Run classes in minority tongues

Urak Lawoi' children learning their mother tongue at a local school.

Run classes in minority tongues

“Run to the mountain!” shouted the shaman. Nat tensed up as he recalled the most horrifying day of his life. Despite his initial shock, Nat, along with his father and others, clawed their way up a nearby mountain as a tsunami hit the Andaman coast in 2004.

Looking back, Nat realises how he and his father instinctively acted on knowledge that had been passed from generation to generation through the Urak Lawoi' language. “Our ancestors warned us to run for our lives if the sea suddenly disappeared.”

Nat's story illustrates the importance of traditional wisdom preserved in lesser-known ethnic minority tongues. The Asia-Pacific region alone is home to about half of 7,000 languages used in the world. Yet many of these languages, and the wisdom they have come to encode over centuries, are at risk of evaporating. This is why in 2002, the General Assembly of the United Nations resolved that Feb 21 be designated "International Mother Language Day", with the express goal "to promote the preservation and protection of all languages".

International Mother Language Day holds particular importance for education. Incorporating ethnic minority children's unique mother tongues into school curricula can both help these languages survive for future generations and dramatically improve the learning outcomes for children in a world where 40% of the global population does not have access to education in a language they speak or understand.

Nat is now a teaching assistant in a mother-tongue-based, multilingual education (MTB-MLE) programme started by Mahidol University's Resource Center for Documentation, Revitalization and Maintenance of Endangered Languages and Cultures, with support provided by the Pestalozzi Children's Foundation, and the Ministry of Education. Nat and several others work with a committee to develop culturally-relevant kindergarten, and first-grade learning materials in the Urak Lawoi' and Thai languages. The team records traditional knowledge and creates new songs and stories for the classroom. Children and parents are thrilled to have their culture and language included in the school curriculum.

Thailand has recently emerged as a regional leader in this unique approach to education. Pilot projects in the Deep South and Far North have helped thousands of ethnic minority children develop strong mother-tongue literacy skills in their early years, and transfer those skills to their Thai language learning. Standardised test scores have improved, while teachers and parents report that the children in MTB-MLE schools are more engaged in their learning.

Such successes informed the development of the Royal Society of Thailand's National Language Policy Action Plan, which was approved by the cabinet last year. The plan seeks to "promote the use of local languages in education alongside the Thai language", and increase "the percentage of educational institutions using a local language along with the Thai language as a medium of instruction". The action plan builds on earlier commitments made by Thailand when it became one of the first countries in Asia to endorse the UNESCO Bangkok Statement on Language and Inclusion.

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed enormous pressure on education everywhere. At least 1.5 billion students worldwide have encountered significant educational disruption, while an estimated 10.5 million students in the Asia-Pacific region are at risk of not returning to school. This particularly impacts ethnolinguistic minority children, who face additional challenges to enrolling and staying in school owing to pre-existing barriers to their learning attributable to poverty, geography and language.

In Thailand, MTB-MLE practitioners have responded by ascending "to the cloud", with an innovative Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) developed by Chiang Mai Rajabhat University, the Foundation for Applied Linguistics, and the Pestalozzi Children's Foundation. This MOOC empowers teachers in remote areas in developing mother-tongue-based materials and using them in pedagogically sound ways. UNESCO, the Asia Foundation, and SIL International have created e-books in ethnic minority languages. Such cutting-edge resources, coupled with the hiring of more teachers who speak local languages will continue to benefit linguistically marginalised children long after the pandemic.

This year's theme for International Mother Language Day, "Using technology for multilingual learning: Challenges and opportunities", seeks to advance multilingual education in our digital era by promoting the use of the most advanced tools available for the purpose. In keeping with this theme, the UNESCO Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education has hosted webinars highlighting digital learning materials and non-traditional delivery channels for supporting ethnic minority children's education.

Back in Nat's seaside village on Koh Lanta, MTB-MLE has also undergone a vital digital transformation. Amid COVID-19 lockdowns, Mahidol delivered MTB-MLE teacher training to Nat and his colleagues online. Thanks to MTB-MLE, Nat and his community can now envision a future in which neither tsunamis nor COVID-19 will prevent Urak Lawoi' children from achieving their full academic potential. Not least of all, they will be drawing on the wisdom of their ancestors to get there, all the while actively preserving their unique language and culture for untold future generations.

By Brandon Darr and Kirk Person

Brandon Darr is an education consultant in the Inclusive Quality Education unit of the UNESCO Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education. Kirk Person is a senior literacy and education consultant with the global faith-based non-profit organisation SIL International.

*A version of this article was first published by the Bangkok Post on 21 February 2022.

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To access e-books and other digital resources, please visit the links below:

UNESCO’s Digital Library: https://unesdoc.unesco.org 
UNESCO Bangkok’s “Learn Big” reading app: https://bangkok.unesco.org/content/learn-big-application 
The SIL E-books: https://bloomlibrary.org
Asia Foundation e-books: https://asiafoundation.org/2017/08/08/lets-read-digital-library-brings-books-northern-thailand/