Language in Education

Kirsten, a college student from South Africa, sent me a nice email a while ago asking me to weigh in on an issue that I find extremely important and often complicated. It is an issue that affects people in every country of the world and one that has affected every ethnic group in the history of the world. The question is whether children who should be educated in their native language or in a language that will give them more opportunities later in life.


What kind of opportunities in life will you have if all you know how to speak is a variety of Zapotec that only a few thousand people in Oaxaca, Mexico understand? No one would blame such a person for making sure their children learned Spanish from an early age. How far can you go in life in south western China if you don’t know Mandarin? Ethnic minorities are certainly not the only people confronting this issue.


German is the official language of six prosperous countries and has over 100 million native speakers with tens of millions of non-native speakers added to that number. It also has a literary tradition that is hundreds of years old and boasts some of the best writers and philosophers in modern times. In spite of this, every German engineering student knows that his or her career will be limited without a solid command of English.


Is it any wonder that millions of students from all over Africa are demanding to be educated in English instead of Afrikaans, French, Yoruba, etc.? Many American, British, Australian, etc. companies have been known to favor employees with fluent English over other employees who are harder to understand but are more competent in their professions. The advantages to combining impressive professional skills with fluency in English are palpable.


On the other hand, I wonder about the Filipinos who have a wider vocabulary in English than they do in Tagalog or Cebuano but speak it with a heavy accent. I wonder about Haitian children who are taught that what they speak at home is corrupted French, instead of a proper language. This means they have to be be taught to speak the real thing by teachers who usually cannot speak French well either. I also wonder about the Hispanic youth in the USA, the Turks in Germany, Moroccans in Spain, and Algerians in France who never learn to speak any language well.


What does it mean to undervalue, or even despise, your native language? What does it do to a person to intentionally lose or weaken the ability to speak with Grandparents and other relatives? How do we feel about ourselves and our worth as individuals if we believe that the language that feels most natural to us is somehow inferior to another language? Can a language’s true worth be calculated accurately with money alone?


I wish I had a simple answer to this complex problem. There is, however, no single solution that will work for countries as diverse as South Africa, the USA, China, Ukraine, and Malaysia. I would like to describe some principles that will help people as they try to negotiate their education between two or more languages and I will talk about them in my next post. Until then, what are your thoughts?

8 Responses

  1. This is a great post, addressing a deep question. I met a German in Kiev who was teaching his kids English: much more practical than German or Russian. Or the Russians in the 18th century who grew up speaking French and not being able to speak with their servants in Russian.

    Another question comes to mind, though. Does knowing a language bring opportunities? I know many native English speakers who do not avail themselves of many opportunities, but many Dutch who learned English in school and got some good jobs as a result.

    I’m sure you’re aware of the many dying languages, and the great discussion going on about it. People need to be able to speak their community language as well as the majority language. I have a friend whose dad is a leading scholar of Navajo. He’s a native speaker, and often lectures in Navajo, just so Navajo people hear their language spoken on a high level.

    Here’s a great discussion I heard about this issue recently:

  2. It is true, although rather unfortunate, that there is no easy answer for a situation as complex as this, but I love the fact that people are willing to discuss these tricky topics.

    One of the suggestions in our class discussion was that students be taught in their mother-tongue and learn, say English for example, as a second language instead of the language of instruction being in their second language.

    I live in an area of South Africa where the majority of people speak isiXhosa yet they do not even have the option to write their exams in their mother-tongue. As soon as they come to school they have to start speaking English and learning in English which is a language that many of them had not heard spoken at home before coming to school. I for one cannot imagine how difficult this must be for them.

    English is used in most spheres of life it is true, but would it not be better to raise bilingual or even multilingual children in our schooling systems where they have the ability to take part in their own language as well as others. Even though English is a language with high prestige, what makes it more important than any other language.

  3. It’s a really difficult question that many others have attempted to address and there isn’t an easy answer. I don’t think there’s any reason to feel inferior because of your language, but I do think that refusing to learn a certain language that you know you really need to in order to succeed and get what you want simply because “well, I shouldn’t have to do that!” is really stupid. Life isn’t fair, things simply are the way they are.

    I’m also very much in favor of having a single international language that everyone learns in addition to their native language and any other languages they choose to learn, but that’s another discussion entirely (and one guaranteed to get a lot of people upset).


    • That’s the Esperantist’s argument Andrew. Since it’s nobody’s native language then everyone is equally disadvantaged.

  4. I also think about this whole issue a lot… and, like you’ve said, there’s no simple answer.

    Overall, I think it’s about access to and also the quality of education. After all, one could argue that Danish, Norwegian, Swedish etc. are ‘minority’ languages if you go by the number of speakers. But native speakers of these languages are by no means disadvantaged, because they have access to a sound and free education system (free even at the higher education level). They receive education in their native tongue, usually emerge with an excellent level of at least one foreign language, and then they receive state-funded vocational training which qualifies them to do highly skilled work, whether they choose to attend university or not.
    There are many other, important factors that restrict your opportunities in life, which have nothing to do with language.

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