The very notion of providing everyone with a quality education that leads to great learning outcomes implies that children should be taught in a language they understand. Yet as much as 40 per cent of the world’s population does not have access to an education in a language they speak or understand, particularly in regions with the biggest linguistic diversity, such as Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Pacific. And when children are taught in languages they do not speak at home, this hinders their acquisition of critically important early literacy and numeracy skills, with a detrimental effect on their learning in general and, indeed, their opportunities in life. This issue particularly affects speakers of indigenous and ethnic minority languages, of which there are many in the regions of Southeast Asia we work in.
I don’t understand, teacher.
In the indigenous heartlands of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, stories about speakers of indigenous and ethnic minority languages not doing well at school, or missing out on schooling altogether, abound. Take for example Phet, a young mother from Laos. Her family is ethnic Khmu and they all speak the Khmu language as their first language. “When I started going to primary school, I immediately had difficulties at school, because the teachers used the Lao language at school, which I did not understand or speak. And they could not speak my language, Khmu. I was not learning well and could not keep up, so I stopped going to school altogether not long after having started” she says.
A hard life and an extra language barrier
Aide et Action’s field staff working with indigenous and ethnic minority communities hear stories like Peth’s on a daily basis. Indeed, children in these communities are less likely to be in school, and if they are going, they are at a high risk of dropping out, just like Phet. Many of these communities are poor, remote, hard to access, lack basic facilities such as schools and offer few employment opportunities. Climatic conditions can cause harvests to fail, with food shortages and children suffering from malnutrition as a result. With all that comes the pressure for children to stay at home to help with chores and make a living. To make matters worse, ethnic minority children also face extra language barriers. Even if, against the odds, they make it to school, they find themselves in an alienating environment: classes are taught in a language they do not understand, learning materials such as books in their own language are not available, and the teacher cannot speak their language. From day one, they are on the back foot to keep up in class, an impossible task for many. As a result, they do not acquire the all-important early literacy and numeracy skills, their chances of going through their school years successfully are severely compromised, and many drop out altogether not long after starting school, their self-esteem in tatters.
That’s how poverty, language and ethnicity can conspire to sustain disadvantage and deepen learning inequalities between speakers from minority and majority language groups, as research and data confirms. For example, The Global Education Monitoring Report’s World Inequality Database on Education (WIDE) is one such source showing the extent of learning inequalities within countries, depending on whether children speak the language of used at school also at home or not. To ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all (Sustainable Development Goal 4), it’s crucial that the need for bilingual/multilingual education is kept high on the development agenda where it was firmly put by UNESCO in 1999.
Since 1999, UNESCO has been promoting multilingual education as a means to improve learning outcomes and give life to cultural diversity. Its policy paper “If you don’t understand, how can you learn? puts it in no uncertain terms: “To ensure that children acquire strong foundation skills in literacy and numeracy, schools need to teach the curriculum in a language children understand. Mother tongue based bilingual (or multilingual) education approaches, in which a child’s mother tongue is taught alongside the introduction of a second language, can improve performance in the second language as well as in other subjects.” Despite considerable progress made, we are obviously not there yet.
Indeed, for developing countries, reforming and modernizing their under-resourced education systems to cater for all children no matter their background or circumstances and offer them a quality education that sets them up for a fulfilling life in the 21st century is a daunting task – and the language barriers are just one of the many hurdles to overcome. Catering to linguistically diverse learners creates enormous challenges for education systems. It demands that teachers get trained and recruited in bilingual education, a mountain of work needs to be done on curriculum development and last but not least, the new teaching materials need to be created and provided. Many countries simply do not have the resources, expertise and know-how to pull this off.
Our social mission
This is why Aide et Action, in solidarity, assists 19 countries and countless communities with the development of their education systems so these become truly inclusive of all learners. We can simply not sit back and see so many children miss the boat when it comes to their schooling because their mother language is not used at school. In Southeast Asia, for example, Aide et Action works in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam to strengthen education systems so children whose mother language is not Khmer, Vietnamese or Lao (the languages of Cambodia’s, Laos’ and Vietnam’s ethnic majority groups respectively) have equal opportunity to acquire essential skills and complete school.
Solutions & Ownership
So how do we help ensure effective bilingual education for children from Mong, Khmu, Tampuan, Krung or Pnong families to name but a few of the many ethnic minority groups in Southeast Asia? There is no magic bullet that provides a solution for this very complex and widespread issue. Rather, we work closely with the ethnic communities themselves, schools, teachers, parents and policymakers, listen to their concerns and ideas, and facilitate a range of solutions they have ownership over.
An example of such a solution is our multilingual education program in Cambodia which aims to help young ethnic children learn their own language, but also the national language of instruction in the early grades (grades 1 to 3), so they do not fall behind from the start. In grade 1 they study 20% in the national language Khmer/Cambodian and 80% in their mother language, in grade 2 this is 40% in Khmer and 60% in their own mother tongue, and in grade 3 that becomes 80% Khmer and 20% mother tongue. After that, they can transition effortlessly into grade 4 where the national language Khmer is the only language of instruction.
Another initiative is helping communities to develop preschools, so their little ones can maximize their development during this important growing phase, but also get used to a school environment, hearing a different language (which they pick up almost effortlessly at such young age), socialize and become confident, all before hitting primary school age. Such culturally appropriate school-readiness programs can make the transition into primary school less problematic and improve learning outcomes. Phet from Laos is over the moon that her 4-year-old son, unlike herself, has the chance to attend a community pre-school supported by Aide et Action. “By going to this school, he can avoid language difficulties when he goes into primary school. By that stage, he will have learnt the Lao language well enough to communicate with teachers and friends, be able to keep up in class, and eventually have better opportunities to get a higher education.” she says.
A crucial role for parents
With the number of teachers able to provide bilingual education still limited in many countries, but growing thanks to the advocacy and training efforts of Aide et Action teams and other development organizations on the ground in linguistically rich areas, parents play an important support role in making bilingual education possible.
In our project schools in the northern highlands of Vietnam, where so many school children come from ethnic minority families, ethnic parents assist the regular teachers during class with translating and facilitating learning activities in the children’s own language, and bring their unique indigenous knowledge to the table. These parents often become the most enthusiastic promoters of bilingual education, spreading word about its benefits within their own communities.
Teachers & Learning Materials
The Aide et Action teams on the ground in these areas also put in a massive amount of work supporting teacher training and development, curriculum development, and the creation of relevant, rich and multilingual learning materials all aimed at delivering effective bilingual education.
Because for all children to learn, we need to teach them in a language they understand, train teachers in more than one language, recruit teachers from diverse backgrounds, provide inclusive and relevant teacher materials, and help bridge cultural and language gaps through culturally appropriate school-readiness initiatives.
In the end, languages are peoples’ and societies’ most important tools to transmit knowledge and culture. Without giving languages their rightful place in education (and indeed in people’s lives) it is not only the world’s linguistic and cultural diversity that is threatened, but also the goal of ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all. And we cannot let that happen.