Mother-tongue instruction and inclusion – a critical but complex relationship

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The road to inclusion in education is not easy. Rather, it can often be full of dilemmas and tensions. The case of linguistic minorities showcases some of these challenges.

Well-intended efforts to include can slide into pressure to conform, wear down group identities, and drive out languages. Conversely, the boundaries of inclusion can be blurred when communities self-segregate in schools that cater to their language needs.

Such tensions can be observed even within communities. In Peru, some rural communities advocate prioritizing Spanish and reject bilingualism, while others demand education more aligned with their local reality, with local teachers who master students’ native language and value local knowledge and traditions.

In Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia, 22 out of 30 education systems we examined for our recent regional report have separate schools for linguistic minorities. North Macedonia’s curriculum is taught in separate primary schools for learners from the Albanian, Bosniak, Serbian and Turkish communities. Kazakhstan has schools for Russian, Tajik, Uighur and Uzbek ethnic and linguistic minorities. In Slovakia, learners from the Hungarian and Ukrainian minorities may attend schools and classes providing education in their language. But despite their good intentions to protect minorities’ rights, parallel provision can also work against inclusion, which is best served by intercultural learning in mainstream schools. Ideally, bilingual schools would ensure the ethnic majority and minority learn together in both languages and from a common curriculum that is representative of both groups.

If simple answers to complex contexts are hard to come by, we do know that many who are still excluded are disadvantaged due to language. Language impacts on chances of being out of school, as in Paraguay. It affects learning too: grade 4 students in middle- and high-income countries who were taught in a language other than their mother tongue typically scored 34% below native speakers in reading tests.

In the Russian Federation and Turkey, those who did not speak at home the language in which the PISA assessment was administered averaged 12 percentage points below those who did; in Slovakia the gap was 18 percentage points.

In Latin America, education outcomes of indigenous language speakers tend to be worse than those of self-identified indigenous people who speak only Spanish.

Gaps in learning can be found in reading scores between immigrants and native speakers of the main language. In the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires, Argentina, the gap was 36 percentage points in 2015.

Legal and policy frameworks need to prioritise inclusion based on home language

Information on laws and policies related to inclusion in our PEER website shows that 60% of countries have laws focused on inclusion that target linguistic minorities.

Among the 30 education systems we reviewed in Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia, however, only 6 refer in their general education laws to the right to support, protect and use minority languages or prohibit segregation. In Croatia, there is a constitutional obligation to offer minorities education in their home language, which led to a Language and Culture of the Roma National Minority curriculum being introduced in 2020. In the Russian Federation, a 1999 federal law protects indigenous minorities, including in education. A 2006 law in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug on indigenous minorities includes provisions for education support and promotion of native languages.

Analysis of PEER profiles showed that Latin America and the Caribbean prioritised home languages more than any other region, with 59% of countries providing for inclusion based on home language in legislation and policies. In Chile, indigenous languages were incorporated into schools with over 50% indigenous enrolment in 2010. In 2013, this was extended as a voluntary initiative in schools with at least 20% indigenous enrolment. a curriculum framework for indigenous languages has been implemented in Aymara, Mapuzugun, Quechua and Rapa Nui. Study plans and programmes have also been developed. In Mexico, the General Law on the Linguistic Rights of Indigenous Peoples recognizes the right to preserve and enrich native languages and guarantees access to bilingual and intercultural education.

A review of language policies in six South-eastern Asian countries noted that only Myanmar recognized three languages – mother tongue, Burmese and English – in its language policy, introduced in 2016. In Bangladesh, where its 2010 National Education Policy recognizes the right of all children to receive mother tongue education, a Mother tongue-based Multilingual Education programme has been introduced in five indigenous languages in pre-primary education. Cambodia’s 2015–18 Multilingual Education National Action Plan enabled ethnic minority learners to take preschool and the first three years of primary school in five languages other than Khmer. Thailand has a policy calling for the use of first language, but the use of Malay as a language of instruction is limited to pilot projects.

A relevant curriculum and appropriate textbooks are important

An appendix to Article 29(1) of the Convention on the Rights of the Child emphasizes that ‘the curriculum must be of direct relevance to the child’s social, cultural, environmental and economic context’. In some cases, discrimination can be blatant. Roma learners’ history and language barely feature in textbooks in many Central and Eastern European countries.

Even when curricula and textbooks adapt, they sometimes fall short of the ideal. In Anguilla, initiatives for the growing Spanish-speaking community support English as a second language in primary but not secondary school. In Belarus, learning materials in minority languages are available only as supplements. In Suriname, ‘multilingual lessons’ of half an hour per week are provided but these are not intended as mother tongue-based multilingual education.

In Central Asia, following the break-up of the Soviet Union, countries developed state language schools and tried to strengthen state language teaching. However, the collapse of textbook supply chains left less than 40% of sanctioned textbooks in Kazakhstan available in Kyrgyz and Russian and even less in Uzbek and Tajik. The recent adoption of a trilingual education policy is changing this.

Multiple promising examples exist. In Nepal, the Curriculum Development Centre developed primary school textbooks and supplementary reading materials in 22 languages. In the Philippines, textbooks have been prepared and translated in 14 languages to support the curriculum for indigenous people.  In Guatemala, textbooks in Mayan languages have been produced. In Romania, if students from national minorities attend Romanian schools or schools of other ethnic minorities, they can demand to be taught language and literature, history and traditions, and music education in their home language.

There is no one approach to providing mother-tongue instruction, just as there is no one vision of inclusion for everyone to sign up to. But all education systems should respect cultures and their languages.


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