Multilingual Focus for UN Literacy Day

"about 40% of the world’s population does not have access to education in a language they speak or understand"

Audrey Azoulay, director-general of UNESCO

The focus of this month’s International Literacy Day was Literacy and Multilingualism, to tie in with the UN’s 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages and the 25th anniversary of the World Conference on Special Needs education, at which the Salamanca Statement on inclusive education was adopted.

To mark the occasion, the main characteristics of multilingualism in today’s globalized and digitalized world were discussed, together with their implications for literacy in policies and practice in order to achieve greater inclusion in multilingual contexts.

According to UNESCO, despite progress made, literacy challenges persist, distributed unevenly across countries and populations. Embracing linguistic diversity in education and literacy development is central to addressing these literacy challenges and to achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Audrey Azoulay, director-general of UNESCO, released the following statement:

“Our world is rich and diverse with about 7,000 living languages. These languages are instruments for communication, engagement in lifelong learning, and participation in society and the world of work. They are also closely linked with distinctive identities, cultures, worldviews, and knowledge systems. Embracing linguistic diversity in education and literacy development is therefore a key part of developing inclusive societies that respect “diversity” and “difference”, upholding human dignity.

“Today, multilingualism—the use of more than one language in daily life—has become much more common with greater human mobility and the growing ubiquity of multimodal and instantaneous communication. Its shape has also evolved with globalization and digitalization. While the use of certain languages has expanded for cross-country and community dialogue, numerous minority and indigenous languages have been endangered. These trends have implications for literacy development.

“While different aspects of policies and practice interact for the promotion of literacy, building a solid literacy base in a mother language, before moving to a second or foreign language, has multiple benefits. However, about 40% of the world’s population does not have access to education in a language they speak or understand. We need to change this by making policies and practice more linguistically and culturally relevant, enriching multilingual literate environments and exploring the potential of digital technology. For more than seven decades, UNESCO has supported mother language-based, multilingual approaches to education as a means to enhance education quality and intercultural understandings. Nelson Mandela once 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.” Engaging with both head and mind is a key for effective learning.

“This year is the International Year of Indigenous languages; it also marks the 25th anniversary of the World Conference on Special Needs Education, where the Salamanca Statement on Inclusive Education was adopted. In solidarity with these special occasions, and, on the occasion of International Literacy Day 2019, UNESCO invites you to rethink literacy in our contemporary multilingual world as part of the right to education and a means to create more inclusive and linguistically and culturally diverse societies.”

International Literacy Day is an opportunity to highlight improvements in world literacy rates and reflect on the world's remaining literacy challenges. The issue of literacy is a key component of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals and the UN's 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The UN's Sustainable Development Goals, adopted by world leaders in September 2015, promote universal access to quality education and learning opportunities throughout people’s lives. Sustainable Development Goal 4 has as one of its targets ensuring all young people achieve literacy and numeracy and that adults who lack these skills are given the opportunity to acquire them.

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