Multilingual Education as a Tool for Poverty Alleviation


PHILADELPHIA — There are 2.3 billion people who do not have access to mother language schooling. Two hundred and fifty million children have not succeeded in developing basic literacy skills. Children from non-dominant language groups in Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, India and Laos are 40 to 60 percent more likely to drop out of school than dominant language groups. Within this figure, girls in particular are 30 to 50 percent more likely to drop out than boys.

For over 60 years, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Culture Organization (UNESCO) has stressed the importance of mother tongue instruction in early childhood and primary education and multilingual education (MLE). UNESCO established Feb. 21 as International Mother Language Day to promote and spread awareness on the positive side of mother tongue instruction.

Those who do not have access to learning basic literacy skills in their mother tongue risk social and political exclusion and in some cases even economic exclusion. For young children at the primary school age, they risk not fully learning the foundational development skills needed for literacy. In a 2011 UNESCO report, the agency highlighted that early childhood education strengthens “learning, physical and mental health, responsible citizen, economic productivity and parenting the next generation.” Without these components, society denies children the right to escape from poverty and to exercise their rights.

The figures in the beginning of this article elucidate the importance of using mother language instructional education as a tool for inclusiveness. Studies have shown that fewer students drop out of education once their mother tongue is the language of instruction. These students start to feel a part of the wider education community that aims for youth development and leaders.

MLE has also proven that families feel more accepted. Parents are their children’s first teachers. Their input in formal education for their child is highly valued. They form a crucial part of the support system, but if they cannot assist with their child’s early learning developmental skills then the child loses support. Some parents believe that their children should only be taught in the dominant language regardless of their mother tongue.

Many studies have proven that learning in the mother tongue first and transferring those skills to a second language prove far more beneficial than only learning any subject in the dominant language. In The Gambia some students are participating in a program called the Early Literacy in National Languages (ELINL) pilot program (sponsored by World Bank and Global Partnership for Education). ELINL in The Gambia has gathered some data in the effectiveness of the multilingual education program. From grades one to three, ELINL students outperformed other students who attended schools where there was no multilingual education program that supported the multilingual diversity of the school.

Downside to MLE

MLE has been criticized heavily for its costly program support. Initially, the program is very costly because publishing materials in a minority language is difficult. While the initial program production is expensive, after the program has been implemented for a few years the costs break-even.

Some communities complain of a deeper sense of social isolation. In certain contexts, such as in Bolivia, the government had historically used MLE for indigenous communities with positive intentions that resulted in deeper inequalities and discrimination through making some indigenous communities feel more like ‘the other’.

There are families that worry that their child’s future could be jeopardized if they learn in their mother tongue. However, numerous studies have proven that more students stay in school when their mother tongue is the language of instruction.

Learning a new language is difficult, but when the foundational learning skills are absent, learning for many subjects is difficult.

MLE is not simply a program to maintain the linguistic diversity of the world, but it also most importantly is a social justice mission. It encourages the inclusion of minority communities that have often times been neglected in the social, political and economic societies. It promotes a future without poverty and a fairer society.

Courteney Leinonen

Sources: Global Partnership, The National, UNESCO 1, UNESCO 2, UNESCO 3
Photo: Flickr


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