On International Mother Languages Day, Usha Rane (Pratham and TaRL Africa team member) shares her personal reflections from years of working in and visiting schools across Asia and Africa, and celebrates children learning to read in their mother languages.

A tall Master Trainer in his mid-forties from Côte d’Ivoire was narrating a story of his childhood, in French. His tone was a little shaky: “I was in grade 2. In school it was compulsory to speak in French. But those days, I was unable to speak in French. I always wanted to say something in the class. However, I used to refrain from speaking. On that day I just could not resist. And I raised my hand. I said something…..and the next thing I remember is that that I was standing out in the corridor of the school wearing a cap of half-eaten watermelon…..” There was complete silence in the classroom.

A child in Côte d'Ivoire reads a simple paragraph in French.

A child in Côte d’Ivoire reads a simple paragraph in French.

A Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL) training was in progress in San Pedro, a port city of Côte d’Ivoire. Around 70 master trainers were present and the topic being discussed was how to help children express their own thoughts, participate, say something spontaneous, as a classroom practice.

TaRL primarily focuses on helping school-going children in grades 3 to 5 to acquire basic reading and mathematics skills. Children in multi-lingual countries sometimes struggle in their childhood to acquire a dominant language, which is often not spoken at home. However, in many countries or regions, these languages are adapted as the official language and hence it becomes compulsory for each and every child to learn to speak, read and write in that language.

Self-expression is a way of life. Who expresses themselves freely? Those who are fearless, have their own minds, ideas, and have something to say.

Unfortunately, children who spend their school days unable to freely express themselves in a language that is foreign to them carry a heaviness in their hearts during these early school days. A feeling of shame of not being able to speak the foreign language and a feeling of embarrassment to speak in their mother language. The fear persists throughout the initial years of schooling and at some point when these children get an opportunity, they may move away from school education. Many who remain in schools struggle but ultimately survive in the school system. The ones who leave the schooling system often come from extremely poor families with little academic support or resources.

I believe a well-designed systematic approach can be adapted to support such children. In some cases, I’ve seen TaRL provide that opportunity. In countries such as Côte d’Ivoire and Niger, children learn French. However, in TaRL classes, they can freely express themselves in their mother language while learning to read French. They ask questions, they discuss in smaller groups, they make noise, and they listen intently when the teacher speaks in French while switching over to their mother languages smoothly – here the learning takes place. Children slowly learn to speak in French and read simple, short French texts. The texts provided to these children are simple and easy to comprehend.

I have observed TaRL interventions in mother languages across Africa including Hausa in Nigeria, Malagasy in Madagascar, Cinyanja/Chitonga in Zambia, and Kiswahili in Kenya. I’ve heard teachers express how their confidence and comfort levels have grown – many teachers enjoy helping children to acquire reading skills.

Recently, Korean feature film ‘Parasite’ won four awards at the 92nd Annual Academy Awards. While accepting the award, Bong Joon-ho, the director of the film, spoke in his mother language. That was a proud moment for me and for all those who are eager to express themselves in their own mother language!



Usha Rane