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UNESCO co-organized conference stresses importance of mother tongue language

An International conference on “Language, Education and the Millennium Development Goals” held from 9-11 November 2010 in Bangkok, Thailand brought attention to persistent inequalities in the educational attainment of ethno-linguistic minorities.

“… progress among the world’s ethno-linguistic minorities continues to lag behind some of the successes we’ve seen in majority populations,” stated Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva during his welcoming speech at an Opening Ceremony on 9 November.

“This puts our minorities at greater risk of hunger, poverty, illiteracy and disease, and increases the likelihood of future tension and conflict…It is their minority languages, among other factors, that have put them at disadvantage,” said the Prime Minister.

Despite collective global gains in achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and Education for All (EFA), ahead of the 2015 deadline, the state of development for the world’s ethno-linguistic minorities continues to drag, putting them at risk of even greater disparities and hindering efforts to overcome poverty, illiteracy and disease.

Research has revealed that Mother-Tongue-Based Multilingual Education programmes which utilize ethnic languages, along with national and international languages, can significantly improve educational achievement for ethno-linguistic minorities. Better education also has an impact on other MDG-related issues, such as maternal health, gender equality, nutrition and extreme poverty.

“Primary education programs that begin in the mother tongue help students gain literacy and numeracy skills more quickly; when taught in their local language, students readily transfer literacy skills to official languages of education, thereby acquiring essential tools for lifelong learning,” said Gwang-Jo Kim, Director of UNESCO’s Asia-Pacific Regional Bureau for Education at the Opening Ceremony.

This also has been affirmed by Prime Minister Abhisit.

“Just last month, my Foreign Minister, Kasit Piromya, led a delegation of foreign ambassadors to southern Thailand to visit one such programme, which SEAMEO has called a model for Southeast Asia. There, students in pilot schools learn to read and write in their native tongue, Pattani Malay, and then use that as a bridge to the national language of Thai.

“The children are doing very well – in fact, they are seldom absent, they participate enthusiastically, their self-confidence is growing, and their Thai language abilities are already 35% higher than similar students in monolingual Thai control schools. In addition to improved language abilities, we’ve also seen increased performance in science, mathematics, and other subjects,” Mr. Abhisit said.

Mr. Kim, also added: “In regard to health issues and mortality rate: for children under five years of age, mortality rate is reduced when information about disease prevention and treatment is understood, while the opposite can lead to dangerous or even fatal consequences. Ethno-linguistic communities can combat diarrhea, malaria and other common illnesses when they have the resources and capability to obtain essential health knowledge. Likewise, a mother is better able to care for herself and her family when she is literate – in her mother tongue – and has access to health information in a language she fully understands.”

The three-day forum provided a platform to share ideas and inspire action to increase access to education and development for ethno-linguistic communities by increasing understanding of the linkages between language and achieving the MDGs and EFA; fostering connections among a broad set of actors to support activities that integrate language and education as cross-cutting themes in achieving the MDGs and EFA; and informing policy makers and development partners on good practices to effectively incorporate language and education into strategies and policies to achieve the MDGs and EFA ahead of the 2015 deadline.

About 400 participants from six continents around the world including representatives of government and inter-government agencies, NGOs, academics and local civil society attended the event.

The conference is co-organized by UNESCO, UNICEF, the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization (SEAMEO), SIL International, the Royal Institute of Thailand, Mahidol University, the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT), Save the Children, CARE, and the Asia South Pacific Association For Basic and Adult Education (ASPBAE). 

For more information, contact the Conference Secretariat at and