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Now We're Talking: A Decade of Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education

A decade ago, the Asia Multilingual Education Working Group held its first conference, with participants focused on an ambitious goal: ensuring that when it comes to quality education, the millions of minority language speakers in Asia-Pacific would not be left out of the conversation.

Recently, the group marked the 10th anniversary of that initial meeting with the 4th International Conference on Language and Education: Multilingual Education for all in Asia and the Pacific – Policies, Practices, and Processes, held in Bangkok.

The timing of this year’s conference naturally led to reflections among the more than three hundred educators, policy-makers and researchers at the event on how both the conference and the push for mother tongue-based multilingual education (MTB-MLE) have grown over the past decade.

"Ten years ago, most people working in MLE throughout Asia had to get special permission to run an MLE pilot project," said Dr. Kirk Person, director of external relations for SIL International in mainland Southeast Asia.

Such projects are now commonplace throughout the Asia-Pacific region and, overall, as one of the conference’s four major thematic tracks made clear, they are operating within far more supportive policy environments.

"We also have some countries that are developing entirely new policies and they have been formed in different ways, sometimes in ways we never would have imagined 10 years ago," said Dr. Person.

He cited the case of the Philippines where “massive people power” took charge to change the policy of an entire nation, opening up access of MTB-MLE to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of children.

Dr Catherine Young, director of LEAD Asia, a unit of SIL International, said that in addition to the mushrooming number of organizing partners for the conference – from an initial three to 14 – its scope has also broadened.

No longer is providing a rationale for MTB-MLE the main focus of the conference. Participants , Dr Young said, are now focused on coming up with even more effective ways tocarry out their work and tostudy the key issues from different perspectives, such as this year’s focus on language and education policies and the legal framework for MTB-MLE.

The four thematic tracks of the conference brought elicited numerous accounts of MTB-MLE at work in different contexts.

The theme of the first of these tracks was “Multilingual education: What and Why”.

However, as Dr Kimmo Kosonen, a consultant for multilingual education with SIL International, pointed out, submissions under the track focused more on the practical realities those in MLE were facing in their countries.

"This track was not so much about what MLE is and how it's done, it was more about language and education issues in different contexts from around the world," said Dr Kosonen.  

Dr Kosonen cited some thought-provoking areas relevant to MLE brought up under this track, such as the session on the Maldives, which has two languages and Papua New Guinea, which has more languages than any other country in the world. "And in both countries, English is preferred as the language of instruction," he said. “This was a very intriguing dialogue – why two countries as different [as these] end up with the same solution that [they] want to provide education in English."

The overarching theme of this year's conference was covered in the second track, towards sound MLE policy: language and language-in-education policy and planning in Asia and the Pacific.

In addition to the dynamic changes in the Philippines, Dr Person also commended Cambodia's achievements in MTB-MLE. He said that pilot projects started in the country 10 years ago have set the foundation for an MLE-friendly policy environment. Cambodia's Undersecretary of State for Education HE Ton Sa Im confirmed this by pledging to expand the policy further to include more ethnolinguistic minorities.

Pilot projects and academic input have also helped shape policy in Thailand, while in Nepal, hopes are strong that the country's new constitution will incorporate language pertaining to MLE.

"We see other countries Timor-Leste, Solomon Islands and Myanmar in particular who are really delving into this area of policy reform and are here thinking about what they can do in the future," said Dr Person.

He emphasized how important advocacy is for the promotion of MTB-MLE and that “policymaking is an interaction; it’s about relationships”.

“Our role is to be bridge-builders – to bridge the needs of ethnic communities, the research of academics, the experience of NGOs and the needs of the government and try to bring people together,” he said.

The third track focused on delivering quality and inclusive MLE: teachers, pedagogy and innovations.

Issues surrounding writing systems and the development of appropriate orthographies for as yet unwritten languages were discussed as part of this track.

The effect of MTB-MLE on determining whether girls and women remain in school was another area of focus. "How do we ensure that girls can begin and stay in school and that their learning experience can be of the same quality as boys and men experience?" Dr Young asked.

A recurrent sentiment expressed by many in track three was the need for interagency collaboration in education.

“Many presenters in track three came from NGOs but highlighted the importance of academic and government collaboration in ensuring that MLE programmes could be institutionalized and become sustainable,” Dr Young said. “Similarly presentations from university staff … emphasized the need for the development of partnerships with community organizations and local government units in order that the initial research would be well grounded in the community.”

The final track aimed at identifying good practices in measuring the effectiveness of MLE programmes and emerging evidence of the effects of MLE on learning as well as the Millennium Development Goals.

Successful stories from Southeast Asia were highlighted, particularly in Viet Nam where a long-term project has shown MTB-bilingual education raises students’ overall performance in all subjects.

"Overall we had very good cases from Asia that shows MLE programmes can have a very positive impact not only on developing language proficiencies but also in improving students' overall academic performance,” said Vilasa Phongsathorn, a Consultant with the Education team at UNICEF East Asia and the Pacific Regional Office, about the fourth track.

Ten years on from the first Asia Multilingual Education Working Group meeting, the landscape for MTB-MLE has transformed radically. More countries in this region than ever before are opening up to and in some cases embracing the principles behind this approach.

For many in the working group, such progress may have seemed unfathomable when they first sat down to discuss and debate the importance of supporting ethnolinguistic communities 10 years ago. After a decade of successes – though not, of course, one without challenges – millions of children have been able to pursue their right to education without having to abandon their languages of birth. And if the dedication and passion shown by the members of this year’s conference offers any indication, millions more will be able to enjoy the same rights in the decades to come.