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Mother Language Day: Driving inclusion and equity through multilingual education

The 21 February marks International Mother Language Day, an event that Globethics.net feels called to celebrate, as the Global Ethics Network. First observed in 2000, Mother Language Day recognises the key role played by language in advancing inclusion and understanding among peoples and therefore in developing dialogue for peace. The UNESCO initiative aims to promote linguistic diversity at all levels of education, encourage multilingualism and protect languages in danger. In doing so, it contributes to the Sustainable Development Goals’ focus on leaving no one behind.

Language intelligence research centre Ethnologue estimates there are over 7000 languages spoken around the world today - a number that fluctuates because of the dynamic nature of language itself. A worrying 40% - over 3000 - of those languages are endangered, meaning many of them have less than 1000 speakers remaining.

English is the world’s most spoken language in terms of native (370 million) and non-native (978 million) speakers. It is also, unsurprisingly and increasingly, the dominant language on the Internet, making up 63.7% of content as of February 2022. This fact is particularly pertinent for this year’s Mother Language Day theme, which focuses on the challenges and opportunities of using technology for multilingual learning. There is clearly a lot of work still to be done.

Why is mother language so important in education?

A 2012 report estimated that 40% of the global population does not have access to education in a language they understand. The negative impact of this on a child’s learning is substantial, argued a UN paper for International Mother Language Day 2016. Statistically, when a child is educated in a language they don’t speak at home, they do not develop critically important reading and writing skills and cannot be supported in their learning by those they live with. In Peru, for example, the paper highlighted that Spanish speakers were over seven times more likely to reach a satisfactory standard in reading than indigenous language speakers. Likewise, when grade 5 students in Côte d’Ivoire, where French is the main teaching language, were tested on their French reading skills in a 2008 study, 55% of those who spoke the language at home had learned the basics, compared to just 25% who spoke another language at home, a proportion that makes up 80% of the student population.

Not only does teaching language have a huge impact on learning experience, particularly among children, leading to populations of adults with poor education, but it also plays a much wider role in society as a whole. The politics of multilingual education is often a source of cultural and social inequality and can even be linked to violent conflict in a number of places worldwide. The UN paper emphasised that disputes about using the Kurdish language in schools have long been part of the conflict in eastern Turkey. In Tibet, reports Fanny Iona Morel in her book Whispers from the Land of Snows, Han Chinese cultural assimilation means there is extremely limited teaching of the Tibetan language after primary school, with children instead being taught Mandarin. Without the right to their language, their culture and identity, Tibetans are being denied the right to peace. 

Not only does denying individuals education in their mother language constitute a form of culture-based violence, but, as Morel quotes the 10th Panchen Lama “once a society’s cultural landmarks, such as its language, dress and customs, have disappeared, the society itself will vanish”. Language is intrinsic to the expression of culture, and so promoting and protecting mother languages is a question of protecting cultural identity, both collective and individual. In northern Spain, campaigners are demanding that Asturian be recognised as a co-official language under Spanish law, in the same way that Catalan, Euskera (Basque), Galician and Aranés are. They want to guarantee their freedom of expression in Asturian both now and in the future, and ensure the language is kept alive by teaching it in schools. 

As one Asturian put it, “you can’t underestimate the importance of a language that you speak and live and feel.” It is clear that preserving linguistic identity is essential, and ensuring people are taught in their mother tongue is a key step towards this. UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring Report for Mother Language Day 2016 called for education policies and practices - from teacher recruitment and training to curriculum and resource development - to recognise the importance of mother tongue learning and to promote multilingualism. This year, the theme for Mother Language Day is technology and how it can be leveraged for multilingual education.

Using technology for multilingual learning

When guided by the principles of inclusion and equity, which includes a dedication to multilingual education, “technology has the potential to address some of the greatest challenges in education”, says UNESCO. Initiatives such as the Breadbin Interactive Project in South Africa have been great examples of this: digital dispensers disseminating large quantities of open-license educational resources, including in local languages, without the need for internet access in schools. There is still a long way to go, however, to ensure global access to essential technology for education, a fact that was only exacerbated by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Worldwide school closures meant a reliance on technology to continue learning at home, but many lacked the tools to do so. Equally, adds UNESCO, the resources that are available do not always reflect language diversity.

The digital divide and equitable access to technology for education was a key topic discussed in Globethics.net’s Building New Bridges Together conference in late 2021. One of the winning Hackathon solutions for embracing diversity, equity and inclusion in education was for Digital Device Justice, a proposal to establish a digital hub of web development in a village in rural Kenya. Through widespread implementation of this sort of initiative, we may move towards more equitable and inclusive education globally.

At Globethics.net, while our Library is home to resources in multiple languages, publications span 10 different languages and our website is available in 7 different languages, we still have work to do to make what we do more inclusive by allowing people to consume our services and offerings in their mother language. Currently, all of our online courses are carried out in English, however, having recognised a need in the Latin American market for Spanish-language courses, last year we trialled just that, in collaboration with the ​​Universidad de los Andes (Colombia) and the Universidad Católica de Córdoba (Argentina).

Driving inclusion and equity: Globethics.net in Latin America

Globethics.net Latin America Regional Programme executive María Eugenia Barroso shines a light on the situation in Latin America and shares the success of courses held in Spanish [translated, read this article in Spanish here]:

It is language and its richness that allow us to account for the realities and particularities of each region. If we conceive that language is not only a means of transmitting thoughts, knowledge and traditional wisdom, but also a way of being and being with others, it is possible to affirm that ethical dilemmas can be more easily identified and addressed from the language itself. Latin America has ethical dilemmas specific to the region that need to be identified and addressed in order to enrich the search for solutions in academia and in practice in communities.

According to the Cervantes Institute, 590 million people currently speak Spanish and 260 million speak Portuguese. The Spanish and Portuguese-speaking population, which totals 850 million people, is spread over four continents and is mainly concentrated in the Americas, Africa and Europe. According to United Nations demographic estimates, by the middle of the 21st century, the current figure of 850 million people could reach 1.2 billion.

In all Latin American countries, several native languages are also spoken. However, Spanish and Portuguese are the main languages used in higher education. Although it is possible to find English speakers, the percentages are not high and the English spoken is not of high quality. According to the EF EPI 2020 report (EF English Proficiency Index), no Latin American country achieved the "very high" level as a qualification in its survey. Only Argentina was rated "high", Costa Rica "medium" and the rest of the Latin American countries were rated between "low" and "very low".

Having training opportunities in the mother tongue, particularly in Spanish and Portuguese, is a need that becomes evident when we generate synergies with universities and institutions of higher education in Latin America. The proximity of language facilitates not only the transmission and assimilation of knowledge and experiences, but also the participation of students and teachers in a constant and fluid exchange.

From the Latin America Office of Globethics.net, we identified that the percentage of professionals in the region with the skills to take and benefit from a course taught entirely in English is very low. With this in mind, during 2021 we worked with the Universidad de los Andes (Colombia) and the Universidad Católica de Córdoba (Argentina), to provide a course in Spanish for the region.

Thus, a training course for professors entitled "Cómo incluir la Ética en la formación Universitaria" (How to include ethics in university education) was created. This course, developed by the Center for Applied Ethics of the Universidad de los Andes (UniAndes), was offered virtually to more than 50 Latin American professors.

It was a successful 4-week pilot experience, which took place from April 5 to 26, and involved 7 countries and 15 institutions of higher education in the region. 

During the four synchronous sessions of the course, professors worked with practical tools to include objectives and activities for developing students' sensitivity and capacity for ethical deliberation in their course syllabi. Together with these activities, methodologies were provided to evaluate the level of achievement of the ethical training objectives. 

Many of these tools and methodologies were made available to the academic community in general, in a publication in Spanish developed by Dr. Juny Montoya Vargas entitled Herramientas para la enseñanza de la ética en la virtualidad, edited and published by Globethics.net, which can be accessed free of charge in the Globethics.net online library.

The level of participation and commitment to the completion of the course exceeded 70%. Participants came from different disciplines, which undoubtedly enriched the discussions and the exchange of ideas. 

This pilot experience evidenced not only the capacities and high level of knowledge production and training offers in the region, but also the sensitivity and participation of the academic community in the discussion of these issues.  

Based on this evidence, it is possible to affirm the need for courses in Spanish and Portuguese to address the problems and ethical dilemmas of the region. As well as the need for simultaneous interpretation resources to expand and make visible the knowledge and knowledges produced locally, in order to enrich and contribute to an interregional and international dialogue.

The importance of multilingual education is evident, and at Globethics.net we are continuously working to provide inclusive and equitable quality learning opportunities for all. With that said, you are invited to make full use of our open-access resources in their multiple languages, and consider publishing your own work with us to help expand our offering.

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