Languages, with their complex implications for identity, communication, social integration, education and development, are of strategic importance for people and planet. Yet, due to globalization processes, they are increasingly under threat, or disappearing altogether. When languages fade, so does the world's rich tapestry of cultural diversity. Opportunities, traditions, memory, unique modes of thinking and expression — valuable resources for ensuring a better future — are also lost. More than 50 percent of the approximately 7,000 languages spoken in the world are likely to die out within a few generations, and 96 percent of these languages are spoken by a mere 4 percent of the world's population. Only a few hundred languages have genuinely been given pride of place in education systems and the public domain, and less than a hundred are used in the digital world. Cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue, the promotion of education for all and the development of knowledge societies are central to UNESCO's work. But they are not possible without broad and international commitment to promoting multilingualism and linguistic diversity, including the preservation of endangered languages. 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 for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 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. Economic linguists – those that study the economics associated with language policy – have noted that the immediate and long term economic benefits of mother tongue education out-weigh the cost when compared to not implementing mother tongue education policy. 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 last year, 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 programs. 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 programs 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:
- At least six years of mother tongue instruction is needed so that gains from teaching in mother tongue in the early years are sustained.
- 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.
- 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.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.