CHIANGRI TIMES – Eight-year-old Soifah Jetsadakraisii was failing second grade. The Chiang Rai native grew up speaking Bisu, one of the hundreds of ethnic minority languages scattered over the mountainous heart of Southeast Asia. The language spoken by the teachers was Thai; to Soifah, a foreign tongue.
While the 2015 launch of the Asean Community is focusing attention on English language, the annual commemoration of Feb 21 as “International Mother Language Day” highlights the importance of all languages in this region and worldwide.
The mother language or “mother tongue” is the language in which first words are spoken and thoughts expressed by an individual. Thus, it is generally the language that a person speaks most fluently. Cognitively, the mother language is a crucial tool every child uses to understand the world. Culturally, the mother language is a fundamental expression of history and identity.
Nearly 7,000 languages are spoken in the world today. Given that the United Nations comprises 193 member states, multilingual, multicultural nations are clearly the norm, not the exception. Virtually all countries have citizens whose mother language differs from the majority language.
Often, the most disadvantaged people in a country are those whose mother language is different from the national language. This creates problems in many areas such as education, health, income disparity, risk of exploitation, exposure to environmental hazards and access to the legal system. Policies sympathetic to a diversity of mother languages can help unite a country, while strong monolingual policies can contribute to social division.
Governments and development organizations must take language into account when engaging people, rather than embracing a “one size fits all” mentality; as one slogan for the UN International Year of Languages declared: “Languages Matter!”
Languages matter for the fulfillment of the eight Millennium Development Goals adopted in 2000 by the UN.
Languages matter in the quest to eliminate illiteracy and facilitate better learning, as emphasized in the global Education for All movement. They matter in fostering openness towards diversity and tolerance of other cultures, which is essential to building inclusive societies. They matter for peace and mutual understanding in areas of inter-ethnic conflict. Indeed, the role of languages in the educational, cultural and economic fabric of our societies is too great to be ignored.
Evidence from around the world shows that children learn best when taught in their mother language in the initial years at school. Yet, too often, children are immersed in classrooms and taught in a language that they do not recognize. Children are expected to effortlessly learn in the school language without additional support. Typically, less than 15% are able to do so and achieve acceptable marks; the majority do not. While they are physically included in school, the language barrier excludes them from effective learning.
In southern Thailand, a Mother Tongue Based-Multilingual Education project in which the local language is used alongside Thai in primary schools, has produced remarkable results: lower absenteeism, greater parental involvement, and test scores that average at least 40% higher than students in nearby schools taught only in Thai. Significantly, boys in these schools were 123% more likely to pass their Thai language examination, and girls were 155% more likely to achieve passing marks in math.
Similar results have been observed in Mother Tongue Based-Multilingual Education projects in Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and the Philippines. That is why the Unesco, Unicef and other development partners strongly advocate Mother Tongue Based-Multilingual Education. For children from minority-language backgrounds, learning in their own language in the early years is not a luxury; it is a fundamental right to access educational opportunities. Furthermore, their ability to acquire second and additional languages is determined by the strength of their linguistic foundations in the first language. Therefore, learning in the mother language is also the right way to promote better learning of the national language.
Little Soifah was the beneficiary of one such effort. She learned to read her mother language in a village literacy programme led by volunteer teachers from her own ethnic group. Her confidence soared as she transferred the basic literacy skills acquired in her mother tongue to the school language. In March, Soifah will become the first member of her family to graduate from high school.
Language is perhaps the most human of human traits. International Mother Language Day provides an opportunity for us all to reflect on the vital importance of language to ourselves, to our nations, and to our world. So delight in cultural diversity. Learn other languages. Share your language with others. But never forget the value of each person’s mother language.
Writer: Kirk Person & Sena Lee
Kirk Person and Sena Lee work for the Asia Multilingual Education Working Group comprising UN agencies, NGOs and academic institutions, set up to remove barriers in access to education for ethno-linguistic communities in Asia.