Why not just teach people English?
April 1, 2022

(provided by TWFTW, 2019; revised for online publication, 2022)

Some might ask, "Why do you invest so much in developing smaller languages? Why don't you instead teach people to become literate in English or the national language?" They argue that there is already so much literature available in dominant languages, or that education systems are already in place with books and teachers. Additionally, the costs and effort involved in developing orthographies and producing literature for speakers of minority languages are enormous. Furthermore, if people are literate in a language of wider communication, why "reinvent the wheel?"

Although the investment in developing the system and materials for mother-tongue literacy in non-dominant languages is immense, it is worth every project and penny. Language and identity are so closely interwoven that we are what we speak. When people value their language and heritage, they value themselves. Promoting literacy in only a major language implies that their mother tongue is not good enough for educational use. Children often become alienated from their home culture when they are expected to abandon their home language in favor of the language of education in schools.

On the contrary, literacy in the mother tongue affirms a person's value, language, and culture. Language is not only an instrument of communication but can also be a symbol of cultural identity (Jandt, 2003). Affirming their language helps preserve the language and culture of the community by promoting positive social identity and upholding their cultural distinctiveness. Non-dominant language groups may perceive themselves as inferior to more dominant language groups. Mother-tongue literacy buffers against discrimination and marginalization--giving people a voice to assert their rights. When empowered as such, minority-language communities often feel that they now have a place on the map. They have been recognized. They can raise their heads high and are esteemed.

There are also many cognitive, psychological, linguistic, and social benefits to becoming literate in the mother tongue. People who learn to read and write in their mother tongue first have an advantage over those who start with another language. They better understand what they read, and it is relevant to their daily lives and culture. Building on the mother tongue provides a secure foundation for further education; children are less likely to drop out of school. The research is very clear about the important role of the mother tongue in bilingual children’s' overall personal and educational development. Studies show that children who have a solid foundation in their mother tongue develop stronger literacy abilities in the school language. They learn concepts and intellectual skills through the medium of the mother tongue that are equally relevant to their ability to function in a major language. The knowledge and skills learned in the home can be transferred to the majority language (Baker, Cummins, and Skutnabb-Kangas in Cummins, 2000). This phenomenon is increasingly recognized by governments, educators, and NGOs, with many efforts to facilitate the inclusion of the mother tongue in basic and primary education. Organizations and governments can implement more successful education policies when using mother tongue literacy as a foundation (UNESCO's Education for All, 2000).

The price exacted from minority communities when their children are alienated from their home language and culture is beyond calculation. Many minority languages are endangered, and it is eminently worth investing in preserving mother tongues. Revitalizing minority languages helps preserve the beauty found in the unique identities and cultural heritage of ethnolinguistic minorities. They find their place from a place of strength. They maintain their distinctiveness in a global world.


Cummins, J. (2000). Bilingual children's mother tongue: Why is it important for education? Retrieved May 20, 2019, from http://www.lavplu.eu/central/bibliografie/cummins_eng.pdf

Jandt, F. E. (2003). Intercultural Communication. California: SAGE Publications, Inc.

UNESCO. (2000). The Dakar Framework for Action. Education for all: Meeting our Collective Commitment. Retrieved May 20, 2019, from http://www.undp.org.lb/programme/governance/institutionbuilding/basiceducation/docs/dakar.pdf

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