17. Bilingual Education

“If you want to become perfect in knowledge then learn all languages without ever forgetting your own.”[1]

In Madagascar, for students who complete secondary education, the education system aims to produce bilingual students. Students who finish secondary school should be able to:

  • Read and write French.
  • Read and write official Malagasy.

When the local dialect is very different to official Malagasy, such as in the south of Madagascar, students need to know three languages.


What do you observe are the language challenges that students face in school in Madagascar?

Language issues in education

I believe that language problems are the cause of many of the educational issues in this country.

Some of the problems are:

  • Many students leave school not fluent in Malagasy or French. Some have oral comprehension but their reading or writing is very poor.
  • There is a high dropout rate partly caused by language challenges.
  • Students with dyslexia and weak students struggle with one language. Learning a second is very difficult for them.
  • Teachers may not be fluent in the languages they are expected to teach in.
  • Teachers who teach a subject other than languages don’t see themselves as language teachers, or don’t know how to teach language effectively.
  • The method of teaching means that students often learn subjects like a parrot. They don’t have a clue what the words mean but they learn what words to write in response to certain question prompts. This means students may leave school having passed exams but with few useful skills other than memorisation.
  • It is difficult for students to successfully complete the transition from education in Malagasy to education in French.
  • Fluency in French is required to find a well-paid job.
  • Many students speak a dialect of Malagasy that is not official Malagasy. This can make it difficult for students in their exams as they need to write in a dialect they are not comfortable with.

Research into bilingual education

A large amount of research has been carried out into bilingual education[2]

The ‘mother tongue’ is the language or dialect that is spoken in the child’s family. In Madagascar, 0.57% of Malagasy use French exclusively, 15.82% use it sometimes and 83.61% use Malagasy every day. This chapter assumes that a local (non-Antananarivo) dialect of Malagasy is the mother tongue of your students. It also assumes that the second language to be taught is French.

Some points from the research:

  • If the language used in school is switched to another language before students have acquired a mastery of their mother tongue, their learning will suffer. This may not apply in the case that two-way bilingual education is used.
  • It takes 5–7 years of school education to master the mother tongue.
  • If students have mastered one language, it is easier for them to master another.
  • Excellent language teaching is important for a bilingual system to succeed.
  • The mother tongue needs to be valued. If a school says ‘your home language has no value’, that says to the student that the school does not value their culture and background, and the student will lose motivation.
  • It’s very hard for a student to learn a language when nobody speaks it at home and there is little evidence it is valuable. Children in the bush may have never met a French speaker and so will find French harder than those with parents who speak French.

Some ways that bilingual education can be taught are:

1) Mainstream education: The mother tongue is used as the language of instruction in all subjects. When a foreign language (e.g. French) is taught, the mother tongue is used to explain the lessons. In Madagascar, this would mean all classes are taught in local dialect Malagasy.

2) Two-way bilingual education: Some classes are taught in Malagasy. Other classes are taught in French. Often Science and Maths would be chosen to be taught in French.

3) Bilingual education: Education is started in the mother tongue, and then after some years switched to the second language. In Madagascar, this means starting school with instruction in Malagasy and then switching to French at a later stage.

  a) Early exit from mother tongue: Education is carried out in the mother tongue for 1–2 years, long  enough to develop basic communication skills. Then the language of education is switched to the second language. Research shows this is not a successful approach.

  b) Late-exit from mother tongue: Education is carried out in the mother tongue for 5–7 years. This length of time is required to develop enough language skills to discuss academic things. The language of education is then switched to the second language.  

A variety of the above methods are used in Madagascar. I believe option 2) or 3b) are best.


1) Are official Malagasy and your local dialect similar enough for both to be called ‘the mother tongue’?

2) How do students in your school react to learning official Malagasy?

3) How will you ensure students have good enough official Malagasy for the examinations?

Effective language teaching

Whatever system your school uses, you can make a big difference to your students by teaching language to them effectively. Students can succeed even if the best system is not adopted.

You are a language teacher – no matter what subject you teach!

It is very important you consider how you teach the language aspects of your subject.

A few ideas for successful language teaching:

1) Motivate your students to learn languages:

a) Imagine going to school and being told the language your parents spoke was stupid and a waste of time. You are not going to be motivated to study! Instead highly value your students’ mother tongue, even if you don’t teach in that language.

b) Help students to understand why they are learning a language. Official Malagasy is learnt because students need it to pass exams and it is used widely in print, TV and radio. French is required because it enables students to study at secondary school and to get a better than minimum wage job.

c) Make language learning fun. Playing language games such as Fady (see active learning chapter) or having students actively involved in lessons increases motivation.

2) Work to become an expert in the languages you teach in. Don’t be ashamed if you aren’t now, but seek any opportunity to improve your languages:

  • Invest in a dictionary.
  • Read well written books or newspapers.
  • Attend a language class run by the best linguist in your community or school.
  • Attend the excellent language courses at Alliance Francaise.

3) Highly value the student’s mother tongue. Research shows that placing a high academic value on the mother tongue will improve all the languages the student learns.

4) Incorporate group work in lessons. Have students discuss answers in groups in the language they are learning.

5) Spend lots of time having students speaking in the classroom. Students need to be able to talk about the subject before they can write well about a subject.

6) When teaching in a second language that your students are not good at, connect words back to the mother tongue.

Imagine you give the students the following to note down:

               Ik weet dat de zee blauw is.

What does it mean to you? Many of your students will feel the same way when they are given notes in French.

Help the students connect your French notes with their mother tongue. You could do something like this:

Students already know that ‘Ik’ means ‘I’. Make connections between the French words (which students are learning) and the Malagasy words. You may also need to teach the meaning of the Malagasy words. Even if the weaker students end up learning the French phrase by heart, they have learnt some French in the process.

Advanced French speakers will be able to understand explanations of new words in French however for beginners it is very tough.

7) Language lessons need to be active. Have students use the language they are learning for a task. For example, ask them to rewrite an explanation in a different way, using different words or grammar. Ask a group to produce a short play about something. Ask students to work in groups to come up with a good answer to a question. Or use any of the other active learning techniques in this book.

8) Ask students to make mini subject dictionaries of all the words they need for your subject. The dictionary should contain:

  • Malagasy word.
  • Malagasy definition of the word.
  • French word (if lesson is taught in French).
  • French definition of word (if lesson is taught in French).

9) If you have students who have recently started having classes taught in French, be aware that a lot of your work will be language teaching. This is because many of your students will know very little French. If you work hard on language teaching the students will find the subject much easier.

10) Get students to read aloud. Pick one or two words they pronounced badly and help them improve. Or ask the class to spot one or two of which words they need to improve the pronunciation.

11) Use formative assessment to check understanding of language. Don’t despair if students don’t understand you, instead be patient and help them with the basics.

12) Use examples that students can relate to in language classes. If there is an example like ‘When in Paris I visited the Eiffel Tower’, change that to something that students know in Madagascar. For example, ‘When in Toamasina I visited the beach’. Often textbook examples can be hard to understand because as well as grappling with new language, the language talks about something the students have never seen or experienced.

13) If you teach in a mix of official Malagasy and local dialect, make it very clear when you are using the official Malagasy.

14) Remember not all students have access to TV, videos or the radio where official Malagasy is spoken. You might consider having a post school ‘class’ where students get to listen to your radio, or a Malagasy video club.

15) Emphasise understanding of language over memorisation of notes.

16) If at all possible, get students reading books. Regular reading makes a big improvement in language skills. Lots of reading is incredibly important for students to succeed in language.

17) When teaching in a class with many dialects of mother tongue, use the students as teachers. Ask them how to say things in their own dialect and compare the dialects.

18) Consider running classes for parents to improve their French.


1) How competent are you at the languages you teach in?

2) How will you improve the languages you teach in? 3) How will you change your lessons to help your students learn languages better?

[1] Quoted from the Norwegian mediaeval royal publication Konungs skuggsjá about AD 1200, The King’s Mirror.

[2] ‘Linguistic policy challenges in Madagascar’, by Oyvind Dahl, outlines some of the main research relevant to Madagascar https://brage.bibsys.no/xmlui//bitstream/handle/11250/162102/OD_Linguistic_policy.pdf accessed October 2016. For further study observe the education systems of Madagascar and the Phillipines.