction. But there is the risk of negative effects whereby children fail to become linguistically competent members of their families and communities and lose the ability to connect with their cultural heritage.

While some children continue to develop proficiency in their first language and succeed in school in a second language, this does not happen automatically. Increasingly, it leads to an inability to communicate about more than mundane matters with parents and grandparents, and a rapid depletion of the world's repository of languages and dialects and the cultural knowledges that are carried through them.

Preserving mother tongues

Many linguistic groups are becoming vocal about the need to ensure that the youngest members of their communities keep their linguistic heritage. Some governments, such as in the Philippines, have recently established language-in-education policies that embrace children's first languages. A compendium of examples produced by UNESCO (2008b) attests to growing interest in promoting mother tongue-based education, and to the wide variety of models, tools, and resources now being developed and piloted to promote learning programs in the mother tongue.

Children learn better in their mother tongue

UNESCO has encouraged mother tongue instruction in primary education since 1953 (UNESCO, 1953) and UNESCO highlights the advantages of mother tongue education right from the start: children are more likely to enroll and succeed in school (Kosonen, 2005); parents are more likely to communicate with teachers and participate in their children's learning (Benson, 2002); girls and rural children with less exposure to a dominant language stay in school longer and repeat grades less often (Hovens, 2002; UNESCO Bangkok, 2005); and children in multilingual education tend to develop better thinking skills compared to their monolingual peers (e.g., Bialystok, 2001; Cummins, 2000; King & Mackey, 2007).

Some educators argue that only those countries where the student's first language is the language of instruction are likely to achieve the goals of Education for All. Research also suggests that engaging marginalized children in school through mother-tongue based, multilingual education (MTB-MLE) is a successful model (Benson & Kosonen, 2013; Yiakoumetti, 2012).

It is generally understood from research and case studies that whether mother-tongue based bi/multilingual education is successful in a particular context depends on many factors. Some key factors are illustrated in the diagram below, but there could be many other contributing factors and nuances within factors, such as quality, potency, and consistency. More research and examples from communities of practice are needed.

With gradually increasing political will and recognition of the potential of mother-tongue based multilingual education, we are beginning to get answers to some key questions. Under what circumstances and with what resources can education in the mother-tongue combined with multilingual education be an effective approach whereby children become proficient in their home language while laying the foundation for learning in additional languages? What are the costs and benefits of alternative approaches directed at the individual, family, community, school, region, and nation? What are meaningful yet efficient ways to measure costs and benefits? What are the implications of MTB-MLE for recruiting, educating, and mentoring teachers and teacher assistants and for creating and evaluating curricula in diverse language classrooms? What are the contributions of family and community in formal and non-formal MTB-MLE, and how can these be measured?

More research needed

Investment in a coordinated program of research could advance knowledge about these kinds of questions in order to inform national language in education policies, teacher training, and local approaches. More research is needed on steps that can be taken in the early years and during the transition to school to prepare children for the mix of language(s) that will be used in primary school.

Questions need to be explored about what are the most important outcomes and how best to measure them in various teaching and learning contexts. How should assessment of pedagogical effectiveness take into account the different pace of children's growing competence in core skills including reading, writing, numeracy and problem solving when they learn through multiple languages? There is also a gap in research on effective approaches for successful transitions of mother-tongue educated children to secondary school in a dominant language.

Family members play an important role as children's 'first teachers' and research should explore the roles of informal and non-formal education and family interaction in promoting literacy, numeracy, and higher order cognitive skills using the mother tongue. We need to involve family and community members with diverse language skills in formal school and train teachers with varying language capacities and levels of education to be effective in MTB-MLE classrooms. As knowledge develops, we must get better at communicating research findings so that practitioners, policy makers and donors are informed and motivated by evidence about how the potential of MTB-MLE can be harnessed to achieve Education for All.

It is widely recognized that although this investment has been sustained, it is not enough: a majority of Indigenous children in Canada have no opportunity to participate in an early childhood program that recognizes or builds upon their cultural heritage. Most programs subscribe to so-called 'best practices' which are popular Euro-Western approaches to health, nutrition, early learning and socialization. Therefore, many Indigenous early childhood practitioners and funding agencies are asking: "Are we achieving our goals for transmission of culture and, if so, what components of our programs are having the desired effects on children's development?" Many non-Indigenous early childhood practitioners are also asking: "How can 'mainstream' early childhood programs support positive cultural identity of children who are not of the same culture as the program staff?" This project explored these questions.

Project Goal

The project documented and interrogated the manner and meaning of embodiments of Indigenous 'culture(s)' in Indigenous early childhood care and development programs that have cultural transmission through the socialization of young children as an explicit program goal.

Project Activities

Through collaborations with early childhood care practitioners in First Nations, this project:

  • Examined First Nations practitioners' goals for cultural transmission in children's programs and how they set out to achieve these goals
  • Documented program elements that staff identified and defined as 'cultural' elements
  • Explored the role and cultural influence of First Nations child-care practitioners themselves on children's cultural programming and children's development
  • Explored impacts of cultural child care programs on children's cultural literacy and identity as preliminary clarification for future research.

Project Outcome

This project has helped to stimulate critical discourse about the meaning, manner and intention of embodiments of culture in programs that have an explicit goal of cultural transmission. Discussions of project findings in workshops and reports takes this discussion beyond a 'beads and drumming' litany of tangible curriculum elements to an understanding of the forms of cultural authenticity exhibited by Indigenous child-care practitioners and the forms of interaction among Indigenous staff and children that engender cultural awareness, cultural learning, and positive cultural identity.


ECDIP Publications, Presentations, and Reports

Ball, J. (2014). Evidence-based language-in-education policy to ensure Education for All. International Conference on Language: Enhancing language ability and language education. Suzhou City, Jiangsu Province, China, June 5-6. (3.5 MB)

Ball, J. (2014). Hearing all children's voices: The potential of mother-tongue based multilingual education to promote educational equity. (13.5 MB) Global Summit on Childhood, Association for Childhood Education International, Vancouver, Canada, April 14-6.

Ball, J. (2013). Advancing research on mother tongue-based multilingual education. Global Partnership for Education.

Ball, J., Moselle, K., & Moselle, S. (2013) Contributions of Culture and Language in Aboriginal Head Start in Urban and Northern Communities to Children's Health Outcomes: A Review of Theory and Research. Prepared for Division of Children, Seniors & Healthy Development, Health Promotion and Chronic Disease Prevention Branch, Public Health Agency of Canada. (2.8 MB)

McIvor, O. (2013). Strategies for Indigenous language revitalization and maintenance. (139 KB) Prepared for the Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network.

Ball, J. (2011). Promoting children's rights to use their mother tongue in early education. Presentation at the Southeast Asia Ministers of Education Organization conference on Education, Bangkok, Thailand. (2.7 MB)

Ball, J. (2010). Promoting gender equity through mother-tongue based bi/multilingual education. United Nations Girls' Education Initiative.

Ball, J. (2010). Educational equity for children from diverse language backgrounds: Mother tongue-based bilingual or multilingual education in the early years. Presentation to the UNESCO International Symposium: Translation and Cultural Mediation, Paris. (10 page SUMMARY) (600 KB)
>> PowerPoint presentation (6.2 MB)

Ball, J. (2010). Enhancing learning of children from diverse language backgrounds: Mother-tongue based bilingual or multilingual education in the early years. Literature review commissioned by UNESCO. (1.3 MB)

McIvor, O, Napoleon, A., & Dickie, K.M. (2009). Language and culture as protective factors for at-risk communities. Journal of Aboriginal Health, November, 6-13. (274 KB)


Arnold, C., Bartlett, K., Gowani, S., & Merali, R. (2006). Is everybody ready? Readiness, transition and continuity: Reflections and moving forward. Background paper for EFA Global Monitoring Report 2007.

Benson, C. (2002). Real and potential benefits of bilingual progammes in developing countries. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 5 (6), 303-317.

Benson, C., & Kosonen, K. (Eds.) (2013). Language issues in comparative education: Inclusive teaching and learning in non-dominant languages and cultures. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Bialystok, E. (2001). Bilingualism in development: Language, literacy, and cognition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cummins, J. (2000). Language, power and pedagogy. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Hovens, M. (2002). Bilingual education in West Africa: Does it work? International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 5 (5), 249-266.

King, K., & Mackey, A. (2007). The bilingual edge: Why, when, and how to teach your child a second language. New York: Collins.

Kosonen, K. (2005). Education in local languages: Policy and practice in Southeast Asia. First languages first: Community-based literacy programmes for minority language contexts in Asia. Bangkok: UNESCO Bangkok.

Malone, D. L. (2003). Developing curriculum materials for endangered language education: Lessons from the field. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 6(5), 332.

UNESCO (1953). The use of the vernacular languages in education. Monographs on Foundations of Education, No. 8. Paris: UNESCO.

UNESCO (2003). Education in a multilingual world. UNESCO Education Position Paper. Paris: UNESCO.

UNESCO Bangkok (2005). Advocacy brief on mother tongue-based teaching and education for girls. Bangkok: UNESCO.

UNESCO (2007). Strong foundations: Early childhood care and education. Paris: Author.

UNESCO (2008a). Mother Tongue Matters: Local Language as a Key to Effective Learning. Paris: UNESCO.

UNESCO (2008b). Mother tongue instruction in early childhood education: A selected bibliography. Paris: UNESCO.

Yiakoumetti, A. (Ed.) Harnessing linguistic variation to improve education. Rethinking Education Vol. 5. Bern: Peter Lang.


Mother-tongue Based Multilingual Education Network:
This is a unique, global clearinghouse for information, research, experts, case studies and tools useful for policy makers, researchers, and practitioners.

Benson, C., & Kosonen (Eds.). (2013) Language issues in comparative education: Inclusive teaching and learning in non-dominant languages and cultures. Boston/Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.
>> Click here to view the contents of the edited volume and find order information. (1.1 MB)

UNESCO Mother-tongue based Multilingual Education Advocacy Kit. (2.8 MB)

Pacific Policy Research Center (2010). Successful bilingual and immersion education models/Programs. Honolulu: Kamehameha Schools, Research & Evaluation Division.