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News & Analysis

Sidelining Mother Languages Threat to Global Citizenship

 By Jaya Ramachandran

PARIS (IDN) - While the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has signed an agreement with the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) to measure global citizenship and sustainable development education, the persistent marginalization of mother languages worldwide is threatening Goal 4 of the UN Agenda for Sustainable Development. [P38] JAPANESE TEXT VERSION PDF

The Agenda 2030 includes seven targets in Goal 4 that aims to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”.

The seventh target – Goal 4.7 – obliges the international community to ensure that in the next 15 years “all learners (would) acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development”.

UNESCO relates global citizenship to the empowerment of learners to assume active roles to face and resolve global challenges and to become proactive contributors to a more peaceful, tolerant, inclusive and secure world.

But the chances that Goal 4.7 would be achieved are rather bleak unless adequate steps are taken urgently. The reason can be deduced from some important data released by the UNESCO on the occasion of the International Mother Language Day, celebrated annually on February 21.

According to a new paper by UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring Report (GEM Report), 40% of the global population – the combined population of China, India and the United States – does not access education in a language they understand.

UNESCO also points out that more than 50 per cent of about 7,000 languages spoken in the world are likely to die out within a few generations, and 6,720 of these languages are spoken by a mere 4 per cent or 296 million, slightly less than the population of Indonesia. “Only a few hundred languages have genuinely been given a place in education systems and the public domain, and less than a hundred are used in the digital world,” says UNESCO.

The GEM Report titled ‘If you don’t understand, how can you learn?’ argues that being taught in a language other than their own can negatively impact children’s learning, especially for those living in poverty.

Marking the Mother Language Day, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova underlined the basic principle of children learning in a language they speak. With a new global education agenda that prioritizes quality, equity and lifelong learning for all, it is essential to encourage full respect for the use of mother language in teaching and learning, and to promote linguistic diversity. Inclusive language education policies will not only lead to higher learning achievement, but contribute to tolerance, social cohesion, and, ultimately, peace.”

The study finds that learning improves in countries that have invested in bilingual programmes. In Guatemala, students in bilingual schools have lower repetition and dropout rates. They also have higher scores in all subject areas. Children in Ethiopia who participated in bilingual programmes for eight years improved their learning in subjects across the curriculum, says the document.

According to the paper, countries with colonial histories often find that shifting to bilingual education is complicated, as can be seen in many Latin American contexts that continue to use Portuguese, or Spanish, or in many Francophone African countries, where French remains the predominant language of instruction.

The GEM Report’s World Inequality Database on Education (WIDE) shows that this trend seriously hampers students’ chances of learning.

In Côte d’Ivoire, for example, 55% of grade 5 students who speak the test language at home learned the basics in reading in 2008, compared with only 25% of those who speak another language.

In Iran, 80% of grade 4 students who did not speak Farsi at home reached the basics in reading, compared with over 95% of Farsi speakers.

In Honduras, in 2011, 94% of grade 6 students who spoke the language of instruction at home learned the basics in reading compared to 62% of those who did not.

In Turkey in 2012, around 50% of poor non-Turkish speaking 15 year olds achieved minimum benchmarks in reading, against the national average of 80%.

In multi-ethnic societies, including Turkey, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Guatemala, the paper shows that imposing a dominant language through a school system – while sometimes a choice of necessity – has frequently been a source of grievance linked to wider issues of social and cultural inequality.

Aaron Benavot, Director of UNESCO’s GEM Report says language can serve as a double-edged sword. “While it strengthens an ethnic group’s social ties and sense of belonging, it can also become a basis for their marginalization. Education policy must ensure that all learners, including minority language speakers, access school in a language they know.”

The paper offers key recommendations to ensure that children are taught in a language they understand:

1. At least six years of mother tongue instruction is needed so that gains from teaching in mother tongue in the early years are sustained.

2. Education policies should recognize the importance of mother tongue learning. A review of 40 countries’ education plans finds that only less than half of them recognize the importance of teaching children in their home language, particularly in early grades.

3. Teachers need to be trained to teach in two languages and to understand the needs of second-language learners. Teachers are rarely prepared for the reality of bilingual classrooms, including with inclusive teaching materials and appropriate assessment strategies. In Senegal, only 8%, and in Mali, only 2% of trained teachers expressed confidence about teaching in local languages.

UNESCO Director-General Bokova emphasized that “mother languages in a multilingual approach are essential components of quality education, which is itself the foundation for empowering women and men and their societies”.

With this in view, UNESCO's Education 2030 Framework for Action, a road-map to implement the 2030 Agenda, encourages full respect for the use of mother language in teaching and learning, and the promotion and preservation of linguistic diversity, noted Bokova.

“Multilingualism is essential to drive these objectives forward – it is vital for success across the 2030 Agenda, regarding growth, employment and health, as well as sustainable consumption and production, and climate change,” she added.

Bokova assured that UNESCO brings the same focus to advancing linguistic diversity on the Internet, through support to relevant local content as well as media and information literacy.

Through the Local and Indigenous Knowledge Systems (LINKS) programme, she said, UNESCO is highlighting the importance of mother and local languages as channels for safeguarding and sharing indigenous cultures and knowledge, which are vast reservoirs of wisdom.

International Mother Language Day was proclaimed by the UNESCO General Conference in November 1999, and has been observed every year since February 2000 to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism.

The date represents the day in 1952 when students demonstrating for recognition of their language, Bangla, as one of the two national languages of the then Pakistan, were shot and killed by police in Dhaka, the capital of what is now Bangladesh.  [IDN-InDepthNews – 21 February 2016]

IDN is flagship of the International Press Syndicate.

Photo credit: UNESCO

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