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Children play in the Sesan River in Stung Treng province in April last year
Children play in the Sesan River in Stung Treng province in April last year. According to the director of Srekor Primary School, 100 per cent of the children in the village speak Lao as their first language. VIREAK MAI Vireak Mai

Having a way with words

Nelson Mandela captured the importance of indigenous languages to the people who speak them when he said: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

It is in this spirit that UNESCO celebrates International Mother Language Day every year, on February 21, today. First observed in 2000, the occasion grows in significance by the year as globalisation and other forces put the 7,000 mother languages remaining in the world increasingly under threat.

This year’s theme, “Local Languages for Global Citizenship: Spotlight on Science”, reflects what is at stake when it comes to the preservation of these languages. The theme captures the power of native languages to empower – both in harnessing local pride to foster informed global citizenship, and through removing any linguistic roadblocks in the pursuit of knowledge, particularly in scientific exploration.

Global citizenship has been defined by UNESCO as the ability to “play an active role on both the local and global levels to address global challenges and, ultimately, contribute proactively in creating a more just, peaceful, tolerate, inclusive, secure, and sustainable” world.

It’s a concept that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon identified as one of the goals of his “Education First” initiative, which advocates for greater progress towards the 2015 Millennium Development Goals.
Identifying oneself as a global citizen is easier when one feels a strong identification with and grounding in one’s own culture and language.

“Local” identification confers confidence and a sense of self which strengthens participation at both the national and global levels. Mastery of one’s language and, through this process, strong identification with the culture it carries become essential in this regard.

Unfortunately, as globalisation races ahead, mother languages all too often lose out. Many have died out completely, some are reduced to a few thousand speakers or less and others could be extinct by the end of this century.

Some common misconceptions aggravate this situation.

Mother languages are often ignored and sometimes actively repressed due to the belief that they are “undeveloped”, lacking, for example, the ability to capture modern knowledge.

This notion is doubly misleading and damaging, ignoring as it does the fact that all languages are in a constant state of development and also the fact, as noted by UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, that, “local languages are perfectly capable of transmitting the most modern scientific knowledge in mathematics, physics, technology and so on”.

Some governments regard mother languages as subversive to national unity. This outlook is contradicted by studies that show that non-dominant groups whose languages and cultures are respected rather than repressed will be more loyal to the state.

Perhaps the greatest threat to mother languages is posed by education systems that refuse to use them as languages of instruction or even to offer them as elective subjects.

Education systems often repeat common myths that portray mother languages as complicated (too many languages spoken in one classroom and too many without alphabets), expensive (requiring more and better trained mother-language teachers and mother-language materials), and ultimately harmful to the learning of the national and international languages.

A growing body of evidence and experience is proving this not to be the case. Cambodia, Thailand and the Philippines are examples of countries with new national language policies based on rigorous and comprehensive research that emphasize the importance of mother languages.

These policies support mechanisms to recruit and train mother language teachers (or to train other teachers the mother language used in their schools) and to develop mother-tongue textbooks and other learning materials (including sometimes, an alphabet).

This approach ensures that children master literacy in their own language first. Using the skills gained in this process they then are shown to have greater success in mastering the national language, international languages as well as all other subjects in their curriculum.

The willingness of these governments to support mother-language based multilingual language policy derives in part from the realistion that the ability to work proactively towards a sustainable future at the global level – to be global citizens – is strengthened by a firm foundation in one’s mother language.

This principle of empowerment extends to the role of mother languages in science. As Ms Bokova stated, minority languages are capable of communicating even the most advanced scientific concepts.

The use of mother languages in schools as the language of instruction helps communicate scientific principles and practices more effectively to students who have not yet mastered the usual language of school science.

Promoting mother languages can have a transformative effect that spans from an ethnic student feeling included in an educational scheme for the first time to inspired global citizenship leading to a more sustainable future.

This ability to enrich and empower is unparalleled and deserves to be celebrated today and throughout the year.

Sheldon Shaeffer works for the Asia Multilingual Education Working Group, comprising UN agencies, NGOs and academic institutions, set up to remove barriers in access to education for ethno-linguistic communities in Asia.

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