A large number of Bangladeshi children start their schooling with a foreign/alien language and their mother tongue is almost banned there. Thus, they get almost detached from their previous life experiences and emotions. It usually happens with the children of richer families who prefer English Medium School (EMS). It also happens with the ethnic minority children who cannot but study in an education system where the medium of instruction and teaching learning materials are in Bangla language, not in their mother tongue. Recently, however, our government has taken an initiative because of which children of a few ethnic communities have already got their textbooks in their mother tongue.
Mother tongue refers to the first language children learn mostly at home; not as a language learned at school, and they have a reasonable mastery over it before they start formal education. As per the international standard, the age for pre-school enrolment is minimum three years and it is four years in Bangladesh as per our education policy. By this age, all children (if not physically or mentally challenged) have a solid foundation in their mother tongue, at least in listening and speaking. It also means, if their education system utilises their knowledge and skills that they have already achieved, it becomes much easier for them to have a mastery over the other two language skills (reading and writing). It can smoothly happen when they start their education in their mother tongue, which is tied up with their life experiences and emotions. A language is not just a means of communication; rather it is associated with a culture. There is an intimate link between language and cognitive development and mother tongue has a central role in education that demands cognitive development.
The Child Rights Convention (CRC, 1989, article 29) suggests that child education should be directed towards respect for their cultural identity, language and values. Education for All (EFA, 1990) explicitly takes a position by supporting initial instruction in children's mother tongue. Our constitution clearly suggests establishment of a uniform system of education extending it to all children. Our National Education Policy 2010 guides us to create equal opportunities to ensure access of all children to primary education without making any sort of discrimination. Unfortunately, our education system has been divided into many streams (English medium, Bangla medium, Madrasa education, etc.), which is dividing the nation and gradually the gap is getting wider.
English-medium education came with the British rule and gradually it has been established as a parallel education system. In the EMSs, the curriculum and textbooks are mostly written by foreign writers. Our children are more exposed to the western history, geography, literature and lifestyle than our own ones. The religious schooling system (madrasa), especially the Qawmi system, is providing education in Arabic and Urdu languages with some use of Bangla. EMSs are most likely under the impression that children can develop their English language skills in the same way they can learn their first language (Bangla) and they just follow the Direct Method where the medium of instruction is English.
The biggest weakness of the Direct Method is its assumption that children can learn a second language in exactly the same way as they can learn their mother tongue. The socio-cultural approach of Lev. Vygotsky, the Russian psychologist, suggests that in the early stage, the direction of development for any second or foreign language is completely opposite of that for the first language (mother tongue). According to Jean Piaget's theory of cognitive development, the second stage is pre-operational stage that covers the age of two to seven years when children mainly learn through experimentation. At this stage, children need to feel comfortable to freely communicate and express their views and mother tongue is the best option for that. The Ecological Systems Theory of Urie Bronfenbrenner, an American psychologist, explains how the inherent qualities of children and their environment (families, schools, neighbourhoods, etc.) interact to influence their development. Language and communication take a central role in this interaction process and if their school environment (due to language) is opposite to the environment at home, it is most likely to hinder their spontaneous development.
Rabindranath Tagore truly perceived that mother tongue is the true vehicle of self-expression, and at Shantiniketan, he created that learning environment. He envisioned learners to be fearless, open-minded and self-reliant. Swami Vivekananda would consider mother tongue as a means for social unity and the right medium for social or mass education and at the same time strongly recommended learning English for mastering western science and technology. Mahatma Gandhi was also a great proponent of mother tongue as a compulsory medium of instruction during primary education.
We are the only nation in the globe that fought for its mother tongue and established Bangla as a state language of the then East Pakistan. Since the Unesco recognised February 21 as the International Mother Language Day, the day became a global symbol for establishing cultural and linguistic freedom and diversity. We need to think seriously about how we can ensure a purely mother tongue-based education with a gradual progression towards bilingualism/multilingualism—and that can contribute to keep us united as a nation.
Sudeb Kumar Biswas is an education professional working for the United Nations in Bangladesh.