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UNESCO Commits to Inclusive Multilingual Education

“Language is a tool, but the goal is not simply to exchange one language for another but to have an educational and social project,” explained Adama Ouane of the UNESCO Institute of Lifelong Learning (UIL) during the recent Transforming Education Summit. In a world with 7,097 known languages where 2.3 billion people lack access to education in their own language, making education inclusive is a challenge.

The challenge becomes bigger in a multilingual country, where learners’ mother tongues are different from the language of instruction. Due to this lack of diversity in languages of instruction, many learners are disadvantaged in mainstream education systems.

“Multilingual education must be anti-racist and anti-discriminatory,” argues Tarcila Rivera Zea, Quechua activist and member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. “One of the many reasons why parents and grandparents from Indigenous and minority societies do not pass on languages to new generations is because of the persistence of racism, discrimination, Eurocentrism, and the coloniality of power, knowledge, and speech.”

A multilingual education is a challenge that requires solutions relevant to learners’ needs and the realities of their lives. UNESCO has committed to encouraging and promoting multilingual education based on mother tongue or first language. This approach enables learners whose mother tongue is different from the language of instruction to bridge the gap between home and school, to discover the school environment in a familiar language and thus learn better.

UNESCO convened language experts, including Indigenous language experts, to advance multilingual education based on mother tongues, multilingualism, and linguistic diversity. Discussions explored the challenges and opportunities surrounding multilingual education, its fundamental role in the development agenda, and UNESCO’s guidance on multilingual education.

Today, more than half of all languages are in danger of falling into disuse. When a language disappears, the knowledge and sociocultural diversity of the language community disappear with it, particularly among Indigenous communities. To address this, an updated position paper by UNESCO will integrate additional areas of work such as the recovering of languages or language revitalization.

Aligning with recommendations made during the summit, an emphasis was also placed on Indigenous people’s education and languages. In his vision statement “Transforming Education” (www.un.org/en/transforming-education-summit/sg-vision-statement), the United Nations secretary-general calls for equitable investments in education, to reach those who have been traditionally excluded from quality education, including Indigenous people. Similarly, a discussion paper on inclusive, equitable, safe, and healthy schools calls for textbooks and curricula to be inclusive of all groups and for teacher training curricula to better address inclusive education principles.

An updated UNESCO position paper “Education in a Multilingual World” (https://unesdoc.unesco.org/notice?id=p%3A%3Ausmarcdef_0000129728_chi&posInSet=1&queryId=8ece9c42-615e-4e2d-8e98-6b522c586e07) will be published in early 2023 to support countries in the implementation of multilingual education and respond to the needs of marginalized and excluded learners, including Indigenous peoples.

To further support the work on multilingual education, UNESCO will publish a language and inclusion policy brief as well as a background document on early childhood care and education and languages, prepared for the UNESCO World Conference on Early Childhood Care and Education in November.

UNESCO will also celebrate International Mother Language Day 2023 around promising policies and practices on multilingual education focusing on Indigenous and other languages.

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