Babies start imbibing the sounds and rhythm of their mother language from the time their brain architecture for language development starts forming, which is a few weeks before birth. As they grow, they start spending time with many individuals in the community, and each interaction brings opportunity for a new set of sounds and rhythms. In the early years of life, this multitude of sounds is assimilated and codified by the rapidly developing brain to be classified into languages. Each language is assigned its own context – who speaks it, where is it spoken, in what context, how? Each new language learnt adds to the code of how languages work. A four-year-old who speaks two languages will ‘code switch’ according to who they are speaking with. Nobody ever has to teach them which language is appropriate in a given context.

Language is central to every aspect of a child’s development

Language holds such importance because it underpins a child’s ability to make sense of their world. When a baby learns the word water, they not only learn how to say the word water – or the oral sound of the word – they learn that that is the sound you produce when you are thirsty – and that is the sound that refers to the thing you drink – and that is the thing that is all around you in your bath – and that is the thing you cannot hold in your hand because it flows away… at some later point in time perhaps, already knowing the qualities of water from experience, the child will learn the word ‘liquid’ and their brain will know exactly how to codify it.

The child’s mother language forms the basis of all additional languages that the child encounters, creating the ability to think and learn in subsequent languages. In most parts of the world children are surrounded by multiple languages. Each of these languages provide roots in culture and shared history. In many countries, for this reason itself the language of the school is a unifier – a language that binds every corner of a nation, creating the basis for social cohesion.


The Burden of Incomprehension

In our work in Tanzania, we found that in grade I it is common to find children from 5 or 6 different language backgrounds. The language of school is Kiswahili, which few children of that age have had exposure to. What this means is that the first year of school is spent trying to learn a new language, while simultaneously trying to learn many new concepts in literacy and numeracy. This creates a ‘burden of incomprehension’ that crushes the young child under its weight, creating learning gaps that are only compounded as the child progresses through school. Many children then drop out, unable to cope with school. If you’ve ever been someplace where you don’t speak the local language, you will understand what the ‘burden of incomprehension’ means – it is the constant anxiety and pressure of second guessing, of being left behind, of feeling like an outsider. When schools and curricula ignore this burden of incomprehension, they automatically exclude children, their mother tongue, their culture and their lived experience.

How Children in Crossfire challenges language barriers

Through our one year pre-primary education programme in Tanzania – Watoto Wetu Tunu Yetu – we create an environment that enables young children to learn the school language (Kiswahili) through play. Play provides a joyful, iterative space to become immersed in language. It creates repeated opportunities for interaction among children from different language backgrounds, and with the teacher who speaks Kiswahili, allowing children to try the new language, notice its structure through a variety of experiences (for example during pretend play children may learn vocabulary and concepts related to the home, when playing with counters they may learn vocabulary related to numbers), and learn the language through the most natural process of trial and error. Play provides a rich plethora of listening and speaking opportunities, aiding and strengthening the language learning process. This additive approach (where additional languages are learnt using the mother language as a base) becomes seamlessly embedded in learning through play.

Glory Ngowo, a pre-primary teacher in Mahama Primary School in Dodoma region shared her experience of multiple languages as follows.

“The tribe in the community is called ‘Gogo’ and the language is ‘Kigogo’. I am not from that tribe but having lived here for some time I have picked some basic phrases that help me communicate with young children who often speak no Kiswahili. However, breakdown in communication happens frequently because I am not fluent. In such cases I ask other kids in the classroom to assist, and if that doesn’t help, I get older kids in higher grades to come in. Within that year children learn kiswahili and are ready for standard 1.”

Learning through play provides the basis for interactive, peer supported learning. It allows the teacher to include all children, and undo the hierarchy of a traditional classroom where she is expected to be the only one with the answers.

Further validation for our approach comes from Upendo Madiwa who teaches Grade 1 also in Mahama Primary School in Dodoma; she says

“Previously I would get students in grade one who could not speak Kiswahili. This has not happened since the Watoto Wetu Tunu Yetu Programme started. All standard one children coming from the programme are fluent in Kiswahili, they grasp lessons well and are school ready.”