Photo: Zinat Rehana/ UNESCO EFA Report

Speaking a minority language should not mean being disadvantaged 

International Mother Language Day, observed since 1999 on 21 February, honours the world’s abundant cultural and linguistic diversity. The celebration draws attention to the significance of pluri-lingualism and the need for language preservation. For example, UNESCO’s Interactive Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger categorises more than 2000 languages along various levels of endangerment.

This year’s special theme is inclusion in and through education: language counts. During celebrations for the International Mother Language Day at UNESCO, yesterday, attention focused on the role of mother language as a factor of inclusion in the post-2015 sustainable development agenda.

While most countries are bi- or multilingual, education is generally taught in the dominant or national language. Today, minorities repeatedly become marginalised and isolated because of linguistic barriers. These communities are socially, economically, and politically excluded, and if they are able to attend school, are likely to perform poorly on assessments and often eventually drop out. Not only does this impede children’s chances of succeeding but it exacerbates social inequality and reduces citizenship participation.

The EFA movement has long promoted bilingual education to ensure quality of education. The upcoming 2015 EFA Global Monitoring Report, which takes a comprehensive look at the progress countries have made towards achieving the six EFA goals, will address the significant role that maternal languages play in improving the quality of education and diminishing illiteracy among children, youth and adults. Many of the problems in these areas stem from large communities being discouraged from participating in educational programmes because their spoken tongues are disregarded or considered inferior. To address this issue, governments are implementing effective policies to preserve and protect dialects, as well as to ensure that every citizen have access to education in their native language. As a matter of fact, there is a global trend of recognising minority languages as part of a country’s cultural make-up and even giving them official statuses can considerably change people’s experiences and attitudes in education.

To combat adult illiteracy, language recognition was a key strategy. According to a 2010 census, Mexico’s indigenous languages were spoken by about 6.6 million people, which accounted for 6.5% of the population. In 2000, the government launched a programme, Modelo Educación para la Vida y el Trabajo, with an initiative to incorporate representatives of minority language groups in educational initiatives. The government’s efforts to identify the importance of the range of languages spoken in Mexico and their quotidian practice led to usage of 45 languages in learning and teaching literacy. This method reduced the level of illiteracy in Mexico from 4.7 % in 2006 to 3.5% by 2015.

At the school level, language often interacts with culture and poverty, increasing the risk of children being left behind. Among poor rural grade 6 students in Guatemala who speak a minority (usually indigenous) language at home, only 47% reach the minimum achievement level in mathematics, but 88% of rich urban students speaking Spanish reach that level (Altinok, 2013b). Disadvantage associated with language and poverty continues into secondary school. New analysis by the EFA Report shows that in Turkey, 15-year-olds speaking a non-Turkish language, predominantly Kurdish, were among the lowest performers in the PISA 2012 assessment: around 50% of poor non-Turkish speakers achieved minimum learning benchmarks in reading, against the national average of 80%.

A pupil takes a book from a multi-language bookshelf at a school in Auckland, New Zealand. Credit: Jocelyn Carlin/UNESCO EFA Report.

Since dialects are important to society because they enhance diversity, conserve traditions and amplify countries’ rich cultural backgrounds and it is imperative to offer opportunities for the youngest. For example, the ‘language nest model’ early childhood program in New Zealand allows Maori children to retain their customs by using their ancestral language in interaction with the elders in their community.

UNESCO states that “appropriate language education is fundamental to enable learners to benefit from quality education, learn thorough life, and have access to information”. During the celebration of the international mother language day, UNESCO reaffirmed the crucial necessity of mother tongue instruction to enhance global citizenship, a key target for the post-2015 agenda that aims to encourage every child, teenager and adult to act locally and globally for a sustainable, peaceful and inclusive society.

Happy International Mother Language Day!



  1. Interesting read, and in my opinion, UNESCO is totally right. All languages are important, especially when it comes to education and development Though, while most people are aware of that, they tend to ignore opportunities, or sometimes they don’t have access to the appropriate means when needed. That’s the good part of globalization though. There are many websites that promote this kind of opportunities, for example language and culture interaction courses, sometimes even for free, like who clearly stands out and trying to change the world. And we should all appreciate these kind of opportunities.

  2. Hi,
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  3. Language is a medium for exchanging idea, emotion and expression. Every language has its own importance. The world is transforming into a global village. Just image the possibilities that can be unlocked just by creating a sense of harmony among different nation. The purpose of this day should be to provide a platform where idea are shared and values are exchanged.

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