[F]ailing to read in one's native language sends a negative message: that the language and culture of native-language speakers are second-class, unworthy of widespread use. ... Learning to read and then to write in one's mother tongue sends the opposite message. It reinforces the teaching that all people—and all languages—reflect the image of God. ... When people grow up learning to read first in a language they don't yet speak, they often miss the concept that reading is supposed to be a meaningful activity.... They can learn to decode, but they have no idea what they are learning.
These quotations are from a recent Christianity Today article on the advisability of teaching children to read in their native, "mother-tongue" language before introducing the complexities of a language that is foreign, even if it may be the country's official language. In the Philippines,
Children in Lubuagan ... speak Lubuagan at home but learn a national language and an international language, in this case Filipino and English, at school. (In case, like me, you were wondering what happened to Tagalog, which I always thought was the official language of the Philippines, according to the CIA World Factbook, the language is based on Tagalog but called Filipino.) ... In school, they learn to read in a language they don't really understand.... That makes it difficult for them to understand what they are learning.
The Philippines is one of many countries where emphasis is now being placed on first becoming literate in one's own language. On the one hand, it's a much-needed change from a system in which children were punished for using their own language (much as Native Americans once were in school).
On the other hand, this approach misses the fact (as does the article) that learning in a foreign language is probably not the most important factor in low literacy rates. Because the Swiss do it all the time, and Switzerland has a 99% literacy rate.
If you're a Swiss baby grown up in what is called German-speaking Switzerland, your native language is not High German—what we call simply "German"—but Swiss German (in one of many dialects). But when you go to school, you learn in High German. You learn to read in High German, because that's the official written language.
True, the Swiss have advantages that the Filipinos don't. Swiss German and High German may have significant differences, but they're probably closer than many native and national languages. Swiss children grow up surrounded by people who are literate and who read to them from books written in High German. How they reconcile the differences between the language of speaking and the language of reading I don't know, but children are wonderfully adaptable. Our grandson is equally fluent (at a two-year-old level) in English with Mommy and in Swiss German with Bappe. For the moment he has found his own solution to the written vs. spoken problem: When he "reads," following along with his finger, he moves his hand left-to-right when speaking English, and right-to-left when speaking Swiss German.
Nobody worries about the Swiss.
Even Wycliffe Bible Translators, dedicated for 70 years to the belief that "every man, woman and child should be able to read God’s Word in their own language" does not seem to care. The Swiss missionaries I met had spent their lives translating the Bible into an African language—yet they laughed when I asked why Swiss German was left out of the vision.
Children are wonderful learners. Whatever the problems are that lead to illiteracy amongst those whose native language differs from the national language, it's not from an innate difficulty in language-learning. There are African and Indian communities in which it's common for people to speak at least three languages, often many more than that. If, as the article states, children are "not learning to read until late in elementary school," decreasing their foreign language exposure can only be a stop-gap measure.