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Lost in Translation

New comparative study from Ph.D. candidate Maya Alkateb-Chami finds strong correlation between low literacy outcomes for children and schools teaching in different language from home
Maya Alkateb-Chami
Maya Alkateb-Chami
Photo: TanPham

Education systems around the world are failing to develop basic literacy skills in almost half of young learners, according to the World Bank — a situation that has only worsened because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now new research illuminates a growing problem related to declining global literacy rates: a mismatch between the language that students speak at home and the language of instruction used in schools.

“More than 40% of children in the world are schooled in a language they do not understand or speak well,” explains Ph.D. candidate Maya Alkateb-Chami. She says some countries have been switching to English as a medium of instruction in schools and she has also encountered the pattern in the refugee education space. 

The issue of language should be front and center because language “mediates all of schooling,” but far too often it is relegated to the sidelines and only discussed in specialized circles focused on language education, Alkateb-Chami says. The Ph.D. candidate, who grew up in Syria, recently sat down to discuss the findings of her new study, Learning Poverty When Schools Do Not Teach in Children’s Home Language: A Comparative Perspective, published in the International Journal of Education Development.

One of the terms you use frequently in your study is this idea of “linguistic discordance.” Can you explain where that term comes from and what it means?

Linguistic discordance is a term that is used in the medical field, in relation to the discrepancy between the languages of patients and doctors, and I've borrowed it from the field and used it in the paper to describe the mismatch between the language of schooling and the language of the home.

How did you decide on the countries that you selected for your study? You look at 56 countries across six continents.

I was really thrilled to come across this newly curated dataset by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, where the discrepancy between the languages of home and schooling is captured and 56 is all of the countries there was data for, so that’s my sample. And the other dataset that I've mainly leaned on is the learning poverty index that's published by the World Bank. There are many more countries represented there, including the 56.

“Learning poverty,” another term you use, relates to basic literacy skills for children in a specific age range, correct?

Exactly, learning poverty is concerned with basic literacy and it captures the rate of students per country who are unable to read and understand a simple text by age 10. And what is very special about this index is that it also accounts for out-of-school children who are assumed not to be able to do that task. So, it's adjusted for them and has a larger scope than just measuring the skills of the kids who are at school. 

Learning and Poverty graph
Data reveal positive correlation between rate of linguistic discordance in primary grades and learning poverty, showing lower country-level basic literacy outcomes go hand in hand with having more students who are taught in a language not spoken at home.
Graphic: International Journal of Educational Development

What’s the impact of the discrepancy between the language that's used in schools and the language used in children’s homes in the countries that you've studied?

I can’t say there's a causal relationship because of the size of the dataset and certain aspects of the study design, but we can see that there's a very strong positive correlation between having linguistic discordance at the country level and having learning poverty or very low outcomes in literacy in that country. So how can we explain it? If we look at literature from the fields of literacy development and bilingual development, even for monolingual speakers, it is much easier for a child to learn to read and write if they can do that with a script that maps out to their oral language. This is because we start learning language way before we enter school, whereas if a child goes to school and they are confronted with reading a script that does not map out to their language, it is harder for them. If the teacher does not speak their language and does not explain [things] in a way that they understand, it’s harder for them.

What role does income play in your findings?

After finding a strong positive correlation between linguistic discordance and learning poverty across the countries in the dataset, I wanted to know if the correlation varied across different country income groups — between high-income, middle-income, and low-income countries. And there is an interesting difference. The relation turned out to be strongest in middle-income countries. Part of the reason, I think, is that in low-income countries like Togo and Niger, there are factors other than the language of instruction that lower educational outcomes, such as extreme poverty, child labor, and so forth. In high income countries like the U.S. and the Netherlands, factors that help include having less students per teacher, more resources, such as reading specialists, and more training. It's important to remember though that the correlation is still present in high-income countries. What the variation in the trend tells us is the importance of paying attention to local contexts too. 

"It is much easier for a child to learn to read and write if they can do that with a script that maps out to their oral language. This is because we start learning language way before we enter school."

Maya Alkateb-Chami

Are there any insights from your study about children learning a second language?

It's so important to make the distinction between language of instruction and language as a subject. If it's a subject, great — you could have a [foreign language] subject as early as you want, but not if it's the language of instruction. Some people think full immersion is great, but actually the data show us differently. They show that when students go to school and they don't understand anything, their outcomes are lower than their peers, and they might also drop out. I guess there's this myth of wanting to immerse, and research findings are kind of counterintuitive. I cite this study from South Africa that has a national sample that has found that students excel more in English in grades four, five, and six if they study in their home language in grades one, two, and three.

So, you would advocate for more instruction in students’ primary languages in schools?

Yes, more instruction in the home language, especially at the beginning of students’ schooling experiences. In general, I would echo the research that exists that says it's important for students’ basic literacy development for them to be schooled in a language they understand, that is the key message, and the more of that that happens, the better. It could be the home language as the language of instruction, it could be a bilingual program — if that's not possible, then maybe a language subject. And if that's not possible, then at least have teachers be welcoming of students’ linguistic diversity and what they're bringing with them, to aid their schooling. But we shouldn't just aim for that. We need the resources to have dedicated language teachers in children's home languages.

How realistic is that goal of having more dedicated language teachers in schools, particularly in countries with lots of different languages?

Some people think that with more linguistic diversity at the country level it's impossible to do home language instruction [in schools.] However, there is research saying that, essentially 75% of the global linguistic discordance issue can be addressed by adding only 220 languages of instruction. National language diversity statistics are misleading because if you look at the village level it’s more likely than not for everyone in the village to speak the same language, although the country might have ten languages.


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