Expanding Educational Opportunity in Linguistically Diverse Societies
In 1990, the United Nations Development Program, UNESCO, UNICEF, and the World Bank sponsored a conference on Education for All (EFA) in Jomtien, Thailand, at which government and non-government representatives from more than 100 nations arrived at a global consensus on an expanded vision of basic education. Conference participants committed their countries and institutions to six goals for improvements in basic education. The second of these goals was "access to and completion of primary education for all the world's children by the year 2000" (UNICEF, 1999a).
In the decade that followed, progress was disappointing. At the World Education Forum in Dakar, Senegal in 2000, representatives from more than 180 nations found that millions of children, mostly girls, still had no access to primary education; millions of adults were still illiterate; gender discrimination continued to permeate education systems; and the quality of learning still fell short of the needs of societies. Forum participants signed a Framework for Action that pledged improvements in all aspects of the quality of education (UNESCO, 2000b).
In 2001, the heads of the United Nations agencies responsible for the Education for All movement reviewed the situation and reiterated that it is unacceptable for over 113 million primary school age children, more than 60 percent of whom are girls, to be denied the chance to go to school, as is the case in the developing world today. They reaffirmed the importance of education and restated the new EFA goals, notably elimination of gender disparities at all levels of education by 2005, and completion by all children of the full course of primary education by 2015 (UNESCOPRESS/No. 2001-66-2).
Does Education for All Mean Everyone?
More than 6,000 languages are spoken in the world today. Approximately 1.38 billion people are speakers of local languages, languages that may not be used for formal education because they are as yet unwritten or are deemed unsuitable for other reasons. If an average of 16 percent of the population of developing countries is of school age, then an estimated 221 million school-age children today are speakers of these lesser-known or unwritten languages. Some of them will be in school struggling to take advantage of the education being offered; many will drop out early for lack of success; still others will not be able to enroll at all (Walter, personal communication, 2001).
What do the manifestos of the international conferences say about language as a barrier to expanding educational opportunity?
This situation is disappointing because of the evidence in hundreds of published and unpublished works that failure to use the mother tongue for initial education is a significant factor in the failure to provide equal educational opportunity to all children. Children who speak only local languages may lack physical access to school because of shortages of school buildings and teachers. However, in many cases, even when these children have access to schools, they are denied educational opportunity. They attend classes taught by teachers speaking, often poorly, a language the children do not understand and through which they therefore cannot learn. As a result, many children drop out before finishing even the primary cycle, without mastering skills in their first language, not to mention skills in the official language, the language of instruction.
In addition to the cognitive factors, there are emotional ones. Members of minority ethnic groups, whether children or adults, are empowered when their first language is used. Conversely, when the mother tongue is not used, they are made to feel awkward, inferior, and stupid. Their culture is denigrated, and the children are scared, confused, and traumatized. This has long-term effects.
Is Language in Education Always Neglected?
Focus of This Report
Call for Leadership
First, they would encourage and support research in countries whose programs educate children through a language the children know while helping them acquire a second language which may have wider economic or political value. Leaders would support meta-analyses of these studies, helping to build a convincing and credible body of research and experience to convince donors and governments that such programs are possible, practical, and useful.
Finally, international leaders would insert into the agenda of worldwide conferences the issue of the language of instruction. They would call other meetings to focus on language in education, bringing together the major players¬country representatives, donor organizations, non-governmental organizations, academics, and grassroots language workers¬to discuss issues and share experience and research. They would emphasize possibilities as well as problems, stressing the importance of both quality education in a language known to the child and the opportunity later on to learn an international language.
In the words of G. Richard Tucker of Carnegie Mellon University, international leaders would encourage educators to
If indeed these graduates achieve all of that, and still remain rooted in their own cultures and identities, we can at last say that there is hope for Education for All!
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