Mother Tongue Education Gives Minorities Their Say in Cambodia

“Why is mother tongue-­­based multilingual education important?” This is a question I’ve been asked often over the past five years in my role as the coordinator of the Asia Multilingual Education Working Group, which advocates on behalf of removing barriers to quality education for ethnolinguistic minorities in this region.

The importance of mother tongue-­based multilingual education has also been a key focus of Cambodia’s education policy aimed to bring the country’s 24 ethnic groups in from the margins by issuing a prakas (government proclamation) for multilingual education. Indeed, in 2013, Cambodia was recognized at the Fourth International Conference on Language and Education: Multilingual Education for All in Asia and the Pacific—Policies, Practices and Processes as a role model in the Asia-Pacific region for its mother tongue-based multilingual education policy pilot successes. 

To answer the question of why mother tongue-based multilingual education is important and how it can change lives, though, I’d like to begin by telling of how it changed mine.

The first day of school after my family emigrated from South Ko­rea to Canada was the most frustrating and alienating experience I had ever had. I felt like I was lost on another planet where people spoke a different language. I couldn’t communicate with anyone. Once an active student, I grew shy. School was no longer fun and I felt excluded most of the time.

A few months later, I started to make progress. Utilizing my strong reading and math skills in my mother tongue, Korean, I was able to translate and convert concepts and catch up on learning in English. With support from teachers, classmates and my parents, I slowly started to speak and raise my hand in the classroom and finally felt a sense of belonging in school and in Canadian society.

“Inclusion in and through education: language counts,” the theme of this year’s International Mother Language Day, February 21, resonates with my experience. It also speaks to the challenges faced by some 2.3 billion people worldwide who don’t have access to education in their mother tongue and are excluded as a result. For many of them, the challenges I faced are made more daunting by poverty and other barriers.

Northeast Cambodia is home to the highest density of minority language speakers in the country, many of them living in isolated communities. The country’s current progressive mother tongue-based multilingual education policy had to overcome some serious challenges, not the least of which was the fact that many of these language communities did not have their own standardized systems of writing, which experts needed to develop before proceeding.

Policymakers recognized, though, that the results were worth the effort. They understood that language is a key to inclusion and if children cannot understand, they won’t learn. Unfortunately in monolingual education systems, language poses many barriers keeping students from ethnolinguistic minorities from accessing quality education.

Even if such students manage to enroll in school, they are often unable to follow classroom instruction and end up being pushed out of the education system, and further marginalized in society.

When language barriers are combined with other marginalizing factors such as gender, ethnicity, poverty and geographical remoteness, as in the case of the minorities in northeast Cambodia, the chances of children entering and completing basic education become very low. According to a recent Unesco report, children from marginalized groups in Bolivia, Ecuador, India and Laos, for example, are two to three times more likely to be out of school.

I realize that the most crucial factor in my ability to transition from one language to another was the grounding I had in my mother tongue. During my six years of primary education, I developed a strong understanding of concrete and abstract ideas, learning vocabulary and concepts that were transferable to my second language. Without this foundation, it would have been extremely difficult for me to continue my education.

Research has increasingly shown that teaching in a mother tongue early on in school is effective in reducing dropout rates and makes education more engaging for marginalized groups. Children who benefit from mother tongue-based multilingual education also perform better in their second language. Unfortunately these benefits elude many ethnolinguistic minority children who do not have such opportunities.

Mother tongue-based multilingual education programs also bridge the gap between the culture at home and that at school and mainstream society. They not only improve learning, but also broaden outlooks, increase tolerance and foster a respect for cultural diversity. These programs are one of the most effective ways through which we can promote a culture of peace and build equitable and inclusive societies.

Monolingual education is not sustainable in multilingual nations, and thus mother tongue-based multilingual education programs are likely to result in considerable savings over the long term, while also tapping the previously untouched potential of millions of ethnolinguistic minority students.

As mentioned, Cambodia has been at the forefront of countries seizing this opportunity and is a leader in Southeast Asia, home to one of the most dynamic mother tongue-based multilingual education movements in the world. The Cambodian Ministry of Education is currently finalizing its Multi­lingual Education National Action Plan, which covers expanding the number of multilingual schools with predominantly ethnolinguistic minority students.

These initiatives respond to the way in which children learn and teachers teach. Successes such as these are turning what were once alien worlds for children into welcoming ones, benefiting these young learners and their societies as a result.

Kyungah Kristy Bang is the Project Officer for Multilingual Education at Unesco Bangkok and the coordinator of the Asia Multilingual Education Working Group, a consortium of U.N. agencies, intergovernmental organizations, academics advocating on behalf of ethnolinguistic communities through multilingual education initiatives and related policy advocacy throughout Asia-Pacific.

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