It is sobering to reflect that some 40 per cent of the global population do not have access to education in a language they can speak or understand. Many millions of children are taught in a language they do not speak at home, while, for equally huge numbers of adults, the unavailability of learning programmes in their mother tongue remains an insurmountable barrier to furthering their education.
This is why International Mother Language Day, observed worldwide each year on 21 February, is so important. Everyone has a right to speak and learn in their mother language and that right should be reflected in national education systems around the world.
The challenges are most acute in global regions where linguistic diversity is greatest, such as sub-Saharan Africa, and where poverty and gender inequality tend to magnify disadvantages to do with ethnicity and language. Being taught in a language that is not one’s own can have a significant negative impact on a learner’s confidence, creativity and ability to achieve. That is a huge proportion of the global population whose educational circumstances are preventing them from achieving all they might.
The Education 2030 Framework for Action notes the importance of context-related bilingual and intercultural programmes of education in ensuring that ‘all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy’ (SDG 4.6). Respecting people’s cultural and linguistic rights, and paying attention to the role played by a learner’s first language as a medium of instruction and in becoming literate, is essential if countries are to meet this target.
But mother language and multilingual education has a wider significance, too, as the use of a learner’s mother language has been found to have a wide and positive impact on learning, supporting better dialogue between teacher and student, boosting participation in society and opening up access to new knowledge and understanding. It can be key in boosting a learner’s confidence and self-esteem, affirming their sense of self-identity, which, in turn, can lead to further learning and development, for the individual and for their community.
In short, to foster sustainable development across the board, which is to say, across the breadth of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, learners must have access to education in their mother tongue, as well as in other languages. Diversity, whether linguistic or ethnic, should never be a cause for exclusion.
International Mother Language Day gives us an opportunity to acknowledge those who have fought for the recognition of their mother language, as well as to reflect more generally on the importance of respecting and celebrating linguistic diversity. Respect for linguistic diversity is a precondition of authentic dialogue and cooperation. The better we understand and value different languages, the better our chances of building a world that is creative, inclusive and peaceful.