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Activities under Mother Tongue/Multilingual Literacy programme

© Saraset Pisitpanporn, Thiland

About 6,000-7,000 languages are spoken in the world today. However, over 90% of the world population speaks only about 300 widespread or majority languages. More than half of the remaining 5,700 languages are endangered, and 61% of those minority languages are found in the Asia-Pacific region.

Ethnic and linguistic minority people often face obstacles to access quality basic education which results in high illiteracy rates, a poor quality of life and a threat to the very survival of their languages and cultures. UNESCO has a strong commitment to support mother tongue instruction and bilingual/multilingual education to improve the educational quality, especially for the disadvantaged groups, and to promote cultural and linguistic diversity in all societies.


Based on the common UNESCO strategy for languages and multilingualism, the work on languages in education seeks to promote access and quality education. 

This strategy acknowledges the vital interaction between linguistic and cultural diversity. It is also guided by the principle of equality of all cultures and languages. 

Language policies and practices in education are linked to all six Education For All (EFA) goals, and most directly to Goal 6, which focuses on improving every aspect of the quality of education. Language is an important factor to enhance learning in an environment linked to community, culture and, more broadly, to a national education system. 


Three principles guide UNESCO’s approach to languages and education in the twenty-first century. These are:

- Mother tongue instruction to promote inclusion in education and improve the quality of education by building on the knowledge and experience of both learners and teachers. UNESCO believes and supports findings of studies showing evidence that mother tongue instruction is a key factor for literacy and learning.

- Bilingual and/or multilingual education at all levels, to promote equality and reflect the diversity of languages in society, including literate environments, media and cyberspace. The main objective is to promote at least the use of three languages in education in multilingual contexts. 

- Promoting language as an essential part of intercultural education, to encourage understanding among peoples and build respect for human rights.

Related Links


General Conference Resolution 30 C/5
Implementation of a language policy for the world based on multilingualism (pg 35)

Education in a Multilingual World (2003)
A position paper which outlines key concepts and normative instruments on education with languages provision as well as the three UNESCO principles on languages and education (pg 157)

UNESCO’s strategy for languages and multilingualism
The UNESCO strategy builds on the recognition of languages and multilingualism as cornerstones of the world’s cultural diversity and essential conditions for sustainable development in all environments, including cyberspace, education systems, cultural expressions and exchanges at international, regional and national levels.

Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity (2001)
Respect of mother tongue use in education is part of the Declaration’s Plan of Action (Articles 6 and 7, page 15).