Mother Tongue Absent in Thousands of Classrooms

by: Haider Rizvi

Courtesy:, July 17th, 2009

UNITED NATIONS, Jul 16 (IPS) – Millions of children across the world fail to receive a basic education not only because they are born into poverty, but because local authorities do not allow them to read and write in their native language at school. According to a study released Thursday by a London-based rights advocacy group, more than 100 million children in the world are out of school, and most – estimated between 50 and 70 percent – are minorities or indigenous peoples. In “The State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2009”, prepared in collaboration with the U.N.’s children agency UNICEF, Minority Rights Group International (MRG) details how minority and indigenous children have been systematically excluded, discriminated against, or are too poor to afford an education.

It shows that in developing countries with the largest number of children out of school, such as Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India, Kenya, Nigeria and Pakistan, minority and indigenous populations enjoy far less access to schooling than majority groups.

In Pakistan, for example, children are not allowed to read and write in Punjabi, although it happens to be the language of the majority of that country’s population. School-going children are often beaten with sticks by teachers if they fail to score well on tests given in English or Urdu.

“Authorities need to recognise that it is not just lack of resources that is keeping so many children out of school,” stressed MRG’s executive director Mark Lattimer. “Tens of millions of children are systematically excluded from school or receive only a second-rate education because of ethnic or religious discrimination.”

Lattimer thinks it will be impossible for the world community to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) on education in the next six years if policies are not properly targeted to the needs of minorities and indigenous peoples.

Set by the world community in 2001, the MDGs include substantive cuts in poverty, disease, illiteracy and environmental degradation by 2015. The goal with regard to illiteracy requires “universal primary education”.

“Education for all is a goal that has been reaffirmed by states the world over many times in the last decade,” said Lattimer. “But as this book clearly shows, a quality education is not reaching the most vulnerable communities: minorities and indigenous peoples.”

Providing an adequate education for minority and indigenous children “is not a choice, but a legal obligation on the part of states”, he added. Lattimer and his colleagues believe that the failure to spend adequate resources on education for all is holding back economic growth and sowing the seeds for inter-ethnic and inter-religious conflict.

In a foreword to the report, a U.N. expert on minority issues, Gay McDougall, agrees.

“When I ask people who belong to disadvantaged minorities to tell me their greatest problem, the answer is always the same. They are concerned their children are not getting a quality education. Worldwide, minority children suffer disproportionately from unequal access to quality education,” she wrote.

A number of recent studies show that fully half of the world’s children who do not attend school come from communities where the language of schooling is not the one they use at home.

According to the Institute for Development Studies in Britain, more than one billion people speak local languages which are not used in formal education. This includes an estimated 221 million school-aged children.

“It seems obvious to say that children learn better when they understand and speak the language of the classroom,” said Clair Thomas, one of the study’s authors. “But currently many children around the world are taught at school that they do not understand either well or at all.”

Thomas cited the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child to support the argument that children must be educated in the language in which they interact with their mothers, fathers, bothers, sisters, grandmothers and grandfathers at home.

The convention says that states have an obligation to preserve and protect the child’s cultural identity, as an essential element for his or her development. The preamble of the convention also recognises the importance of diverse traditions and cultural values for the “harmonious development” of the child.

In Thomas’s view, policymakers often mistakenly believe that education in a home language will mean that children will never really master a national or majority language.

“In fact the opposite is true,” she said. “What we are really talking about is multilingual education, whereby children start speaking the language they speak at home, and other languages are gradually introduced over time.”

The study cites numerous cases which demonstrate a world of exclusion and discrimination against minorities and indigenous peoples. The most discriminated against of all tend to be poor girls, living in poor families in rural areas who belong to a minority community.

In Guatemala, for example, only four percent of “extremely poor” indigenous girls attend school by the age of 16. Worldwide, more than half of out-of-school girls have never been to school and might never go to school without additional incentives.

The report also highlights the issue of gender disparity in literacy. Its findings show that, worldwide, more than half of out-of-school girls have never been to school and might never go to school. The report’s authors also point to illiteracy as a major cause of armed conflicts in the world.

The MRG study shows that in African countries such as Burundi, Rwanda and Sudan, exclusion from school and the lack of educational opportunities for young people have been critical factors in fuelling armed conflict.

John Henriksen, a U.N. expert on human rights law, acknowledges that there are “significant inequalities in education” for indigenous communities. He suggests that in order to meet the MDGs, governments open more schools in areas belonging to indigenous communities where their children are taught in their mother tongue.

“Deprivation of access to quality education is a major factor contributing to the social marginalisation, poverty and dispossession of indigenous peoples,” he said. “The content and objective of education in some instances contributes to the eradication of their cultures, languages and ways of life.”


One thought on “Mother Tongue Absent in Thousands of Classrooms”

  1. In Canada we have oddly enough a similar problem. The idea of ‘helping’ our natives succeed or ‘helping’ our immigrants thrive sadly is sometimes to ignore the skills they already have and try to impose on them our language and our culture. In my experience teaching children, I have found that kids learn English or French, our two official languages, best if they are not their mother tongues, only if they already have a grounding in their mother tongue. They have to have a basis of understanding language itself. Otherwise they become what some have dubbed ‘illiterate in two languages’. So letting kids learn to read and write in their mother tongue first is not only the real practical way to their own career and academic success but it is also the more humanitarian solution. We have to respect their rights to a language and culture that is as good as our own.

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