Around the world, a great majority of countries have heterogeneous populations. One of the most important distinguishing features among population subgroups within nations is language. The typical African country, for example, has many tribal groups that speak vastly different languages. This necessitates adoption of a common language for official national business. In Africa, the choice has traditionally been the language of the recently departed colonial power. Most countries there are either Anglophone or Francophone. 

There is a longstanding and often contentious debate, not only in Africa but elsewhere, about the appropriateness of such selection of a foreign language for domestic use, particularly in education. Some people think it is a neo-colonialist practice, and that independent nations should conduct their affairs in their own languages. Others see nothing wrong with it.

The Economist recently published an article in which it favored the use of local languages to teach children in schools in developing countries. Citing various studies conducted in Africa and Asia, the article argued that children learn better in their native tongues, and thus encouraged developing countries to design curricular based on indigenous languages as the medium of instruction, at least during the first few years of schooling.

It is a sound argument on the surface, but there are several factors, some of which the article pointed out, that would make the idea’s implementation difficult, if not impossible. Some subgroups in countries like India and Pakistan do have large populations for which developing literature and printing books in local languages might be economically feasible. However, in small countries like Ghana and others in sub-Saharan Africa, there are just too many linguistic groups—each of which tends to have a relatively small number of people—to make that possible.

The article illustrated this difficulty using one example of a classroom in the Volta Region of Ghana. The region is inhabited by the Ewes, one of the smallest tribal groups in the country. Ewe, their language, has several sub-dialects and that made it impossible for the teacher to communicate with some of his students in the version he knew, which then forced him to rely primarily on English, the school’s established medium of instruction.

According to the article, effective learning cannot take place in schools with foreign languages as the medium of instruction, when the teachers themselves speak those languages poorly. One cannot argue with that. But, should the blame really be on the language choice, or on something else?

I am from the Akan tribe of Ghana. Although the dominant language in the remote village where I grew up was Twi, which is one of several Akan dialects, there were many non-Akan families in the village who spoke entirely different languages. Immersion in the local dialect meant that most adults and children from those families could also speak Twi, but because English is the official language in Ghana, we all learned in it at school, beginning in kindergarten.

The public schools, which the vast majority of Ghanaian children attended in those years, functioned quite well. We had competent teachers, from kindergarten through secondary school and beyond. Along the way, we took a few local language classes, but instruction was mainly in English. Being taught in a foreign language from early childhood had no major impact on our ability to learn. There are hundreds of thousands of Ghanaians, Nigerians, and other Africans who studied in English from infancy, as well as people from French-colonized countries for whom French was the medium of instruction, who excelled academically.

The real problem, in my view, was our inability to relate to some of the content in the books we used for subjects like literature, geography, and history. Because those books were written primarily for Western European and American audiences, it was difficult, particularly for those of us living in remote villages without access to television, to picture some of the things we were taught. I vividly remember one of my primary school teachers explaining to us in class that the way to lower the temperature of a cup of tea is by adding milk.

I had no idea what he meant. No one drank tea in the village so for us the knowledge he was sharing had absolutely no relevance. I also realized much later that the milk he must have referred to was the fresh type that people living in more advanced countries buy from grocery stores and keep in refrigerators at home. We had neither that type of milk nor refrigerators. I consider it the most ridiculous thing I’ve been taught in my entire life.

Clearly, the problem in this instance was not the medium of instruction, but rather a badly designed curriculum. The solution obviously is to fix the curriculum, and use content that is applicable to the local environment. And where necessary, educators and their overseers should find ways to provide the exposure that students require to be able to understand concepts that would otherwise be completely alien to them. 

Perhaps the most important argument against using local languages for teaching in schools in some developing countries is that many of those languages are of little use in the global economy. The parents quoted in the article, who were paying for private education for their children, alluded to the advantages they thought knowledge of English would confer on the children in future when they compete for jobs. It is true that if children are educated in local languages early on, they can still master foreign languages when they become the medium of instruction in later years. But given the practical challenges and cost associated with that approach, it is better to adopt an official language from the start.

Developing countries are, as a matter of fact, minor players in the global economy. It is only natural that the languages used in international business will be those of the major players, such as the U.S., Western European countries, China, and Japan, who dictate the terms of international trade. Even within that group, English dominates because of America’s position as the leading economic superpower.

In the past, countries such as the former Soviet Union and China could operate—to some extent—as self-contained economies, and so their citizens could get by with knowing just their countries’ dominant languages. But times have changed. Even in those mighty countries, and in others like France and Germany, people have realized that knowledge of English has all but become a prerequisite for effective participation in the global economy. The French, Germans, and natives of other major countries are known to harbor feelings of resentment when they have to speak English rather than their languages in some settings, but they do so reluctantly. Just as the dollar enjoys an exorbitant privilege in the global economy, so does English reign as the language of global business.

This reality does not mean that people in developing countries should abandon their native languages. It is becoming fashionable in Ghana, particularly among the elite, for parents to communicate solely in English with their children at home. The goal, apparently, is to provide the practice the children need to become proficient in the language. Some local cultures are gradually dying as a result. That is unfortunate. The local dialects may be useless in the wider world, but there is still considerable value in knowing and speaking them. Numerous scientific studies, a couple of which are cited in a 2012 New York Times article, have concluded that speaking two languages has significant cognitive benefits. Parents in developing countries should be careful not to inadvertently deny their children those benefits through such total foreign-language adoption.     

As I see it, the main problem with public education in much of the developing world nowadays is the deterioration of standards, due to many of the same reasons public schools are dysfunctional in some parts of developed countries. Underfunding and the presence of poorly trained teachers in classrooms are major contributory factors. Those, in turn, are results of economic inequality and a variety of socio-cultural ills. Simply adopting a different medium of instruction will not solve these deep-seated problems in any developing country’s education system.