…as world marks International Mother Language Day

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has called on the international community to support African countries in their actions to develop multilingual learning.

The call comes as the world marks International Mother Language Day, with UNESCO harping on the need for countries to pursue a policy of multilingual education.

International Mother Language Day is observed on February 21 every year. The celebration has the objective to preserve linguistic diversity, promote mother tongue-based multilingual education, as well as prevent indigenous languages around the world from going into extinction.

Speaking specifically on Africa, UNESCO cited its recent report, Born To Learn, which showed that at most one in five children are taught in their mother tongue in Africa, the continent with the highest linguistic diversity.

This, it said, is detrimental to learning outcomes on the continent, where only one in five pupils master the basics of reading, writing and mathematics even after completing primary school.

To buttress this point, UNESCO pointed to the success of Mozambique, which recently expanded bilingual education to 25 percent of schools with a new teacher training curriculum. It said children learning in these schools are performing around 15 percent higher in basic reading and mathematics.

“For this success to extend to the entire continent, the international community must mobilize more funds for African countries investing in this area,” UNESCO said in a press release ahead of the event.

On a global scale, the organization advised that children be taught in their mother tongue during the earliest years of their schooling, saying this can be combined with the official language of instruction, an approach known as multilingual education.

“UNESCO’s World Inequality Database on Education shows that, globally, children being taught in a language they speak at home are 30 percent more likely to read with understanding by the end of primary school than those who do not speak the language of instruction. Evidence also shows that learning in first language or mother tongue education improves children’s social skills,” the organisation said.

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To help fight the current global learning crisis, while preserving the linguistic diversity which is an essential cultural element, UNESCO urged governments to embrace multilingual education based on the mother tongue from the earliest years of schooling.

“We know it works – there is empirical evidence to prove it helps children learn,” it said.

UNESCO also highlighted the importance of safeguarding indigenous languages, pointing out that at least 40 percent of the more than 6,700 languages spoken around the world are threatened with extinction in the long term due to a lack of speakers.

The idea to celebrate International Mother Language Day was the initiative of Bangladesh. February 21 was approved for the celebration at the UNESCO General Conference in 1999 and the day has been observed throughout the world since the year 2000.

This year’s event, the 24th edition, came under the theme “Multilingual Education – A Necessity to Transform Education’.

Held at the UNESCO Headquarters, Paris, France, the event explored and gave rooms for debates on the potential of multilingualism to transform education from a lifelong learning perspective and in different contexts.

The discussions were based around three inter-connected themes: (1)Enhancing multilingual education as a necessity to transform education in multilingual contexts from early childhood education and well beyond; (2) Supporting learning through multilingual education and multilingualism in our fast-changing global contexts and in crisis situations including emergencies contexts; and (3) Revitalizing languages that are disappearing or are threatened with extinction.

UNESCO believes in the importance of cultural and linguistic diversity for sustainable societies. It is within its mandate for peace that it works to preserve the differences in cultures and languages that foster tolerance and respect for others.

The organisation leads the Indigenous Languages Decade 2022-2032, a 10-year action plan to draw the world’s attention to the critical loss of indigenous languages and the urgent need to preserve, revitalize and celebrate them.