Sheldon Shaeffer

Given the importance of maintaining linguistic diversity and support ing language development and revitalisation around the world, this Benchmark needs to be considerably strengthened. Initial literacy, whether for children or adults, should be provided first in a learner's mother tongue with a strong bridge then built to the dominant lan guage or languages, whether national or international. Such mother tongue-based multilingual education will provide the best outcomes in regard to literacy. Sheldon Shaeffer is Director of the UNESCO Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education in Bangkok, Thailand.

Language Development and Revitalisation:
An Educational Imperative in Asia

One of the more important of the International Benchmarks for Adult Literacy promoted by the Global Campaign for Education (2005) is Benchmark 8:

"In multilingual contexts, it is important at all stages that learners should be given an active choice about the language in which they learn. Active efforts should be made to encourage and sustain bilingual learning."

Throughout the world a dynamic, living language is seen as essential to the wellbeing of any human society. But languages are in trouble: 97 % of the world's people speak only 4 % of the world's languages, which means that only 3 % of the world's people speak 96 % of its languages.1 And the linguist Michael Krauss predicted in 1992 that, if nothing is done, 90 % of the world's living languages will pass out of use over the next hundred years. He estimated an approximate number of 6,000 living languages in the world, one third of which are found in Asia. Fifty percent of these he classified as "moribund" (i.e., the language is not being taught to/learned by children of the lan guage group) and another 40 % as "endangered" (i.e., the conditions exist that, if not interrupted, will result in these minority languages not being passed on to the next generation during this century). Thus, only 10 % of the world's total languages can be reasonably classified as "safe" (i.e., languages which have very large numbers of speakers and official state support). Linguistic diversity – as with cultural diversity and biological diversity – is under serious threat around the world.2

"If nothing is done" is the key phrase here. If nothing is done, these languages and their cultures will die. But some things are being done to avoid an unprecedented loss of linguistic and cultural diversity over the course of the new century.

What Would Be the Loss?

The world's small ethnic minority language communities represent a relatively large percentage of the world's illiterate population. Why? In part, this is because the ethnic minorities are frequently marginalised from the mainstream of their nation's social, economic and political life and institutions. They are allowed into that mainstream life – if at all – only by leaving behind their ethnic and linguistic identity and tak ing on the language and culture of the dominant society – dominant demographically, economically, politically, or historically. This is not a new process. It is the long, well-known, well-documented, and sad history of minority communities throughout the world.

Awareness raising workshop at Hoa Thinh Village, Vietnam

Awareness raising workshop at Hoa Thinh Village, Vietnam, Source: Jack Picone/ActionAid

A noted scholar on language death discusses why minority language speakers give up their language:

"The heart of the matter is this: Most people feel a degree of at tachment to their ancestral language, and many feel a very strong attachment. If conditions are reasonably favourable, people identify with their own language and do not seek a preferable substitute. In cases in which people have changed to another language and given up their own entirely, it has nearly always been due to a local history of political suppression, social discrimination, or economic depriva tion. More often than not, all three have been present. Recognition of this underlies Joshua Fishman's strongly stated position: "Unifor mation [i.e., everyone speaking the same language] is never an opti mal human situation. It necessarily involves subjugation of the weak by the strong, of the few by the many: in short, the law of the jungle".3 (Fishman, 1991:31)

So when the brutal choice between livelihood or political participation and language results in shifts in language use and eventually in the death of a language, what is lost – not only to the minority community but also the nation as a whole?

One noted linguist has this perspective what is lost when a language "dies":

"Every language reflects a unique world-view and culture complex mirroring the manner in which the speech community has resolved its problems in dealing with the world…With the death of the lan guage…an irreplaceable unit of our knowledge and understanding of human thought and world-view has been lost forever."4

More personally, an ethnic minority speaker holds this view of the impact of ethnic language shift for ethnic children:

"If a child decides to abandon her/his language and customs and go around speaking only a foreign language, you can imagine that that child will turn out to be like a bird that just flies around and around [with nowhere to land], not understanding anything. That will be a child with confused thoughts."
(Aika Rambai, personal communication, 29 July 1995.)5

And again, an ethnic minority language speaker from Papua New Guinea has this perspective on the link between language, culture and identity:

"We now know how [our infant children] speak our language. God gives us our language while we are yet in our mother's womb, so that's how we are able to converse in the language and that's good. I love my language because it's my language, the one I love to speak. Our language holds our life…This beautiful language is good and lives in us. Now, if we do not speak this language then death will fetch us and our mouths will be shut. Our language is our strength." (Councillor Aika Dopenu, personal communication, 17 November 1995; translated from Umbu-ungu). 6


To ensure that language remains the "strength" of ethnic minorities, their languages must often be further developed or revitalised – saved from extinction. This is important, David Crystal notes, because we need diversity, because languages express identity, because lan guages are repositories of history, because languages contribute to the sum of human knowledge, and because languages are interesting in themselves. 7

So What Can Be Done?

Crystal suggests several steps to be taken to protect languages from extinction.8 These include:

  • An endangered language will progress if its speakers increase their prestige within the dominant community. Crystal empha sises the need for higher visibility of the indigenous and threatened languages, often starting with token appearances in advertising and public-service leaflets, leading to use of language for place names, public signs and road signs.
  • An endangered language will progress if its speakers increase their wealth relative to the dominant community. This increases their status and their authority.
  • An endangered language will progress if its speakers increase their legitimate power in the eyes of the dominant community. This refers to numerous documents passed by the European Par liament, the Council of Europe, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that promote minority language rights, and also to the UN and UNESCO, including the 1992 UN Decla ration on the Rights of Persons belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities and the 1996 Universal Declara tion of Linguistic Rights, which reiterate the rights of learners to be taught in their mother tongues.
  • An endangered language will progress if its speakers can write their language down. Although the problem of choice of dialect/variety of the language as the basis for the writing system is difficult, in the end, most language revitalisation projects include literacy as a necessary component.
  • An endangered language will progress if its speakers can make use of electronic technology. IT and the Internet – where available – offer minority language communities a new avenue for language development if their language has a writing system.
  • Finally, an endangered language will progress if its speak ers have a strong presence in the educational system, in programmes for both adult and young learners. If [the minor ity learners'] only experience of speech and writing in school is through the medium of the dominant language, it will not be sur prising to find that the indigenous language fails to thrive.

Education systems play a critical role in whether languages become ex tinct – or are able to survive and thrive. Because the education systems of nation-states reflect the values and aspirations of the dominant society, the ethnic minority learners encounter a major barrier to their participa tion in the life of the nation when they arrive at the door of the school building or an adult literacy class. Most education systems, in fact, are inappropriate for, or even hostile to, indigenous minority groups and their languages. This is especially true in relation to the use of such languages in school but is also the case for adult literacy programmes.

It is therefore critical, both for cultural and linguistic development and for academic achievement, that early education and initial literacy – even for adults – be conducted in the learner's first language or mother tongue. There are many reasons for this:

  • The science of learning asserts that it is necessary to begin gaining literacy from where the learners are; the starting point of learning how to read and write is the language spoken and understood by the learner. In other words, begin with the known and move to the unknown.
  • Practically speaking, it is impossible to teach the majority of people how to read and write in a language they do not understand.
  • The results of research overwhelmingly support bilingualism or multilingualism. Recent research by the International Institute for Educational Planning of UNESCO in Paris came up with these lessons: 9
    • "A strategy of bilingualism produces better learning outcomes and higher rates of internal efficiency in schools...
    • Pupils' skills in the first language of instruction should be consolidated for a lengthy period (at least three years of study) so that they can be transferred effectively to the second language of instruction.
    • Using the language understood by learners as the medium of instruction not only builds trust, initiative, and participation in the learning process but also promotes participatory teaching methods...
    • Encouraging the use of an [ethnic] language as the medium of instruction stimulates the production of school and cultural materials in that language, broadens the body of knowledge to be learned to include local knowledge and facilitates learners' integration into social and cultural life...
    • Monolingual schools, whether they work in a Western or an [eth nic] language, perform considerably less well. 
    • Education in local languages can contribute very much at the political level to improving relations between the political leaders and the base of the society's multilingual population."

But there are also many doubts and challenges:

  • The political, social, and/or economic dominance of the major ity language or the official language of a country is often seen as necessary for the sake of "national unity" , with the maintenance of other languages seen as a threat to this unity. As a result, there is often indifference – even opposition – from the dominant group based on lack of concern for the languages and/or on fear of "tribalism" and divisiveness and/or a desire for nation-building no matter what the cost to languages and cultures.
  • The lack of orthographies and alphabets or the problem of multiple scripts (especially if minority scripts are different from that of the majority language).
  • The concern over cost – the need to develop mother tongue in structional materials, especially graded reading materials, and to recruit and train teachers and facilitators from, or in, the minority languages.
  • There is often indifference and even opposition from within the non-official language communities themselves, based on the as sumption that both children and adults need to learn the dominant language as quickly as possible for economic gain and on the misconception that learning in the first language will mean less learning of the second.


Education in a Multilingual World

At the 31 st Session of the UNESCO General Conference (October 2001), the unanimously adopted Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity recognised a relationship between biodiversity, cultural di versity, and linguistic diversity. UNESCO's action plan for this Decla ration recommends that Member States, in conjunction with speaker communities, undertake steps for:

  • "Sustaining the linguistic diversity of humanity and giving support to expression, creation, and dissemination in the greatest possible number of languages.
  • Encouraging linguistic diversity at all levels of education, wher ever possible, and fostering the learning of several languages from the youngest age.
  • Incorporating, where appropri ate, traditional pedagogies into the education process with a view to preserving and making full use of culturally-appropri ate methods of communication and transmission of knowledge; and where permitted by speak er communities, encouraging universal access to information in the public domain through the global network, including promoting linguistic diversity in cyberspace."10

Reflect class for women in Kabul

Reflect class for women in Kabul
Source: Jenny Matthews/ActionAid


The UNESCO 2003 statement Education in a Multilingual World es tablishes guiding principles based on a variety of documents, agree ments, declarations, and recommendations which represent its cur rent approach to language and education and can serve to state the position of the international community. These principles include:

1. Support for mother tongue instruction as a means of improv ing educational quality by building upon the knowledge and experience of the learners and teachers.


  • Mother tongue education is essential for initial instruction and literacy and should be extended to as late a stage in education as possible. Thus, every pupil should begin formal education in the mother tongue, and adult illiterates should make their first steps in literacy through their mother tongue
  • Literacy can only be maintained if there is an adequate sup ply of reading material, for adolescents and adults as well as for school children, and for entertainment as well as for study. Thus, the production and distribution of teaching materials and learning resources and any other reading materials in mother tongues should be promoted
  • All educational planning should include at each stage early pro vision for the training, and further training, of sufficient numbers of fully competent and quality teachers who are familiar with the life of their people and able to teach in their mother tongue.

2. Support for bilingual and/or multilingual education at all levels of education as a means of promoting both social and gender equality and as a key element of linguistically diverse societies.

  • Communication, expression and the capacity to listen and dia logue should be encouraged, first of all in the mother tongue then in the official or national language in the country, as well as in one or more foreign languages.


3. Support for language as an essential component of intercul tural education in order to encourage understanding between different population groups and ensure respect for fundamen tal rights.


  • The educational rights of persons belonging to minorities, as well as indigenous peoples, should be fully respected, through the implementation of the right to learn in the mother tongue and the full use of culturally appropriate teaching methods of communication and transmission of knowledge.
  • Education should raise awareness of the positive value of cul tural and linguistic diversity.



In summary, the following conclusions should be used in re-drafting Benchmark 8 not to restrict a learner's choice of languages but to ensure that he or she understands clearly the implications of each of the possible choices and, wherever possible, to promote bilingual education starting with the mother tongue:

  • To understand and appreciate that the diversity of a multi-ethnic society is a richness and a treasure, and that preservation of that diversity is promoted and nourished by the spread of literacy in both the minority language and in the national languages;
  • To understand and appreciate that learning to read and write in the language of the home can be the most effective and efficient approach to learning to read and write in the national language;
  • To understand and appreciate that literacy in both the ethnic minority language and the national language will have an integrative effect, eco nomically, socially, politically, culturally, not a disintegrative effect;
  • To understand and appreciate that through improved integration, poor ethnic minority communities can become net contributors to national economic and social development;
  • To understand and appreciate that in order for local communities to draw benefits from the school system, the communities (prov inces, districts, villages) need to have a significant influence on the governance of the schools and the determination of the content and methods of instruction.

A redrafted Benchmark 8 would therefore read:

"Benchmark 8 – In multilingual contexts, it is important at all stages that learners, in choosing the language in which they learn, under stand the cultural, social, and educational advantages of becoming literate first in their mother tongue as an effective means of sus taining bilingual learning and gaining mastery in the national and international languages. Efforts should be made to encourage and sustain bilingual learning."

Village council election in Afghanistan 

Village council election in Afghanistan Source: Jenny Matthews/ActionAid



1 Bernard, H. Russell (1996). Language Preservation and Publishing. In N. Hornberger (Ed.), Indigenous Literacies in the Americas: Language Planning from the Bottom Up , pp. 139-156. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
2 Krauss, Michael (2000). Preliminary Suggestions for Classification and Terminology for De grees of Language Endangerment. In M. Brenzinger (Ed.), The Endangered Languages of the World. Presented at the Colloquium: Language Endangerment, Research, and Documentation – Setting Priorities for the 21 st Century. 12-17 February 2000, Karl-Arnold-Akademie, Bad Godesberg, Germany.

3 From Dorian, N. (1999). Linguistic and ethnographic fieldwork. In J. Fishman (Ed.), Handbook of language and ethnic identity , pp. 25-41. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

4 Stephen A. Wurm. (1991). Language death and disappearance: Causes and circumstances. In R.H. Robins & E.M. Uhlenbeck (Eds.), Endangered languages, pp. 1-15. Oxford: Berg.
5 Ibid.

6 From Malone, D. 1998. p 171, Namel manmeri: Language and culture maintenance and mother tongue education in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. Unpublished dissertation. Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.
7 David Crystal, 2000. pp 27-67, Why should we care?
8 Ibid. pp 127-166.
9 IIEP Newsletter; vol. XXI, No. 3, July-September 2003, p.4.
10 UNESCO Ad Hoc Expert Group on Endangered Languages (2003), Language Vitality and Endangerment, document submitted to the International Expert Meeting of the UNESCO Programme on Safeguarding of Endangered Languages, Paris, 10-12 March.

Important notice: If you click on this link, you will leave the websites of DVV International. DVV International is not responsible for the content of third party websites that can be accessed through links. DVV International has no influence as to which personal data of yours is accessed and/or processed on those sites. For more information, please review the privacy policy of the external website provider.