Asia-Pacific Multilingual Education Working Group members partner on advocacy for mother tongue-based education at APREMC-II

children learning language

Asia-Pacific Multilingual Education Working Group members partner on advocacy for mother tongue-based education at APREMC-II

—Mother-tongue learning for ethnic minority children highlighted in outcome statement, which will inform the Transforming Education Summit (TES) at UN General Assembly in September

Asia-Pacific Multilingual Education Working Group members UNESCO Bangkok, UNICEF EAPRO, and SIL International partnered to organize ‘Building Back Better: Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education (MTB-MLE) for Ethnic Minority Children’, a thematic side event of the 2nd Asia-Pacific Regional Education Minister’s Conference (APREMC-II).

The collaborative ‘Building Back Better’ event aimed to bring greater awareness to unique needs of ethnic minority children and the role MTB-MLE can play in transforming education systems in the post-COVID-19 era. Speakers included Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization Secretariat Director Ethel Valenzuela; former Philippines Undersecretary of Education Dina Ocampo; and SIL Senior Literacy and Education consultant Kirk Person.

event banner for Building Back Better: Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education for Ethnic Minority Children

APREMC-II concluded on 7 June 2022 with the adoption of the joint-ministerial ‘Bangkok Statement 2022’, on the theme ‘Towards an effective learning recovery for all and transforming education in Asia-Pacific’, which expresses the signatories’ commitment to areas of priority action in the Asia-Pacific region. Reflecting the importance of the Multilingual Education Working Group’s joint side event, the Statement notably includes a call for governments and education stakeholders towards adapting education curricula ‘to learners from diverse ethnic and linguistic backgrounds and promoting access to initial literacy and further learning in the mother tongue’ as one of the strategies for decisively transforming regional education and education systems towards more equitable and inclusive conditions.

Learning disruptions introduced by COVID-19 exacted an especially detrimental toll in the Asia-Pacific region by exacerbating a substantial education crisis well predating the pandemic. The solutions implemented to mitigate school shutdowns and related quarantine measures, such as distance education and digital learning, subsequently proved often inaccessible to already marginalized students throughout the region, including those from ethnolinguistic minority communities, thus leaving them further behind.

To put the language-in-education problem in regional perspective, speaker Ethel Valenzuela presented key findings from the award-winning Southeast Asia Primary Learning Metrics (SEA-PLM) program. SEA-PLM found significant literacy and numeracy gaps between ethno-linguistic minority and majority children across Cambodia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines and Viet Nam in places where children’s home languages were excluded from school.

Ethel Valenzuela
Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization Secretariat Director Ethel Valenzuela. Photo credit: Philina Ng

This problem is not limited to Southeast Asia. Speaker Kirk Person cited a World Bank study estimating that nearly 40 per cent of the global population lacks access to education in a language they speak fluently. UNESCO has warned that children whose home language is not used in school face compound barriers to learning which have been exacerbated by COVID-19. Person pointed to UNESCO’s 2019 ‘Bangkok Statement on Language and Inclusion’ as a blueprint that governments could use to introduce or strengthen MTB-MLE policies and practices.

The Philippines provides an example of how this can be done. Speaker Dina Ocampo chronicled her country’s MTB-MLE journey from pilot projects to national policies. New national guidelines have empowered communities to create their own MTB-MLE programs for grades K through 3. Forty-six language groups have taken advantage of this policy, and as a result, MTB-MLE is now offered in 65 Filipino languages (including sign language).

Maki Katsuno-Hayashikawa
Maki Katsuno-Hayashikawa, Director of the Division for Education 2030 at UNESCO headquarters. Photo credit: Philina Ng

In response, Maki Katsuno-Hayashikawa, Director of the Division for Education 2030 at UNESCO headquarters, affirmed her commitment to MTB-MLE ahead of the Transforming Education Summit set to convene this September at the 77th UN General Assembly. She further pointed to the links between SDG 4’s vision for equitable quality education and the United Nations International Decade of Indigenous Languages (2022-2032).

The Asia-Pacific Multilingual Education Working Group (MLE WG) draws on its diverse partnerships to promote MTB-MLE in the Asia-Pacific region. The MLE WG organizes regional webinars and hosts a MLE conference and high-level policy forum every two to three years. The 7th MLE conference is currently scheduled for late 2023.


Reported by Brandon Darr, Consultant for Inclusive Basic Education, Sector for Inclusive Quality Education (IQE), UNESCO Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education (UNESCO Bangkok); and Kirk Person, Senior Literacy and Education Consultant, SIL International


For a recording of the virtual component of the side event: https://bangkok.unesco.org/content/building-back-better-mother-tongue-based-multilingual-education-ethnic-minority-children.

For a related article from SIL International: https://www.sil.org/about/news/sil-advocates-language-based-approaches-learning-setbacks-unesco-bangkok-event

For information on the Asia-Pacific Multilingual Education Working Group: https://www.asiapacificmle.net