Language in education - what we don’t know, and why data matters

Published by
Translators without Borders
Written by
Alice Castillejo, Programme Advisor
Inclusive Education
Learning Domains and Outcomes - Literacy and Communication
Learning Domains and Outcomes - Numeracy and Mathematics

Education in humanitarian contextsEvidence suggests that mother tongue education provides the best learning outcomes. But that’s hard to do unless you know which mother tongues to work in.

Translators without Borders (TWB) research shows that humanitarian responders, across all sectors, often don’t know which mother tongues are spoken by the community they serve. In fact responders often don’t even know which official languages people really understand. These facts make it likely that responders don’t know what minority-language speakers think about education. And research suggests that, in general, needs assessments are not effective in finding out. On top of that, data about where mother-tongue education is happening is also very scarce, so humanitarians are unlikely to know about it, let alone about how well it is working.  

That’s quite a lot to not know.  

But at least some of that is easy to fix, if we can understand why there’s a gap.

Many crisis-affected communities are multilingual. More than 3,000 languages are spoken in the 39 countries where ​ACAPS ​is currently monitoring humanitarian emergencies and situations of concern. In just one of those contexts, northeast Nigeria, affected people speak over 30 languages. But the humanitarian response is predominantly in just two languages, leaving some 32 percent of internally displaced people without information in their mother tongue. TWB works with the International Organization for Migration to ​map the languages​ of people displaced in northeast Nigeria, but that data simply isn’t available in most humanitarian crises. Without it, responders do not know what percentage of the community needs language support to access education, or which languages will be effective in classrooms. Nor can they then easily track what proportion of the crisis-affected communities get education in their mother tongue.  

Despite our desire to be inclusive, language barriers make it hard to gather the views of minority-language speakers in planning education or understanding their education needs.  

Minority-language speakers are often disadvantaged in education, and therefore less likely to work for an aid agency, where qualifications and a major language are a must. As a result, even local staff may not be able to communicate with minority communities as well as we would hope. Enumerators gathering vital planning data may not understand the language of the surveys we ask them to administer. TWB’s ​recent research in Nigeria​ shows that some enumerators understand as little as 10% of the terms in surveys they use to collect humanitarian data. That casts doubt on the accuracy of the enumerators’ interpretation of the survey questions and answers.  

So let's address the issue of language data collection.

All assessments and household surveys should include questions about language if we want to understand the needs of those we’re serving. Here are a few language questions we suggest be included in surveys:

  1. What is your mother tongue (that is, the language you grew up speaking from childhood)?
  2. In which language do you prefer to receive written information?
  3. In which language do you prefer to receive spoken information?
  4. How do you prefer to receive information (poster, leaflet, radio, SMS, in person, other)?

Additionally, if we take the time to help enumerators understand survey terminology, we stand a chance of getting valuable views from the minority language speakers they are surveying. Translating surveys into the languages enumerators are confident in would be a good start. We can further increase successful communication by providing a terminology list in minority languages to help enumerators with on-the-spot translation of unfamiliar words.

A better understanding of a community’s language preferences will give responders a better understanding of that community’s education needs at a time of crisis. That will assist responders to deliver meaningful mother-tongue or multilingual education, and to provide language support to students and teachers. 

Facilitating multilingual communication in humanitarian contexts is the very mission of Translators without Borders, and we would love to have a conversation with you about how we can help make that happen for you. Visit or contact for more information.

Alice Castillejo is a program advisor for Translators without Borders with a background in both the Alice Castillejodeveopment and humanitarian sectors.


The views expressed in this blog are the author's own.