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  • Writer's pictureAndrew McNaughton

Explainer: What are MTB MLE Schools?

MTB MLE is short for Mother Tongue Based Multilingual Education. In the MTB MLE system, a child’s first language or mother tongue (often denoted as L1) is used to teach basic reading, writing and academic material. A second language (L2) is then gradually introduced into their learning so that they can transfer their skills across to that language. This system of bilingual education has spread in countries that have a diverse range of languages and cultures, particularly in Southeast- and Central Asia. MTB MLE schools are most often installed in communities where the common language is different to the more widely-used language of the region or state, such as in areas of the Philippines, Indonesia and India.

MTB MLE itself is not a new concept- a UNESCO report in 1953 was one of the first to declare that the best medium of teaching was a student’s mother tongue. Multilingual education has become more widespread in the 21st century with the renewed focus on universal education and literacy in targets set in the Millennium Development Goals and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) such as SDG 4: Quality Education.

The Advantages of Mother Tongue Based Education

There are key advantages of MTB MLE schools for children: students can develop foundational literacy and communication skills in a language they are familiar with, which allows them to participate more fully in the classroom and gain confidence amongst their peers at a critical stage in their development. Parents can also be more fully engaged and supportive of their children’s learning in a familiar language. MTB MLE schools have been shown to improve students’ academic performance as well as increase enrolments, reduce drop out rates, and improve fluency in both their mother tongue and other languages. There are implications for the wider community as well: multilingual education helps to encourage inclusive societies, promote linguistic diversity and preserve cultural identity and heritage.

Despite these benefits, implementing mother tongue-based learning is difficult: it is not as simple as just changing the language used to teach. Finding qualified teachers who can run classes in both L1 and L2 is a challenge, and it can be expensive to recruit teachers and design a complete curriculum in the new language. Convincing local communities to embrace the new schooling system and gaining government support are also major hurdles to getting the school established. Further, despite the positive results from a number of MTB MLE studies, it takes time for the impact to appear and attempts to ‘shortcut’ the system- reducing the amount of mother tongue learning before the transition period to L2- can leave students worse off in the long term.

MTB MLE in Action: Assam, India

In India, mother tongue-based education at the start of children’s schooling has become a key part of the National Education Policy (NEP) launched in 2020. The policy states, "wherever possible, the medium of instruction until at least Grade 5, but preferably till Grade 8 and beyond, will be the home language/mother tongue/local language/regional language."

The Indian state of Assam is an incredibly diverse area of tribal communities with dozens of different languages, dialects, and cultures. The most widely spoken language in Assam is Assamese, the mother tongue of over half the state’s 34 million people. However, there are also a number of minority groups who speak their own languages – one of the largest being Adivasi people, who work on the hundreds of tea estates spread throughout Assam and make up around 20% of the state’s population. Adivasi people in Assam mostly speak Sadri as a common language, but subgroups in northern Assam also speak Santhali, Munda and other related dialects.

For the Adivasis of Assam, MTB MLE schools represent so much more than simply classes taught in their mother tongue: it is an opportunity to access education on a level playing field with the rest of the population, and secure their livelihood for future generations.

Adivasi people in Assam face a number of challenges which threaten their livelihood and development, including low wages, poor health, high rates of illiteracy, and a lack of representation in local and regional governance. Improving literacy and accessing opportunities through education are key for Adivasis to exit generational poverty and break the cycle of disadvantage.

For the Adivasis of Assam, MTB MLE schools represent so much more than simply classes taught in their mother tongue: it is an opportunity to access education on a level playing field with the rest of the population, and secure their livelihood for future generations.

People’s Action for Development (PAD) has been advocating for the rights of Adivasi people in Assam for over two decades. MTB MLE schools form a central part of PAD’s current education project, a collaboration with the global Education Champion Network. There are currently 3 MTB MLE schools in development across Lakhimpur District which PAD has supported, by training teachers, lobbying district officials for support, and promoting the schools in the local community.

Further reading

[1] Asia Pacific Multilingual Education Working Group (2013), "MTB-MLE - Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education: Lessons Learned From A Decade Of Research And Practice". [2] "The importance of mother tongue-based schooling for educational quality", Carole Benson/UNESCO, 2004.

[3] "MTB MLE resource kit: Including the excluded: promoting multilingual education", Susan Malone/UNESCO, 2018.

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