Mother tongue-based learning is vital

Today marks the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples, proclaimed by the United Nations in 1994 to celebrate our world's cultural and linguistic diversity.

The Asia-Pacific region is home to two-thirds of the world's 370 million indigenous peoples, speaking 2,300 of the world's 7,000 languages. Seventy ethnic groups live in Thailand, and neighbouring countries such as Laos, Vietnam, and Myanmar have more. Even countries not known for their cultural diversity, such as Taiwan and Brunei, each boast more than a dozen indigenous groups speaking their own unique languages. Multilingual countries are the Asian norm, not the exception.

Despite the cultural richness they bring to their host countries, indigenous communities are often victims of assimilationist policies, economic pressures and environmental degradation.

Indigenous populations are among the most marginalised and disadvantaged people worldwide. Although accounting for 5% of the global population, they represent 15% of those living in poverty. Suppression of indigenous languages and cultures often results in the exclusion of indigenous peoples from basic social services, such as health care and education, lack of access to land and resources, and limited employment opportunities.

This is particularly true with education. Forced to study unfamiliar concepts in a language they don't understand, indigenous children fare worse than their non-indigenous peers in terms of school enrolments, retention rates, literacy levels and academic achievement.

The effects are lifelong. In Vietnam, for example, 83% of Hmong men and 97% of Hmong women are illiterate.

This is why the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007) emphasises the right of indigenous peoples to receive education "in their own languages" and "in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning".

In recent years, the Thai Ministry of Education has cooperated with Unicef, international and domestic NGOs, universities, and 21 local schools to pioneer mother-tongue based multilingual education (MLE) in the Pattani Malay, Mon, Pwo Karen, and Hmong languages, with positive results.

In the violence-torn deep South, for example, Pattani Malay first-graders in MLE schools score 40-60% higher in all subjects than Pattani Malay children in "normal" Thai-only schools.

These successful programmes deserve to be expanded to the hundreds of other schools servicing ethnic children. Indigenous young people should be recruited to become teachers in their home areas, as children are much more likely to succeed at school when teachers speak their languages.

Other countries in this region _ including Cambodia, Indonesia, Timor-Leste, China, and Vietnam _ have experimental multilingual education programmes in place. Indeed, the Philippine congress mandated that multilingual education be started in over 100 indigenous languages. However, much more effort and political will are needed to expand such programmes to all indigenous communities, who often live in remote areas.

Supporting indigenous children's right to first learn in their mother languages as a foundation for learning other languages and school subjects can serve as a crucial gateway that will lead to more equal opportunities for indigenous communities, thereby helping to break the cycle of marginalisation and poverty.

In her International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples message, Unesco Director-General Irina Bokova declared, "In a world undergoing rapid environmental change and societies experiencing deep transformation, solidarity must be our guiding principle _ solidarity embodied in alliances amongst indigenous groups and with non-indigenous partners _ to safeguard and promote unique identities, languages, knowledge systems and worldviews."

In the midst of the economic and social changes sweeping across our region, it is vital that we remember the indigenous communities whose unique cultures enrich us all.

Vilasa Phongsathorn is Consultant Education at UNICEF EAPRO. Kirk Person is Director, External Affairs, Mainland Southeast Asia Group, SIL International.

About the author

Writer: Vilasa Phongsathorn & Kirk Person