Mother tongue matters for sustainable futures: Three case studies
Some 40% of the world’s population do not have access to education in a language they understand or speak. This is a daunting obstacle as we pursue Sustainable Development Goal 4’s (SDG4) vision of inclusive and equitable quality education for all and one that mother tongue-based multilingual education (MTB-MLE) addresses directly.
MTB-MLE is vital not only for our global education agenda, but for all of the other 16 goals that make up the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which aims to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. The approach is a valuable tool in advancing all SDGs, as it encourages respect for cultural and linguistic diversity, which in turn contributes to peace; inclusive social development; environmental sustainability; political participation and sustainable and inclusive economies.
These three case studies, which were shared at the recent 5th International Conference on Language and Education: Sustainable Development through Multilingual Education, demonstrate how MTB-MLE can fuel the Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Case Study 1: Promoting ownership, empowerment in rural Cambodia
Cambodia, like many Asian countries, faces significant ecological threats, including loss of land tenure leading to massive deforestation and conversion to plantations, as well as the overuse of agricultural chemicals and climate change-induced weather events.
A programme by International Cooperation Cambodia (ICC) uses the mother tongue to foster community pride and empower villages in two North-Eastern Cambodian provinces.
“Identity-based community development and education” integrates topics on environmental and agricultural sustainability into school curricula. ICC facilities non-formal education classes as well as government school MLE programmes for grades 1-3.
As part of the programme, teams of indigenous people from local communities use the mother tongue to discuss topics such as sustainable forms of agriculture, forest rights and preservation as well as climate change. and others. Fluency in Khmer is low in these contexts, making the use of mother tongues essential to community participation and engagement.
Over time, these efforts have translated to increased empowerment and a sense of community ownership, along with increased involvement from women. Communities have built and now maintain their own infrastructure, an elder’s council was revived, and officials have been made more accountable to the community to protect the forest. It has also been the catalyst for discussion on the overuse of harmful chemicals in agriculture.
In a poignant demonstration of what can be communicated only in the mother tongue, young people wrote songs in their language to share their love of the forest and their grief over losing so much of it.
Case Study 2: Learning from links to the land in Northern Philippines
Indigenous communities often have links to the land that were forged over centuries – precious knowledge in this time of environmental and weather related challenges that is chiefly communicated through their mother tongues.
The Dumagat people of Northern Quezon in the Philippines (pictured, top) are one such group. They live in an area rich in natural resources and biodiversity, that reaches from the coastal shelf to forested mountain terrain.
In 2010, the Dumagat began partnering with the Lyceum of the Philippines University (LPU) and others on a project that aims to preserve cultural traditions, systems, belief and practices as a means of sustaining the environment. The project aims to secure remaining resources and enhance the community’s capacity to manage the environment on their own terms.
The MLE initiative is anchored within an environmentally sustainable framework which inventories local natural resources, restores forest that has been lost by commercial logging, and aims to establish an ecological sanctuary for outdoor learning and community based eco-tourism.
The emphasis is on outdoor classrooms and cultural teachings focused on preserving traditional ecological knowledge. To that end, the programme is using traditional ecological knowledge to create a new inventory of local flora and fauna. As part of a long-term plan to develop an ecological sanctuary in the area, plans are underway to promote ecotourism with an eco-lodge staffed by locals.
The project combines MLE-based development, ecological sustainability and stewardship to promote environmentally friendly development and a richer educational experience, while also making progress in line with the SDGs.
Case study 3: Mother tongues for peace: Language Education and Social Cohesion (LESC) Initiative
Examining language’s role in conflict and its potential as a tool for peace was a central goal of the Language Education and Social Cohesion (LESC) initiative, which was part of UNICEF EAPRO’s Peacebuilding Education and Advocacy (PBEA) Programme.
The LESC initiative examined the role of language policy and planning in multi-ethnic and multilingual settings in Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand, with research aimed at better understanding the links between language, education and conflict.
The initiative found that conventional analyses of conflict have underestimated the role of language and ethnicity differences in starting conflicts, as well as in sustaining existing ones. Research also showed that governments can influence and mitigate language issues and contribute to social cohesion, particularly through education.
One major outcome of the research in Myanmar was the finding that languages can resolve social conflict, even when the conflict is not directly associated with language. The most important outcome from the initiative in the country is the preparation of a national language policy that focuses on peace-building and social cohesion.
By Lucy Allan
Top photo: (c) LPU 2014. Philippines Indigenous Peoples Month Celebration.