Can technology help us bridge language divides for learning?

On this International Mother Language Day, new GEM Report analysis from its WIDE database shows that children who do not speak the language of instruction are less likely to learn the basics. Gaps in learning by language increase as children progress through education, demonstrating the importance of addressing language barriers early.  Can technology help break down these barriers? This blog looks at the possibilities.

How big are language barriers to learning?

Analysis of data from the 2021 PIRLS among grade 4 students shows that, in upper-middle- and high-income countries, children who speak at home the language they are taught in are 14% more likely to read with understanding than those who do not.  In France, children who speak French at home are 28% more likely to be able to read with understanding than children who do not – and the advantage of children who speak the language of instruction at home rises above 60% in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Slovakia, South Africa and Türkiye.

At the end of lower secondary, meanwhile, analysis of the 2022 PISA data shows that 15-year-olds speaking the language of instruction at home were 41% more likely to be able to read with understanding compared to those who did not. This ranges from a 4% gap in Canada, to around 40% in Germany and the Netherlands, and over 60% in Thailand.

It is important to address the challenge of home language learning from an early age. Among countries with data at both levels, the advantage that children and adolescents have in reading with understanding if they speak the language of instruction at home increases five times between grade 4 and the end of secondary school.

Technology can help break down language barriers for learning…

We know that technology can help with second language learning, as demonstrated by the success of the language learning application, Duolingo, which had 20 million daily active users in 2023.

Not being able to speak the host country language is one of the main barriers, which prevents forcibly displaced people from participating in host countries’ formal education systems. UNICEF’s Akelius Digital Language Learning Course, applied in 10 countries, uses mobile phones, tablets, and computers to support language learning among refugees, migrants and linguistic minorities through a blended learning approach.

However, research suggests that mobile applications alone may not be sufficient for second-language learning and need to be complemented by in-person language courses, where learners have more opportunities to engage in conversational activities.

Digitally enhancing content makes it easier to translate it into other languages. In India, the government is embedding QR codes in textbooks to convert them into ‘energized textbooks’. When scanned, the QR codes can provide additional information, contextualize content and bridge the gap between home and instructional languages.

Machine translation holds huge potential for the future translation of all online materials. Digital translation tools have been freely available since the 1990s and can be used to increase the reach of educational content. UNESCO is starting to use machine translation for its products; appropriately, the 2023 GEM Report was translated this way for the first time into French and Spanish, with quality control. The European Union has funded the TraMOOC project to provide machine translation solutions for content available in MOOCs, including subtitles, slides, assignments, quizzes, and forum discussions.

Open education resources enable the inclusion of multi-lingual education content. The Bloom Library is an example of an open-source book production platform that allows users to create their own books using templates and Creative Commons images with a user-friendly tool. The platform has over 11,000 books in over 500 languages, which can be downloaded and shared, even without internet access.

StoryWeaver, a non-profit initiative by Pratham Books in India, has become the largest global platform for OER multilingual stories to promote minority languages. It has over 45,000 books in 323 languages, over 60% of which are indigenous; 10% are UNESCO-classified vulnerable or endangered languages. The platform also provides tools to translate and create bilingual storybooks for use in the classroom.

…but can also increase divides

Yet, as the 2023 GEM Report showed, the use of technology in education is not always appropriate for national and local contexts and does not always cater for learners’ individual needs. Solutions may not be designed to fit such contexts, resources may not always be available in multiple languages, may not be culturally acceptable and age appropriate and may not have clear entry points for learners in given settings. This means it can reinforce digital divides, increasing access mostly to those who already have it.

Technology can reinforce language and cultural inequality in content production, as content creation is dominated by privileged groups. The OER Commons is a global library of over 50,000 openly licensed resources in more than 100 languages, but 92% of the material is in English. OER remains particularly poorly developed in Arabic-speaking countries, except for Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

Similarly, the domination of English in MOOCs leaves many out. English is the language of one quarter of internet users worldwide, but is the overwhelming language of instruction for MOOCs, particularly those with global or regional reach. This means MOOCs mainly benefit learners from richer backgrounds.

Assistive technology and devices can be a life changer for students with disabilities, supporting their social inclusion and providing learners and educators with tools to create more inclusive learning environments by removing in- and out-of-classroom barriers to learning. But despite its enormous potential, the availability, accessibility, and affordability of this technology varies greatly between and within countries. In Australia, assistive technologies are available for English speakers but not in Aboriginal languages.

Technology has the potential to help bridge language divides, but governments must guarantee that technological advances do not leave learners further behind. As the 2023 GEM Report showed, the development of digital public goods and the use of free and open education resources are important steps in that direction. But there is still much to do to ensure that content production is more inclusive to fight the supremacy of dominant languages in education materials which pose significant barriers towards accessibility. Inclusive education technology should be available in different languages, adapted to different contexts and realities, and accessible by all learners.



1 comment

  1. The rapid expansion of OpenAI applications – such as Large Language Models – creates the possibility to translate text and video into numerous languages. However, we see that only a few organisations have the practical know-how and experience to put this in practice. UNICEF, the Red Cross, UNESCO… should focus on bringing in this expertise through partnering with those who already acquired the proven skills to translate their educational video material through AI. I put the emphasis on proven skills, as much of the comments and articles or opinions are based on “hear say” or theory. At http://www.edukomondo.org we have embarked on AI aided translations of educational STEAM videos since 2022. The technical nature of the content posed specific challenges and has lead to our understanding of what works and what not. You can watch a session on this topic organised by Educaid.be: https://www.educaid.be/en/news/recordings-presentations-connectlearn-ai-education

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