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The Role of Mother Languages in Inclusive and Equitable Education

Languages shape our identity and the way we perceive the world. They allow us to express ourselves and connect with each other. Due to the cultural and social values embedded in languages, they are regarded as intangible cultural heritage, to be preserved and promoted (Majidi, 2013). There are an estimated 6,000 languages spoken in the world but at least 43% of them are at risk of dying out (United Nations, 2022). Indeed, in terms of language use and status, there is a disproportionate gap between a handful of dominant languages and the rest. According to Bernard (1996), 4% of the world’s languages are spoken by 97% of the global population while the remaining 96% of the world’s languages are spoken by only 3% of the population. In the last few decades, rapid globalization has led to the dominance of some languages in physical and digital spaces at the expense of many minority languages. It is predicted that these dominant languages may replace about 90% of the world’s languages at the end of the 21st century (Isern & Fort, 2014).

The consequences of a language disappearing are not limited to losing a wealth of cultural information: they can also affect the passing down of invaluable knowledge related to biodiversity. Indigenous languages carry traditional knowledge about local species, ecosystems and specific communities’ lived experiences with nature. Thus, they play a crucial role in enhancing our understanding of the natural environment and protecting biodiversity (UNESCO, n.d.). Dr. Anvia Abbi, a prominent linguist, points out that modern education systems often fail to recognize the importance of such indigenous or local languages and that the loss of language, resulting from the discrimination between various languages, is “the biggest intellectual catastrophe” (Ghai, 2019).

Recognizing the relationship between languages, cultures and biodiversity, UNESCO’s Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity (2001) calls for the promotion of linguistic diversity and multilingualism at all levels of education. Starting from the year 2000, International Mother Language Day has also been observed globally every year on February 21st to raise awareness about the essential role of linguistic diversity in sustainable and inclusive societies (United Nations, 2022). As such, the use of mother languages in education is not only important for preserving culture and biodiversity but also for making education more inclusive and equitable.

A Rights-Based Approach to Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education

In the United Nations Framework, access to education in one’s mother language is considered a basic right. The Declaration on the Rights of Persons belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities (1992) recognizes the rights of minorities ‘to learn their mother tongue or to have instruction in their mother tongue’. The Convention against Discrimination in Education (1960) also protects the linguistic rights of minorities to ‘carry on their own educational activities, including… the use or the teaching of their own language’. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) also states that education should contribute to the development of the child’s “cultural identity, language and values”.

Following UNESCO’s Education for All initiative in 1990, the implementation of mother tongue-based multilingual education (MTB-MLE) policies gained momentum in different countries (Toleffson & Tsui, 2014). There is also a growing substantial body of research on the positive impact of MTB-MLE on children’s cognitive development, participation and learning outcomes (Trudell, 2016), enrolment and success in schools (Kosonen, 2005) and reducing inequalities for disadvantaged groups including girls and students in rural areas (Benson, 2005). Many variations of MTB-MLE programs exist but some common examples include using mother tongue as the language of instruction across all subjects at the primary level or teaching mother tongue as a subject.

Despite the widespread international recognition and evidence of the merits of MTB-MLE, 40% of the world’s minority children do not have access to education in their mother tongue (UNESCO, 2016). This is because language use in education is a controversial issue, closely linked with national and political identities in many countries, compounded by ethnolinguistic diversity and resource limitations. Education systems in many countries prioritize using national or ‘global’ languages, such as English, which marginalizes speakers from non-dominant language groups. Limited comprehension, poor performance, and high levels of dropout or repetition are only some of the consequences of trying to educate students in a language they do not fully comprehend. The result is a vicious cycle that continuously repeats itself as the existing inequalities for vulnerable and marginalized groups are exacerbated (Global Campaign for Education, 2013).

Implications of COVID-19 on MTB-MLE: Challenges and Opportunities

The pandemic has disrupted education systems worldwide and amplified issues of access, equity and quality in education. Distance learning is out of reach for many marginalized and disadvantaged communities due to the lack of equipment, access to the Internet or technical skills. One dimension of this digital divide that has not received much attention is the use of language in online learning materials. The provision of emergency education materials in only national or international languages has further disadvantaged students from ethnolinguistic minorities in many countries (UNESCO, 2021). According to UNESCO (2020), less than 30% of low- and middle-income countries have created distance learning materials for minority language speakers during COVID.

Nonetheless, various efforts, initiatives and partnerships to provide inclusive multilingual education during the pandemic should also be recognized and promoted. In India, the Pratham Education Foundation, a non-governmental organization, used Whatsapp to provide learning materials to communities in 11 different languages, filling in the gap of government schools (Nyi Nyi Thaung & Gracie, 2021). Global campaigns such as the Global Book Alliance, Translate a Story and Let’s Read! also bring together different organizations, experts and volunteers to provide digital reading materials in various languages so that children can continue learning.

For countries with low connectivity and limited infrastructure, UNICEF has made recommendations regarding low-tech or even no-tech solutions, such as using other forms of media, namely television, radio, loudspeakers, billboards, printed/ paper-based materials and distributing translated learning materials on SD cards (UNICEF, 2020; UNICEF, 2021). For instance, Cambodia’s Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport broadcasted educational programs via radio using three widely spoken minority languages (Aide et Action Southeast Asia, 2020). Barron Rodríguez and Cobo (2022) also describes how countries in the global South have adopted a strategy of mixed remote learning modalities, such as a combination of radio or SMS with printed materials, to effectively address local educational needs. The examples above show that despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, commitment towards inclusive education has led to creative and collaborative solutions.


The use of mother languages in education is important to preserve linguistic diversity, promote children’s rights to quality education and reduce inequalities. Providing education in mother languages can help improve marginalized students’ participation and achievements. Moreover, the pandemic has accelerated the digitalization of education. Going forward, it will be necessary to ensure that the use of technology in education does not further marginalize vulnerable populations but serves to empower them. There is great potential in harnessing the power of technology to cater to the diverse linguistic needs of students. Hence, as we try to overcome the challenges posed by the pandemic and strive to realize the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the role of mother languages will be crucial in realizing the SDG4 of ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all.



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