Managing Transitions from Mother Tongue Instruction to English as the Medium Instruction

21st January 2019
Author: Pearl Boateng

International evidence is clear that there is no best practice in transitioning from mother tongue to English as the medium of instruction in low and middle-income countries. Many studies found in the development of this helpdesk report provided in-depth analysis on the complex colonial histories of mother tongue language policies, nation building, implementation realities and challenges, as well as the importance of a cohesive mother tongue policy. Other papers found for this report provided useful policy considerations for governments, donors and programme staff. Much of the research addresses wider enablers to promote better quality inclusive education at a systemic level through mother tongue language policies. Some authors suggest that we are quite a way from a ‘global’ understanding of the aims and purposes of EMI because it appears to be a phenomenon which is being introduced ‘top-down’ by policy makers and education managers, rather than through consultation with the key stakeholders. Likewise there is a lack of understanding of the wider consequences or the outcomes of EMI (Clegg, 2005; Pinnock, 2009; Dearden, 2014). The benefits of mother tongue instruction (MTI) are well established in literature. The literature describes three main language of instruction models, namely: ‘early-exit’ (1-4 years of MTI), ‘late-exit’ (1-6 years of MTI), and ‘very late-exit’ (1-8 years or beyond in MTI). Results from early-exit policies show low learning outcomes, and this model is often fraught with implementation challenges from political will to resourcing. The sudden transition in early-exit policies does not allow learners to develop adequate cognitive, linguistic and academic skills in their mother tongues prior to the switch. The effective transfer of cognitive and academic competences from the mother tongue to the second language is possible only when the learners have acquired adequate linguistic and academic competence in their mother tongues. The weight of current evidence strongly suggests that if the academic benefits of MTI are to be achieved, then initial MTI needs to be a minimum of six years.

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Suggested Citation

Boateng, P. (2019). Managing transitions from mother tongue instruction to English as the medium of instruction. K4D Helpdesk Report 520. Brighton, UK: Institute of Development Studies.


21st January 2019


Continent: Global