01.12.2017 - UNESCO Office in Dakar

How can you learn, if you don't understand?

Ms Priya Gajraj, Senegal Resident Coordinator at the Opening of the 12th British Council Language and Development Conference

During the British Council's 12th International Language and Development Conference, held in Dakar, from 27 to 29 November 2017, UNESCO presented newly published findings from the UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report. This presentation drew on key findings and recommendations from the new 2017/8 Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report and a GEM Policy Paper on language, released for International Mother Language Day 2016. The conference's central theme was Language and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), sought to explore the role of language in development by focusing on: SDG 4 - Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning; SDG 8 - Promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment and decent work for all; SDG 16 - Promote just, peaceful and inclusive societies.

With a new global education agenda that prioritizes quality, equity and lifelong learning for all, it is essential to encourage full respect for the use of mother language in teaching and learning, and to promote linguistic diversity. Yet in many countries, a large number of children are taught and take tests in languages that they do not speak at home, hindering the early acquisition of critically important reading and writing skills. As much as 40% of the global population does not have access to education in a language they speak or understand.

Moreover, education policies seldom reflect linguistic diversity. The GEM Report review of 40 countries’ education plans finds that only less than half of them recognize the importance of teaching children in their home language, particularly in early grades. Language of instruction policy can hold the key to making education more inclusive for disadvantaged groups. Sustained use of the first or home language as a medium of instruction for at least six years of schooling has been highlighted as a way to improve student performance in language skills and other subjects.

The challenges are most prevalent in regions where linguistic diversity is greatest such as in Asia and the Pacific and sub-Saharan Africa. Indeed, about 6,000-7,000 languages are spoken in the world today, 5,700 are endangered, and 61% of those minority languages are found in the Asia-Pacific region. Thus, expansion of access to Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education (MTB-MLE) has been increasingly promoted and recognized as part of the Education for All (EFA) and the SDG process in this region. UNESCO Bangkok, in close collaboration with key partners of Asia-Pacific Multilingual Education Working Group (MLE WG), supports countries in strengthening their education systems in planning, financing and implementing MTB MLE by enhancing understanding of language of instruction issues in the education sector and promoting positive MLE policies and practices in the region.

As for western Africa, in many school systems, French continues to be the main language of instruction, so the vast majority of children are taught from the early grades in a language with which they have limited familiarity. This seriously hampers their chances of learning. To provide culturally appropriate Education programs UNESCO Dakar promotes mother tongue-based bilingual or multilingual approaches in education - an important factor for inclusion and quality in education.

Teacher education programmes also need to support teachers to be able to teach early reading skills in more than one language and to use local language materials effectively. Teachers should have a good understanding of the linguistic and cultural backgrounds of children, language development, and the interdependence of mother tongue and second-language development, and the use of appropriate teaching practices. In Senegal, only 8%, and in Mali, only 2% of trained teachers expressed confidence about teaching in local languages. UNESCO Dakar works together with The International Institute for Capacity Building in Africa (IICBA) to address the educational, technical and professional needs of the region in teacher development.

The office also provides normative frameworks for language policy and education and shares good practices in bilingual and multilingual education and mother tongue instruction.


To download the Global Education Monitoring (GEM) click here

GEM policy paper 24: If you don’t understand, how can you learn?

UNESCO Bangkok Multilingual Literacy programme

IICBA Teacher Policy Development (TPD) and Capacity Building

Role of UNESCO Dakar in Literacy and non-formal education

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