A photo of children from Urak Lawoi learning their native language at a local school. UNESCO
“Run to the mountain!” cried the shaman. Nat tensed as he remembered the most horrible day of his life. the Andaman coast in 2004.
Looking back, Nat realizes how he and his father instinctively acted on knowledge passed down from generation to generation through the Urak Lawoi’ language. For generations, sea gypsies have warned their people to run for their lives when the sea suddenly disappeared.
Nat’s story illustrates the importance of traditional wisdom preserved in lesser-known ethnic minority languages. The Asia-Pacific region alone is home to around half of the 7,000 languages used in the world. Yet many of these languages, and the wisdom they have come to encode over the centuries, are in danger of evaporating. This is why in 2002, the United Nations General Assembly decided that February 21 would be designated “International Mother Language Day”, with the explicit aim of “promoting the preservation and protection of all languages”.
International Mother Language Day is of particular importance for education. Incorporating the unique mother tongues of ethnic minority children into school curricula can both help these languages survive for future generations and dramatically improve children’s learning outcomes in a world where 40% of the world’s population n do 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) program initiated by Mahidol University Resource Center for Documenting, Revitalizing and Maintaining Languages and Cultures in danger, with the support of the Pestalozzi Children’s Foundation, and the Ministry of Education. Nat and several others are working with a committee to develop culturally appropriate 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 class. Children and parents are delighted that their culture and language are included in the school curriculum.
Thailand has recently become 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 build strong native language skills in their early years and transfer those skills into their Thai learning. Scores on standardized tests have improved, while teachers and parents report that children in MTB-MLE schools are more engaged in their learning.
These 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 aims to “promote the use of local languages in education alongside the Thai language” and to increase “the percentage of educational institutions using a local language with the Thai language as the medium of instruction”. The action plan builds on previous commitments made by Thailand when it became one of the first countries in Asia to endorse UNESCO’s Bangkok Declaration on Language and Inclusion.
The Covid-19 pandemic has put enormous pressure on education everywhere. At least 1.5 billion students worldwide have experienced significant education disruption, while around 10.5 million students in the Asia-Pacific region are at risk of not returning to school. This particularly affects ethnolinguistic minority children, who face additional challenges enrolling and staying in school due to pre-existing barriers to their learning attributable to poverty, geography and language.
In Thailand, MTB-MLE practitioners have responded by moving “to the cloud”, with an innovative Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) developed by Chiang Mai Rajabhat University, the Foundation for Applied Linguistics and the Foundation for the Pestalozzi children. This MOOC enables teachers in remote areas to develop materials based on the mother tongue and to use them in a pedagogically rational way. Unesco, the Asia Foundation and SIL International have created e-books in ethnic minority languages. These state-of-the-art resources, coupled with the hiring of more teachers who speak local languages, will continue to benefit linguistically marginalized children long after the pandemic.
This year’s theme for International Mother Language Day, “Using Technology for Multilingual Learning: Challenges and Opportunities”, aims to advance multilingual education in the digital age by promoting the use of the most more advanced available for this purpose. In line with this theme, Unesco’s Regional Bureau for Education for Asia and the Pacific organized webinars highlighting digital learning materials and non-traditional delivery channels to support children’s education. ethnic minorities.
Back in the seaside village of Nat on Koh Lanta, MTB-MLE has also undergone a vital digital transformation. Amid the Covid-19 lockdowns, Mahidol provided 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 the children of Urak Lawoi from reaching their full educational potential. Most importantly, they will rely on the wisdom of their ancestors to get there, while actively preserving their unique language and culture for future generations.