Language is one of the inalienable rights bestowed to man by God. It is therefore very significant to improve the teaching and learning outcomes in basic education by adopting the mother tongue as the medium of instruction in the first three years of the child’s education

The Term Mother Tongue

The term mother tongue (MT) is a metaphor coined by European civilisation. It derives from the situation prevalent in monolingual family where the mother is usually the main source and guide of the child’s primary social adaptation.

Working definition of the Term Mother Tongue by UNESCO

A working definition of the term mother tongue agreed and used by experts at the UNESCO meeting on the use of the mother tongue as medium of instruction (Paris 30th November to 4th December 1981), states that “a person’s mother tongue is the language used by the ethnic community to which s/he belongs provided that s/he has already acquired that language.” The mother tongue is also defined as the language which a group of people/inhabitants of an area acquire in their early years and which normally becomes their natural tool for thought and perfect and easier communication (see Awoniyi 1976: 27). The term mother tongue is currently preferred to vernacular because the latter sometimes denotes an inferior local language relative to the western languages

The OAU and UNESCO are two international agencies that encourage MTE in various societies. In October 1930, The International Institute of African Languages and Cultures met at Rome and passed a resolution on the Use of the MT in Education, which stated

“It is a universally acknowledged principle in modern education that a child should receive instruction both in and through his mother language and this privilege should not be withheld from the African child. The child should learn to love and respect the mental heritage of his own people, and the natural and necessary expressions of his heritage is the language. Neglect of the vernacular involves the danger of crippling and destroying the pupil’s productive powers by forcing him to express himself in a language foreign both to himself and to genius of his race.”

Apart from preserving the language and culture through the use of the mother tongue, we must bear it in mind that since language affects thought, the mental development of the child is fostered when he/she speaks the language of his/her mother.

The OAU now AU also pays much attention to MTE. Article 18 of the 1976 Cultural Charter of Africa states:“that all members are urged to prepare and implement reforms necessary for the introduction of African languages in education.” The charter had a section on language Plan of Action for Africa and specified that “language is the heart of a people’s culture and the cultural advancement of the African people’s and the acceleration of their economic and social development will not be possible without harnessing in a practical manner indigenous African languages in that development and advancement.”

The charter further stated that illiteracy is an obstacle to the economic, cultural and social development of African countries and that mass education cannot succeed without the use of the indigenous languages. Every member state was to have a clearly defined language policy, which places indigenous African languages in active use by its people at the centre of its socio-economic development.

If all the resolutions by UNESCO and OAU had been implemented, African languages would have been more developed by now. Some countries have followed these principles and they are yielding positive results. Other developing countries like Ghana are adopting “feet dragging” approaches and have not applied the full tenets of the policy over 87 years now. We now turn to the usefulness of MTE.

The Usefulness of Mother Tongue in Education

The concept of mother tongue has, therefore, attracted the attention of various scholars including linguists, educationists, psychologists, anthropologists, journalists and brain physiologists. Majority of these scholars assert that language is the sole innate distinguishing characteristics of human species (see Szepe 1984:66). Teaching the mother tongue is thus a central task of an educational system especially in independent countries that have emancipated themselves from colonialism and are concentrating on nationalism and development.

The acquisition of a child’s mother tongue is a matter of obligation for the child’s socialisation and acculturation. Language acquisition does not take place overnight and in isolation but goes hand in hand with other forms of the child’s complex development, which include physical, psychological, cultural, social and personality development.

The usefulness of the mother tongue in education cannot, therefore, be overemphasised. It can be viewed from psychological, pedagogical, nationalistic and ideological perspectives. It is the MT that the child acquires first; in view of this it is one of the important things that promotes the development of the child’s intellect and mental process and other aspects of his personality in early education (see Amonoo 1989: 6).

There is ample evidence that the importance of the mother tongue goes beyond the classroom, and covers a wider scope of human life as a whole. This is the focus of this article since we are interested in the mother tongue in education.

Language and Culture and Environmental Studies

The mother tongue is part and parcel of the culture. It is a medium through which culture is transmitted from generation to generation. The indigenous language of a person is an important ingredient in his education so as to make him identify himself with his roots and cultural heritage. MTE bridges the gap between the home, culture and the school.

The MT is the medium through which the child internalises and socialises himself/herself with the norms, values and attitudes of his society and culture. The child studies the cultural constitution of the culture through MT.

The mother tongue is the language through which a person perceives the surrounding world and through which initial basic concept formation takes place. The mother tongue is one of the best media for environmental studies in school. The child is acclimatised to its environment by knowing the names of the basic objects through the MT. As the child grows he equips himself with names of the natural things around him.

The Mother Tongue and Literary Development:

The mother tongue is the channel through which the literature of the people can be expressed. To be able to influence their audience, artists all over the world normally start with the indigenous languages. The mother tongue enhances creativity and ingenuity in both the arts and technology. Musicians like Nana Ampadu and Amakye Dede, of Ghana could not have achieved much success without creating in their own languages. The mother tongue is a person’s natural means of self-expression and one of his first needs is to develop his power of self-expression to the full.

Research Evidence in Support of Mother Tongue Instruction

Researches conducted by linguistics, psychologists and educationists have proved the benefits of MTE. The training of children in the process of concept formation can best be achieved in the native language than in a foreign language. Experiences and researches have shown that any slightest disturbance of this vital role for a child to start his education in a foreign language may produce hazardous, and insurmountable effects that will hamper the child’s intellectual development. It is ideal, therefore, for every pupil to begin his formal education in his mother tongue, and no language is inadequate to meet the demands of the child’s first months in school.

The above is supported by The Threshold Theory, it is a popular language learning research notion that has shown that if the pupils are able to master their native language very well up to certain levels, they will transfer the skills and concepts in learning the L1 into the second language learning. As a result of the Threshold theory, Cummins (2000) outlined the Developmental Interdependence Hypothesis. This Hypothesis suggests that a child’s second language (L2) competence is partly dependent on the level of competence already achieved in the first language (L1). The more developed the L1, the easier it will be to develop the L2. On the contrary, when the L1 is at a low stage of evolution, the more difficult the achievement of bilingualism will be (Baker 2001:169).

USAID MT Testing in Ghana

In 2000, USAID organised Testing in Mathematics and Language Skills in schools, using the Ghanaian languages. There were two people administering the questions. The first read it in English and the second in the MT and students had to listen and select the correct answer. The findings showed that students’ comprehension was better when they listened to the question in the MT. They could readily provide the answers and this was based on the comprehension of the language of instruction.

In the 1970s a Peace Corp teaching Science: Physics Chemistry and Biology at Asanteman College in Kumasi divided his Class into two based on language. In the end, those who were taught Physics, Chemistry and Biology in Akan performed better. The result is a clear indication that our local languages play crucial role in the teaching and learning of science and technology.

The Wing School and Complementary Basic Education (CBE) Models by IBIS and the CBE Alliance. The Wing School and CBE Models are contributing immensely towards MTE in the Northern Region. They have been applying the MTE policy in the remotest areas where children are experiencing education for the first time. To connect the school to the home, for the children to feel more comfortable, they apply MTE. According to the stakeholders MTE makes it easy for both teachers and pupils to relate learning to the environment and culture. Instructions by teachers for activity-based learning processes are easily understood by pupils. According to the practitioners of these models, comparative tests in reading and comprehensions in four districts where IBIS has implemented the Wing School Model have shown that P3 children in the Wing school do better than their counterparts in P5 of the public school. We also see that most developed countries like France, UK, USA, Spain, Singapore, Japan, Germany, Norway, use the MTE and it is easier for students.

History of MTE in Ghana

Let us pause to look at a brief history of MTE in Ghana dating back to the colonial period and the missionaries. All the missionaries, Basel, Bremen, Wesleyan and Catholic, saw the pedagogical importance of the mother tongue in education. For example, the Basel missionaries enunciated a policy which was purely backed by practical and theoretical pedagogy. They saw that it was easier and quicker to teach and learn primary school subjects in the MT than in a foreign language. It is assumed that when you introduce scientific concepts to children in the MT they understand it better.

The Gold Coast Colonial Government

In British West Africa, one of the major steps of MTE was proposed by the Phelps-Stoke Commission. In Gold Coast, the report of the Phelps-Stoke Commission in 1922 recommended the use of the “tribal language” in the lower primary classes and the language of the European nations in the upper classes. Governor Gordon Guggisberg was the governor of the Gold Coast from 1919-1927. It was the first time the colonial Government legislated on the status of Ghanaian languages. Guggisberg’s Educational Ordinance of 1925 promulgated the popular 16 Principles of Educational Policy. The 12th stipulates that “whilst English must be given it must be based solely on the vernacular” (see McWilliam and Kwamena-Poh 1975: 58). The 1925 Educational ordinance made the use of the Ghanaian Language as medium of instruction compulsory at the Lower Primary level (i.e. P1-P3).

In 1927, British government’s advisory committee issued a memorandum on the place of vernacular in native education. This was in fact, the first bold and significant attempt taken by the Colonial Office in regard to mother tongue education. The memorandum declared that “as far as possible, the vernacular should be the basis of instruction, at least in the primary classes.”

In 1955, a Ghanaian scholar, E. A. Asamoa, saw the importance of the MTE and expressed his feelings as follows;

We believe in the fundamental importance of the vernacular in the educational development of the present-day Gold Coast. We believe not only that the vernacular is of primary importance as the basis of the child’s education, but also through it alone the Gold Coast African can in all stages of his life be educated in the highest sense of the word. We understand education to mean, not merely the acquisition of knowledge, but the development of good potentialities in a man’s personality and we hold that these potentialities are inextricably bound up with a man’s natural and cultural background, and that the most fundamental and most adequate expression of this background is one’s own language (Asamoa 1955). This statement sums up the importance of mother tongue education and if it had been carried out at that time it was proclaimed, the education in Ghana would have been better and more African oriented than we see it today. Unfortunately, 62 years after this pronouncement we still handle MTE with passive intentions.

The Post Independence Era

Since independence, all the regimes, whether civilian or military, have touched on MTE and most of them favoured the three year MTE policy at the basic primary. Space will not allow us to elaborate the positions of these regimes. The major problem has been the fluctuations in the implementation of the language policies. Let me cite here the position of the Progress Party’s Government led by Prof. K.A Busia: The Progress Party (PP) government took into consideration the recommendation by the Kwapong Committee and attached much importance to the indigenous languages. The Ministry of Education in its Curricula Changes in Elementary Education, issued in 1971, stated:

“It is now the Government policy that the main Ghanaian languages at present provided for in the curricula of primary and middle schools should be used as the medium of instruction in the first three years of the primary course and, where the subject makes it possible, in the next three years as well. In any upper primary or higher classes where English is the teaching medium, the appropriate Ghanaian language(s) will be properly taught as a school subject” (Ministry of Education 1971).

In 1974 the National Redemption Council (NRC) government under Gen. I. K. Acheampong set up a committee chaired by Professor N. K. Dzobo to review the structure of Education in Ghana. The Dzobo committee supported the use of the Ghanaian Language as medium of instruction from P1-P3, and further recommended that it should be made compulsory from Primary One to the University level (see Dzobo 1979). The government of the PNDC did not change the use of the Ghanaian language for instruction in the first three years. An attempt by the NPP government (2001-2008), to replace the MT as the medium of instruction from P1-P3 with English was met with serious reactions. The policy of the 3 years MTE still remains except that it is abused at various fronts.

The Dangers of the Neglect of MTE

If the first language of the child is not catered for and developed in school, the language will decay. In our current educational system, the emphasis is on foreign languages especially English and French at the expense of our local languages. It is sad and pathetic to note that while English is a compulsory and a core subject at the Senior High School (SHS) level, the Ghanaian languages have been relegated only to be taken as an elective. Benzies (1951:3) is, therefore, right in saying that “The school is the friend of some languages and the enemy of others. It has befriended the English language so much so that in some parts of Africa it has had no time left to care for the African languages. If children should learn foreign languages at the expense of knowing less of their mother tongue than their fathers did, this is not true education.” (See Benzies 1951:3).

It is unfortunate to note that in Ghana many people think that education is equivalent to one’s competence in English language and one’s wisdom wit and intellect is equated to his ability to express himself eloquently in English. This is a very wrong notion. We must admit that a person who knows nothing about the English language may be equally educated in his own accord. After all, education is the total know-how of a person in order to socialise himself into his culture and society.

Social, political and economic development of a nation depends on access to proper information and the intellectual capacity and ability to process information. It is evident from studies on MTE that majority of the African population are denied these important conditions of their social life. Insofar as teaching and learning in most African countries continue to be done in foreign languages which students do not properly know, much teaching and learning do not really take place. The use of foreign language in our education makes learning difficult because students are confronted with two tasks: understanding the concept and then the language of teaching and learning.

To get admission into any Ghanaian university now, you do not only have to pass English but to pass with a good grade. Why should a born scientist with 3As in Physics, Chemistry and Biology be denied admission to the Medical or Engineering School because he failed or had a lower grade in English? Are we not missing scholars whose fields will help national development? Is this not part of Language Imperialism? We need a linguistic revolution to solve these problems.

The right to use one’s mother tongue is a fundamental socially expressed human right which every child must not be denied. Language enthusiasts believe that no greater injustice can be committed against a people than to deprive them of their language. This is a critical violation of Linguistic Human Rights (LHR) adverse consequences of child and personality development, socialisation and acculturation would crop up if the child is denied of his first language. The mother tongue is the language that anchors the child into his/her culture and society. The loss of the mother tongue results in the loss of rootedness in traditions, and leads to intellectual cultural defect and emotional disturbance (see Awoniyi 1982, Boadi 1994: 62-63).

MTE helps in national development. If a second language is used in the education of the child it makes him see the world from the point of view of the culture and society of the foreign language. Such a language impedes the growth of indigenous languages and also inhibits the interaction of science and technology within the society.


The mother tongue in education provides numerous benefits and there are insurmountable dangers of its neglect. We have noted that all African children have the inalienable right to attend school and learn in their mother tongues. Every effort should thus be made to develop African languages at all levels of education. In effect, it is the mother tongue which is the language that affects the child’s thought, intellect and culture and determines his way of life. Experiences and research have shown that MTE at the basic primary has more benefits than the use of a foreign language. The use of MT dates back to the colonial government and all civilian and military regimes have accepted it but there have been fluctuations in its implementation

We have posited that (1). The mother tongue is a person’s natural means and power of self-expression to the full. (2). Every pupil should begin his formal education in his mother tongue to enjoy the full benefits of a holistic personal development. (3). No language is inadequate to meet the demands of the child’s first months in school. Efficient modern techniques should be used in teaching the mother tongue. The overall objective of MTE is to combine its pedagogical benefits with the wider implication of the total education and development of the African child to be able to fit well into his society.

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