Asia’s youth speak many languages. So should their schools. (Op-Ed)

File photo of stateless children in Thailand. Photo: Royal Thai Embassy
File photo of stateless children in Thailand. Photo: Royal Thai Embassy

By Brynn Acker, UNESCO Bangkok

Nearly one in 10 of Thailand’s people are ethnic minorities affected by a lack of resources and opportunities in their mother tongues. They encounter some of the same difficulties faced globally, where four in 10 students attend schools where their primary language isn’t spoken.

Students who don’t speak the dominant language are more likely to drop out or leave without learning much. Worse yet, they are denied the lifelong opportunities that strong language and literacy skills provide.

It’s simple: If you can’t understand, you can’t learn.

Thailand, like the rest of the Asia-Pacific region, is a culturally and linguistically diverse country with more than 70 spoken languages. Yet, these languages are often not spoken in the classroom, leaving children who do at a disadvantage.

While Thailand has made great strides in literacy rates – nearly 98% of 15- to 24-year-olds as of 2015, the reality is that a number of learners, specifically ethnic minorities and migrant learners, are being left behind because they continue to sit in classrooms listening to lessons they don’t understand.

While 99% of learners complete primary education, only half of them can read at a minimally proficient level by the end of lower secondary and half are not taught in the language spoken at home.

Although two-thirds of the world’s children grow up multilingual, many monolingual education systems fail to reflect this. That pushes children to the margins or completely out of a system that does not recognize their linguistic reality.

Graphic: UNESCO Bangkok
Graphic: UNESCO Bangkok

It increases the likelihood they’ll join the more than 750 million people worldwide who lack basic literacy skills. Many have never had a chance to attend school, but many others have sat long hours in classrooms listening to teachers who are unintelligible to them, with little accomplished for their efforts.

It’s important because literacy allows people to interact with the world around them. It allows people to achieve in school, formulate complex ideas, express themselves and access the world of online. It empowers them to participate fully in the world around them, contributing to overall health, success and achievement while disrupting the cycle of poverty and inequality.

Yet there is hope for the future as many innovative “Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education” programs exist in Thailand, the region and the world that affect literacy and language skills for millions of students previously denied this opportunity.

One promising example can be found in the north and west, where a 10-year program concluded in 2017 in one Mon-, one Pwo Karen- and four Hmong-speaking schools. Since its completion, local partnerships have been developed to sustain existing schools and expand their numbers. There are nine such schools active in the north with 14 more preparing to open and deliver programming to four language groups: Hmong, Sgaw Karen, Lahu and Pwo Karen.

An innovative approach targeting mother-tongue literacy can be found in the northern Prai community. In order to overcome negative stereotypes and attitudes around their own languages and identities, literacy programs began in a community setting, influencing both parents and children. Thanks to the efforts of the program, Prai students are not only performing better in schools, but also have more positive views on their language, culture and identities.

Then there are the migrant children, who face serious language barriers affecting their ability to develop literacy skills. As of 2018, there were upward of 400,000 migrant children living in Thailand who needed access to quality education and learning opportunities. A number of programs target this vulnerable population, some of which focus on best practices to provide quality Thai as a second language, while others aim to provide basic literacy and numeracy skills through mobile learning and ICT devices in languages such as Thai, Karen and Burmese.

Starting today, the Inclusion Mobility and Multilingual Education Conference in Bangkok, organised by UNESCO and the British Council, will explore how language is a foundation that enables people to achieve their full potential and contribute to the wider society. It will celebrate the progress made in innovative and inclusive programs addressing the linguistic diversity of our world while recognizing that there’s more work to be done.

In order to provide access to quality education for all, we need to not only be aware of – but also celebrate – the cultural and linguistic diversity found in the world around us.

Brynn Acker is an intern with the Inclusive Quality Education section at UNESCO Bangkok

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