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.
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.
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, 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 worldâ€¦With the death of the lan guageâ€¦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 lifeâ€¦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
Crystal suggests several steps to be taken to protect languages from extinction.8 These include:
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:
But there are also many doubts and challenges:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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 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.
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.
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