Languages and the Realization of the Right to Education

by: (Kishore Singh, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education)

The realization of the right to education for all is one of the biggest development challenges of our times. To reach all those who remain deprived of basic education opportunities we need equity-enhancing policies. These are pivotal for universalizing access to education without discrimination or exclusion. UNESCO’s Convention against Discrimination in Education (1960) supports these efforts as it prohibits discrimination in education “based on race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, economic condition or birth.”

 As societies are increasingly becoming multicultural and multi-ethnic, respect for each-others’ cultures, language and values, especially through education, is crucial for promoting mutual understanding and harmonious interactions between people and social groups. 

Education in mother tongue and human rights law

A child learns best in its mother tongue, especially at the early stage in education, and among linguistic minority groups.  The right to receive education in one’s mother tongue or native language is recognized in several international instruments. Under the provisions of the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities (1992), States are required to take appropriate measures so that, wherever possible, persons belonging to minorities may have adequate opportunities to learn their mother tongue or to have instruction in their mother tongue. Similarly, indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions providing education in their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning, as is provided in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007). Provisions for education in mother tongue are contained in several international conventions, namely, the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (1989), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) and the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (1990).  

This implies that educational planning should include at an early stage the training of sufficient numbers of fully competent and qualified teachers of the country concerned who are familiar with the life of their people and able to teach in the mother tongue, as is stipulated in UNESCO’s Recommendation on the Status of Teachers (1966). 

Inter-cultural and multilingual education and human-rights perspective

Intercultural education and the use of local languages along with bilingual education must also be recognized as an important factor in the quality of learning. Multilingual education, entailing the use of three languages – the mother tongue, a regional or national language and an international language -  are necessary to acquiring knowledge and different levels of competencies. Mother tongue-based multilingual and multicultural education has emerged as a practical necessity in today’s globalized world. There is a need for a broader understanding of intercultural and multilingual education as a continuum of mother tongue-based education from a right to an education perspective.  

States should ensure ‘to the extent possible,’ that children belonging to minority linguistic groups have an opportunity to learn their mother tongue, and to take all possible measures to ensure that the teaching of indigenous languages in schools is increased. The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has also underlined the need for bilingual and multicultural education. This is reflected in the operational definition of basic education, elaborated by UNESCO in 2007 : “Basic education is provided in the mother tongue, at least in its initial stages, while respecting the requirements/needs of multilingualism.”

The Joint Expert Group UNESCO (CR)/ECOSOC (CESCR) on the Monitoring of the Right to Education addressed the legal and policy issues involved in mother tongue, multilingualism and the right to education. These discussions must be also seen in connection with the concept of linguistic and cultural heritage of humanity, as embodied by the UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity (2001).

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