People whose mother tongue is different from their country’s official language can find this a barrier to thriving in society. But does that mean children should be educated only in the official language? It’s a complex question. As we found in the 2010 Education for All Global Monitoring Report: Reaching the Marginalized, educating children in their mother tongues can be a powerful way to prevent them from becoming marginalized.
International Mother Language Day on February 21 is a good opportunity to reflect on the connections between education and the world’s linguistic richness. Nearly 7,000 languages are spoken around the world, but many education systems do not reflect this diversity. About 221 million school-age children speak languages at home that are not recognized in schools.
Children who study in their mother tongue usually learn better and faster than children who study in second languages. Pupils who start learning in their home language also perform better in tests taken in their official language of instruction in their later school years.
The complexity of the issue is reflected by the fact that being taught only in one’s mother tongue can also be a route to marginalization. People who cannot speak a country’s dominant language often have restricted opportunities for employment and social mobility.
Furthermore, parents who do not speak the language their children are being taught in may be less able to engage with teachers, education authorities and to help with their children’s homework.
Language, culture and ethnicity are inherently interlinked. As the United Nations’ General Assembly noted in 2009, “genuine multilingualism promotes unity in diversity and international understanding” and is important for “promoting, protecting and preserving diversity of languages and cultures globally”. That is why the UN is committed to preserve “all languages used by peoples of the world”.
At least half of the world’s spoken languages are, however, under threat of extinction within 50 to 100 years, according to the Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project, based at SOAS, University of London. About 2,500 languages are listed in UNESCO’s latest Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, which is accompanied by an online interactive edition.
Education systems must perform a delicate balancing art. Schools must give their pupils good conditions for effective learning. In many multilingual countries, this involves learning the official language as a subject in primary school, while being taught in one’s home language. It also implies that schools should teach the majority population respect for ethnic minority language and culture. But they must also ensure that children from disadvantaged minority backgrounds learn the skills they need to thrive in society and get a decent job – including mastering the official language.
In Latin America, where most countries aim to give children a chance to learn in their home language before moving on to Spanish, bilingual programmes have registered some significant achievements, but they face major challenges. Many indigenous children do not have access to bilingual education. Where indigenous language teaching is available, it is often of poor quality. And many indigenous groups find that bilingual education is too narrow when it focuses mainly on more effective integration of indigenous children into mainstream education.
Education reforms in Bolivia have addressed some of these problems. In the mid-1990s, intercultural and bilingual education was introduced on a national scale for the three most widely used indigenous languages. Bilingual teaching expanded rapidly, from 75,896 pupils in 1997 to 192,238 in 2002, or 11% of all primary school pupils. Curriculum reforms led to the development of courses and textbooks that attach more weight to the country’s multicultural history and the role of indigenous peoples.