A student of Khmer descent learns Kinh language (the official Vietnamese language) at the Lac Hoa Primary School in Soc Trang province. The report "Vietnam High Education For All by 2020" finds that gaps in learning still exist, particularly between groups of different income levels and between Kinh, Chinese and ethnic minorities. Soc Trang province, Vietnam. Photo: Chau Doan / World Bank
 Soc Trang province, Vietnam. Photo: Chau Doan / World Bank

UNESCO, that has an essential role to play in providing international frameworks for education policy and practice conducted a few years ago a reflection on the challenge for policy-makers to draft education policies in multilingual contexts. It came up with a position paper shaped up with the comments and contributions of many renowned experts* which is specially useful to clarify some of the key concepts and issues:

Linguistic diversity and multilingualism

Linguistic diversity reflects the existence of the multitude of languages spoken in the world which is variously estimated at between 6 000 and 7 000 languages. Safeguarding this diversity today is one of the most urgent challenges facing our world. Estimates suggest that at least half of them are in danger of disappearing in the coming years. While some countries are linguistically homogeneous, such as Iceland, many countries and regions display a wealth of linguistic diversity, for example, Indonesia, with over 700 languages, and Papua New Guinea with over 800 languages. The actual distribution of linguistic diversity is uneven. Over 70 per cent of all languages in the world are found in just 20 nation states, among them some of the poorest countries in the world. In general, however, bilingual and multilingual contexts, that is, the presence of different linguistic groups living in the same country, are the norm rather than the exception throughout the world, both in the North and the South. Bilingualism and multilingualism, that is, the use of more than one language in daily life, will be normal practice in these contexts.
Linguistically diverse contexts cover a range of scenarios. Broadly speaking, however, these correspond either to more traditionally diverse situations where several, or even up to many hundreds of languages have been spoken in a region over a long period of time, or to more recent developments (particularly in urban concentrations), the result of migratory phenomena, where in some city schools there may be as many as 30 or 40 different mother tongues among students. In all cases, there is a need to take into consideration the specific learning needs of children in relation to the language or languages of the home and those of the school.

Minority and majority languages

The concept of linguistic diversity itself is relative, however, and is usually measured in terms of national boundaries, giving some languages the status of majority language and others that of minority language according to specific national contexts. Mandarin, for example, one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, which is spoken by almost 900 million people, is a majority language in China, but in other countries where only part of the population is of Chinese language and culture, it has the status of a minority language in the face of other national or majority languages of those countries. Similarly, a minority language in a large country may, be regarded as a majority language in a smaller country. However, most of the world’s languages, including sign languages for the deaf and braille for the blind, are minority languages in any national context. Nevertheless, the term ‘minority’ is often ambiguous and may be interpreted differently in distinct contexts because it may have both numerical and social or political dimensions. In some cases it may be simply used as a euphemism for non-elite or subordinate groups, whether they constitute a numerical majority or minority in relation to some other group that is politically and socially dominant.

Official and national languages

Although there are more than 20 States with more than one official language (India alone, for example, has 19 official languages while South Africa has 11), the majority of countries in the world are monolingual nation states in the sense of recognizing, de jure or de facto, only one official language for government and legal purposes. That is not to say that they are not bilingual or multilingual societies, but rather that while there may be many languages widely used in a country these do not necessarily have the legal authority of an official language. In many countries that were previously under colonial regimes, the official language tends to be the language of the former colonizers. In addition to official languages, several countries recognize national languages, which may be compulsory in education. The choice of language in the educational system confers a power and prestige through its use in formal instruction. Not only is there a symbolic aspect, referring to status and visibility, but also a conceptual aspect referring to shared values and worldview expressed through and in that language.

School in Manan Telkouk, Kasala. Photo: Salahaldeen Nadir / World Bank
School in Manan Telkouk, Kasala. Photo: Salahaldeen Nadir / World Bank

Language(s) of instruction

The language of instruction in or out of school refers to the language used for teaching the basic curriculum of the educational system. The choice of the language or indeed the languages of instruction (educational policy might recommend the use of several languages of instruction) is a recurrent challenge in the development of quality education. While some countries opt for one language of instruction, often the official or majority language, others have chosen to use educational strategies that give national or local languages an important place in schooling. Speakers of mother tongues, which are not the same as the national or local language, are often at a considerable disadvantage in the educational system similar to the disadvantage in receiving instruction in a foreign official language.

Mother tongue instruction

Mother tongue instruction generally refers to the use of the learners’ mother tongue as the medium of instruction. Additionally, it can refer to the mother tongue as a subject of instruction. It is considered to be an important component of quality education, particularly in the early years. The expert view is that mother tongue instruction should cover both the teaching of and the teaching through this language.
The term ‘mother tongue’, though widely used, may refer to several different situations. Definitions often include the following elements: the language(s) that one has learnt first; the language(s) one identifies with or is identified as a native speaker of by others; the language(s) one knows best and the language(s) one uses most. ‘Mother tongue’ may also be referred to as ‘primary’ or ‘first language’. The term ‘mother tongue’ is commonly used in policy statements and in the general discourse on educational issues. […]

Linguistic rights

Language is not only a tool for communication and knowledge but also a fundamental attribute of cultural identity and empowerment, both for the individual and the group. Respect for the languages of persons belonging to different linguistic communities therefore is essential to peaceful cohabitation. This applies both to majority groups, to minorities (whether traditionally resident in a country or more recent migrants) and to indigenous peoples.
Claims for language are among the first rights that minorities have voiced when there have been situations of political change and evolution. Such claims for linguistic rights range from the official and legal status of the minority and indigenous language, to language teaching and use in schools and other institutions, as well as in the media. […]

Language teaching

The language of instruction in school is the medium of communication for the transmission of knowledge. This is different from language teaching itself where the grammar, vocabulary, and the written and the oral forms of a language constitute a specific curriculum for the acquisition of a second language other than the mother tongue. Learning another language opens up access to other value systems and ways of interpreting the world, encouraging inter-cultural understanding and helping reduce xenophobia. This applies equally to minority and majority language speakers. The way languages are taught is constantly changing, and may vary considerably from one country to another or even within the same country. Much depends on the prevailing concept of language and language teaching paradigms, as well as on the role that is assigned to the language that is taught.

Bilingual and multilingual education

Bilingual and multilingual education refer to the use of two or more languages as mediums of instruction. In much of the specialized literature, the two types are subsumed under the term bilingual education. However, UNESCO adopted the term ‘multilingual education’ in 1999 in the General Conference Resolution 12 to refer to the use of at least three languages, the mother tongue, a regional or national language and an international language in education. The resolution supported the view that the requirements of global and national participation, and the specific needs of particular, culturally and linguistically distinct communities can only be addressed by multilingual education. In regions where the language of the learner is not the official or national language of the country, bilingual and multilingual education can make mother tongue instruction possible while providing at the same time the acquisition of languages used in larger areas of the country and the world. This additive approach to bilingualism is different from the so called subtractive bilingualism which aims to move children on to a second language as a language of instruction.

* UNESCO acknowledges the contribution of the following experts: Ayo Bamgbose, Annie Brisset, Louis-Jean Calvet, Ernesto Couder, Denis Cunningham, Tarcisio della Senta, Nadine Kutcher, Juan Carlos Godenzzi, Maria Carme Junyent, Irina Khaleeva, Lachman Khubchandani, Don Long, Fèlix Martí, Mirian Masaquiza, Elite Olsthain, Henriette Rassmussen, Dónall Ó Riagáin, Suzanne Romaine, Adama Samassekou, Tove Skutnabb-Kangas.