Multilingual Environment: Children’s Books in Indigenous Languages


SEATTLE — Preserving indigenous languages is educationally imperative to helping children around the world learn and thrive. Often called mother tongue languages, teaching in the language a child has grown up hearing and speaking alongside a national or dominant language improves literacy.

Learning in a multilingual environment helps children who may have never heard a language other than their mother tongue to succeed. This type of instruction enables kids to build stronger literacy and numeracy skills that eventually help them acquire the new dominant language of the school system.

Half of the world’s out-of-school children speak minority languages not taught in the school system, which educationally disadvantages them. By accounting for and incorporating mother languages, educational systems can raise school enrollment and increase the accessibility of learning materials.

Studies have shown that children educated in a mother language who then later acquire the national language perform better in school than children forced to learn in the national language from the beginning. Initial instruction in a mother language removes an educational barrier.

Much of early childhood educational development occurs in a child’s mother tongue, which serves as the foundation of their cognitive development and sense of self. Recognizing this, there is a current push to create children’s books in indigenous languages to foster mother tongue education and preserve linguistic diversity. Multilingual school environments are critical to increasing student success, but expanding that learning into the home also helps in strengthening literacy skills.

Library for AllĀ 

Library for All is working to provide children with books in their mother tongues by focusing on existing mother tongue publishing companies, working with creators in local communities and making sure families are provided with children’s books in indigenous languages. Through public-private partnerships, Library for All is subsidizing demand for books in mother tongues to support publishers.

Sponsoring writer’s workshops and using Bloom software that allows members of local communities to write stories that fit into state curriculum, this global organization is increasing the amount of children’s books in indigenous languages. Including local folklore and licensed with Creative Commons, the books can be printed, modified and distributed for free.

Global Partnership for Education

In Madagascar, Global Partnership for Education is distributing textbooks in the mother tongue of Malagasy, the language they are educated in until third grade when they begin learning in French. The organization is also providing children’s books in indigenous languages in Rwanda, allowing children to learn to read in their mother tongue of Kinyarwanda. Fostering children’s education in mother tongue languages helps preserve them; many parents and grandparents say that children developing mother tongue literacy skills helps strengthen bonds between generations.


For younger generations, access to children’s books in indigenous languages can help them value and preserve their mother tongue and protect linguistic diversity around the world. Aurasma, a free app invented by Mike Parkhill, pairs digital components with children’s books in indigenous languages.


For parents and grandparents who may struggle to read in their mother tongue, the app has videos of indigenous elders reading the story so both guardian and child can practice enunciation with the written word. Parkhill’s SayITFirst initiative also ensures that its children’s books include simplified phonetics to teach proper pronunciation of indigenous words.

Teachers, parents, school officials, politicians and non-governmental organizations around the globe must continue these language-learning efforts and build a global community of people dedicated to indigenous language preservation.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recognizes mother tongue education as a key to sustainable development, and providing children’s books in indigenous languages is critical for this effort.

Subsidizing publishing demand, asking local communities to write stories, providing textbooks in mother languages and digital reading partners like Aurasma is the foundation to increasing access to children’s books in indigenous languages.

Irena Huang

Photo: Flickr


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