21.02.2013 - UNESCO Office in Kathmandu

Mother tongue education and books. Celebrating International Mother Language Day

Bimala Devi Mestar, a young woman from Janaki tole of Janakpur Municipality was never able to read and write in any language, not even in Maithili, her mother tongue. But recently, she went to literacy classes and learned Maithili through a text book in her language. And now, Bimala can express herself much better. “Reading and now writing my own words, in my own language gives me real pleasure and so much happiness”, she says.

I am not sure whether Bimala will celebrate International Mother Language Day today. But I am certain that she speaks sometimes to her family and friends about the importance of being literate in her own mother tongue and shows them her text books.  By doing so, she carries the message of the Day that is observed every year on 21 February to raise awareness of the importance of all languages, in particular mother language.

Unlike Bimala, many people overlook the importance of the first language they acquired in childhood, their so called mother language or mother tongue.  They often believe that dominant languages like Mandarin Chinese, English, Spanish or Nepali, are superior to what is referred to as “minority languages”.

But what they forget is that their mother tongue, whether a dominant or a minority language, was the foundation of their cognitive development. The mother language helped them develop a sense of self through which to explore the world.  And the mother tongue was important for their successful education.  We know that students, who develop strong basic academic skills in their mother language and then systematically acquire the national language, perform much better in school than children, who are forced to study in languages they do not speak.  There is clear evidence that linguistic diversity accelerates the achievement of the Education for All goals. And it is proven that the use of the mother tongue at school is a powerful remedy against illiteracy.

In other words, a girl or a boy, who is compelled to learn in a language that is not her/his mother tongue, is educationally disadvantaged, as s/he is more likely to repeat grades and less likely to go on to secondary or higher education. Indeed, statistics show that half of the world’s out-of-school children speak minority languages that are often not part of the mainstream educational curriculum.

This is also true for Nepal, where language is seen as one of the key reasons for the 1.3 million children between the ages of 6-15 for not being enrolled in school, and also the reason for hundreds of thousands of children to drop-out from primary grades.

Nepal’s Interim Constitution well reflects the importance of mother language education by stating that all communities shall have the right to receive basic education in their own mother tongue. But there is no doubt that education system is highly challenged to implement this provision, simply because of the figures. In Nepal, there are more than 90 mother languages, with 16 of them spoken by 97 per cent of the population while the remaining languages spoken by only 3 per cent.  The sheer quantity makes it demanding to formulate efficient education policies and strategies, and to provide sufficient resources to comply with the constitutional provision.

But the fact that a well-designed mother tongue based education so dramatically improves the academic success of girls and boys requires additional efforts.

There are some excellent developments. The Ministry of Education has developed materials for primary schools in several of the languages spoken in the country. There are new methodologies and text books for literacy programmes in mother tongue for adults. However, these materials are not prepared for all linguistic groups and those available are sufficiently used.

The inclusion of Nepal’s minority languages in its education system is of course important to meet the goals of Education for All.  Additionally, it is also an important element of the peace process that relies on the successful inclusion of all vulnerable groups.

The demands for linguistic equality and linguistic rights became increasingly pressing after 1990.  In 1993, a Commission was formed to formulate a National Language Policy. However, progress of its implementation was as disappointing as was the limited political attention that was given to the declaration on linguistic rights adopted at the National Conference on Linguistic Rights in 2000.

An interesting and practical project promoting the diversity of Nepal’s landscape of languages was the introduction of “Basic Dictionaries” in several languages, which was initiated by NFDIN and carried out in cooperation with the Central Department of Linguistics and the Center for Nepal and Asian Studies, Tribhuvan University.  In addition, some of the indigenous peoples established organizations who produced small dictionaries to prevent language-loss.

The dictionaries of Nepal’s languages are books that are indispensable for the survival of minority languages. Bimala has learned reading and writing with a text book in Maithili.  These two examples show how close the links are between languages and books.

Books are a force for peace and development that must be placed in the hands of all. They are also crucial tools for expression that help to enrich languages, while recording their changes over time. In this age of new technologies, books remain precious instruments that are easy to handle.  Books are sturdy and practical for sharing knowledge and fostering mutual understanding to open the world to all. But in Nepal, we must do more to distribute reading material as widely and as fairly as possible, so that all people – children above all – can read in their mother tongue.

This is the reason why this 14th International Mother Language Day is dedicated to books for mother tongue education.

Bimala from Janaki tole has experienced the power of a textbook in her own mother tongue. “Now that I know how to read write and count in Maithili, next time I want to learn Nepali and perhaps English”, she says.


Note: This op-ed article written by Axel Plathe, UNESCO Representative to Nepal has been published in Republica, a national daily, on 21 February 2013

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