A new policy paper by the United Nations has recommended the use of the mother tongue during teaching for at least six years of early learning.
The report says that teaching a language "other than one's own language," negatively impacts a child's learning ability. It stresses that mother tongue instruction is needed so that gains from teaching in mother tongue are sustained.
The policy paper issued ‘If you don't understand, how you can learn?,’ was released recently by UNESCO's Global Education Monitoring agency.
It reveals that about 40% of children are being taught in a language they do not understand, according to UNESCO.
The UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova underscores the basic principle of children learning in a language they understand.
"It is essential to encourage full respect for the use of mother language in teaching and learning, and to promote linguistic diversity.
Inclusive language education policies will not only lead to higher learning achievement, but contribute to tolerance, social cohesion, and, ultimately, peace," says Bokova.
The report states that learning improves in countries that have invested in bilingual programmes. It found that children in countries such as Ethiopia, which participated in bilingual programmes, improved their learning in subjects across the curriculum. "They also have higher scores in all subject areas," the report says.
Aaron Benavot, Director of UNESCO's GEM Report says one language can serve as a double-edged sword and hence advocates for bilingual classes.
"While it strengthens an ethnic group's social ties and sense of belonging, it can also become a basis for their marginalisation. Education policy must ensure that all learners, including minority language speakers, access school in a language," he says
The question of mother-tongue education in Uganda remains a vexed one.
On one hand, it seems reasonable and desirable that learners should be able to receive education in their mother tongue, if they so wish. On the other hand, there are some very real difficulties involved in the implementation of this idea.
As it is, even with the thematic curriculum which only emphasizes three years of teaching in mother tongue has been hit by several glitches since inception in 2007.
Under the curriculum mother tongue would become the medium of instruction from Primary One to Primary Three.
The move was based on several researches that had proved mother tongue improves performance in the classroom.
Prior to implementing the policy, the National Curriculum, Development Centre was supposed to train all lower primary teachers and district officials on how to teach using the new curriculum. Districts were supposed to revive language boards. Senior teachers were supposed to be posted to handle lower classes.
Under the policy, the most commonly used local language in the area would be taught as a subject. Where the area language was not the child's first language, a teacher was supposed to delay the introduction of reading and writing until the teacher is convinced the child has mastered that language.
This meant urban schools would be examined in English while their rural counterparts would be examined in the local languages up to P3.
Prior the launch of the curriculum, the use of mother tongue was piloted in 11 districts including Kampala, Iganga, Kumi, Moroto, Rukungiri, Kasese, Rakai, Gulu, Arua, Nakasongola and Kabarole.
At the time, Connie Kateeba the director of the National Curriculum Development Center said the results were promising.
"More children joined P.1 as a result of the use of mother tongue. There is such a happy learning atmosphere in the class, lots of jokes and discussions," Kateeba told stakeholders then.
However, almost a decade after the curriculum was introduced, there have been several glitches. Last year, studies from the education ministry showed that almost half of all schools in the country do not use the thematic curriculum.
A number of schools lacked adequate teachers' guide textbooks and trained teachers to implement thematic curriculum.
It is not just lack of facilities; it also appears that the use of mother tongue from P1 to p3 is not yielding much. Aome children are as clueless as always in their classrooms.
By primary three, only two out of ten pupils can read and do basic mathematics, according to UWEZO report titled ' are our children learning".
By the time they reach the last year of primary school, one out of four children (24 per cent) still have not acquired these skills.
Critics speak out
Critics worry about what six years of teaching in mother tongue will imply. If this proposal is to be taken seriously, there are a number of questions which need to be clarified and considered.
"We are going to worsen the situation. If children are not learning anything by P3, do we expect to yield anything by extending the problem by six years?" asks Herbert Omoding, an education consultant in private practice.
He says he has had a problem with the thematic curriculum.
"It does not mean that when I am living in Mbarara and my children are studying there, then they know the local language there. So what happens to my children? Can they be taught in Runyankole for six solid years against my or their wish?" he asks
In his assessment, Omoding feels that this cannot work in the bilingual country that Uganda is.
"What is applicable in one country is not the same here. We have over 40 ethnic groups in Uganda. And with sophistication, people are no longer limited to their physical boundaries. Some children do not know any mother tongue because parents use English at home. That is just the way society has evolved," he argues.
Some teachers are not keen on the language themselves. They wonder that six years of teaching in vernacular would make a difference.
"We are not fluent in our languages ourselves. So how do you expect us to teach languages we cannot write?" asks a teacher, adding, "besides, at PLE, they do not set the papers in vernacular. Children need to get used to English by P4 or P5, otherwise P6 is too much."
Stella Nalugo, a part-time teacher at Lwengo Community School says the dialects are different and the young minds often get confused.
"For instance, letter "a" in Luganda is not the same as English. When you are teaching the word Apple for instance, it gets complicated explaining that A in this English word is pronounced differently," Nalugo says.
The children seem totally confused. "In I hate class when it is time for vernacular," says 10 year old Fiona.
Why parents should care
But no matter the queries and concerns raised about teaching in local languages, experts say that it is the right way to go.
"The mother language has a very powerful impact in the formation of the individual. Our first language, the beautiful sounds of which one hears and gets familiar with before being born while in the womb, has such an important role in shaping our thoughts and emotions," says Hurisa Guvercin, a special education teacher, based in New Jersey.
She adds that, "A child's psychological and personality development will depend upon what has been conveyed through the mother tongue. With this in mind, as psychologists say, it matters tremendously that language expressions and vocabulary are chosen with care when we talk to children."
She also explains that a child's first comprehension of the world around him, the learning of concepts and skills, and his perception of existence, "Starts with the language that is first taught to him, his mother tongue."
"In the same manner, a child expresses his first feelings, his happiness, fears, and his first words through his mother tongue.
Mother language has such an important role in framing our thinking, emotions and spiritual world, because the most important stage of our life, childhood, is spent in its imprints."
A recent World Bank report states that 50% of the world's out of school children live in communities where the language of the schooling is rarely, if ever, used at home. This underscores the biggest challenge to achieving Education for All goals.
Similarly, the United Nations supports mother tongue instruction as a means of improving educational quality.
Measures in place
Currently, the education ministry is carrying out massive training of lower primary school teachers under the program Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) and funded by Global Partnership for Education (GPE).
Wilber Wanyama, principal education officer for primary teacher education says that the training is aimed at improving teaching in literacy skills.
He says 12,000 teachers for P1-P3 are to be trained in phase 1 under EGRA project while 3,600 will be trained in phase 2.
However, some education experts believe this can be achieved if teachers showed as much enthusiasm.
"Your approach when you are teaching vernacular should be the same as when you are teaching English. Reading and writing skills can be achieved by using simple instruction materials and applying the techniques of Teacher's Guide in English as well as Pupil's Guide in English," says Rose Akaki the principal of Busuubizi Core PTC in Mityana district.
"We have had a challenge in literacy performance right from P1 to P7 and therefore, teachers need to be innovative to improve performance," Akaki told over 500 Primary teachers from Bugiri and Mubende districts attending literacy training in Mityana recently.
The principal of Mukuju Core PTC, Tino Oriada, underlines the need to sensitise the parents as they are opposed to teaching their children in local languages.
Meanwhile, Henry Kabulo the inspector of schools Bugiri district agrees with the principal and called for all stakeholders' involvement.
The teachers were also told to champion the interventions focused on quality instruction to improve the mother tongue and English reading abilities of children.
The education minister Maj. (Rtd) Jessica Alupo says a child who is taught in mother tongue can never be the same again.
Stressing that the policy especially works for the children in rural areas, Alupo argues, "What is asked of me in my mother tongue goes to the heart."
She adds that the local languages would also help students appreciate culture, and thereby curbing problems such as sectarianism."
"Diversity is a future of Uganda. If we embrace it then we shall be able to do away with sectarianism, racism and tribalism because it's destructive," she explains.
It is a question of mixed feelings depending on whether the child is from urban areas or the rural areas. Joella Nakawesi remembers the first time she took her daughter to school
"My daughter did not know English at all, because we mainly use Luganda at home. So I told the teacher that my girl and the interview should be done in Luganda. And my girl passed," she narrates.
But for Elisa Akiteng, it has been the reverse. "We mainly use English at home because my husband and I speak different local languages. So when my child returns from school with homework in Luganda, I never know how to help," says Akiteng.