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Multilingual approach necessary to ensure preservation of mother tongues

By Fang Xiaobing | 2016-05-30
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

An art college student paints on a wall as part of the decoration for International Mother Language Day in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization declared Feb. 21 to be International Mother Language Day in 1999 to honor the supreme sacrifice of language martyrs who campaigned to officially use their mother language, Bengali, in Bangladesh, on this day in 1952.


UNESCO’s International Mother Language Day has been observed on Feb. 21 every year since 2000 to advocate education about mother tongues, safeguard the right to use mother tongues, protect endangered languages and promote linguistic diversity.


Since its establishment 70 years ago, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has paid close attention to the problem of mother languages. In 1951, it convened a panel meeting on the topic, during which experts pointed out the importance of respecting and protecting mother tongues, suggesting that every student receive formal education in his or her mother language.


In 1981, an international conference themed “Using Mother Languages as a Teaching Tool” was held at UNESCO headquarters in Paris. Experts at the meeting reviewed the lessons countries around the world learned in the preceding three decades of mother-tongue education. As a powerful weapon to eradicate illiteracy, ignorance, discrimination and poverty, mother-tongue education is the greatest driving force for national development, it was argued at the conference. Moreover, the meeting called for member states to formulate education plans in line with their own situations and update the progress in their annual government work report.

Six years later, UNESCO, together with the International Association for Intercultural Communication Studies, held a conference on language as a human right in Brazil and adopted a declaration. The declaration deemed mother-tongue education to be a basic human right, demanding all member states provide legal protection for the rights of all ethnic groups on using their mother languages.

In 1996, a conference on language rights, hosted by PEN International, a nongovernmental organization that holds associate status at UNESCO, took place in Spain. The declaration released by the conference asserted that every human has a fundamental right to speak his or her mother language, every child has the right to learn the language of the group he or she lives with, and that aborigines and minorities have the right to use their mother languages in various media. UNESCO delegates to the meeting also endorsed the declaration.


Existing problems
However, UNESCO member states have failed to put into practice the advocacy of mother languages.
Some researchers pointed out that globalization, urbanization and information technology have influenced the language and education environment, and that multilingual practice has become the norm at present. UNESCO’s one-sided emphasis of mother-tongue education and rights in various statements and initiatives has failed to gain support from governments or from the groups concerned.

Mother-tongue education requires a large investment from the government, especially in places where there are numerous kinds of mother languages but very few students speaking each mother language. Furthermore, parents worry that spending time on learning the mother language may affect a student’s proficiency in the official or commonly used language and other courses.

Given that some mother languages are spoken by small populations and have a limited reach, the advocacy of mother-tongue education to the exclusion of other languages may affect the economic interests of these people by reducing their chances for upward social mobility and thus this policy fails to ensure the realization of human rights.


Multilingual approach
These dilemmas complicate problems of education, rights and the protection of mother tongues. To solve the problem of language selection, ensure the dissemination of knowledge and skills, and promote fair and high-quality education, UNESCO announced an influential document titled Education in a Multilingual World in 2003.

In addition to mother-tongue education, the document for the first time highlighted the significance of bilingual and foreign language education. Bilingual education is beneficial to social fairness and gender equality, while learning foreign languages can facilitate cross-cultural communication and mutual understanding among member states.

In 2011, UNESCO issued a draft of language policy guidelines that suggested applying the framework of multilingualism to endangered languages, and it also articulated targeted measures to protect mother tongues. The draft pointed out that it is more useful to evaluate a language’s range of application and the linguistic skill of individuals rather than the absolute number of people speaking the language.

In addition, the multilingual approach emphasizes “first-language-first,” i.e. schooling that starts in the mother tongue and transitions to additional languages. This approach is beneficial to children because it can lay a solid foundation for them to learn other languages.

This indicates that UNESCO is increasingly aware of the value of multilingual education. The multilingual approach is conducive to cultivating a harmonious linguistic atmosphere and promoting the balanced development of humanity. UNESCO aims to solve the problem of mother languages while considering the multilingual context of communities on the local level.

In January this year, UNESCO announced the official establishment of the International Mother Language Institute in Dhaka, capital of Bangladesh. The main objectives of the institute are to promote multilingual education based on mother languages, study the relations between preserving mother languages and learning multiple languages, and establish a multilingual education system based on mother tongues.


2030 agenda
The theme of the 2016 International Mother Language Day was “Quality Education, Languages of Instruction and Learning Outcomes,” corresponding to the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda that came into effect at the very beginning of this year. The 2030 Agenda focuses on goals of common prosperity, including eradicating poverty, promoting quality education for all, achieving full and productive employment, and empowering girls and women.

In particular, UNESCO’s Education 2030 Framework for Action, a roadmap for the agenda, encourages full respect for the use of mother languages in teaching and learning, and the promotion and preservation of linguistic diversity.

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said in her speech celebrating the 2016 International Mother Language Day that multilingualism is essential to these objectives. Mother languages, when taught within the context of a multilingual approach, are vital components of quality education, which is itself the foundation for empowering women and men and their societies. “We must recognize and nurture this power in order to leave no one behind, to craft a more just and sustainable future for all.”

Mother-tongue education in a multilingual approach is essential to universal and lifelong education, which can enable every woman and man to acquire skills and knowledge. This is especially important for girls and women as well as minorities and indigenous peoples. It is the best choice to uphold language rights and preserve linguistic diversity. In this sense, multilingualism is the key concept that UNESCO has contributed to dealing with the mother language challenges.


Fang Xiaobing is from the China Center for Linguistic and Strategic Studies at Nanjing University.