Twelve -year-old Nisha Raut from the Dom Tole in Janakpur dropped out from school from grade two three years ago. She grew up speaking Maithili, one of the more than one hundred languages used across the country. Nisha’s teachers spoke in Nepali, an unfamiliar language to her. She didn’t understand him . What she needed, was a teacher who would teach her in her mother language. It is her right.
Nisha’s right to get basic education in her mother tongue is enshrined in Nepal’s Interim Constitution of 2007, which underpins the country’s multiethnic, multilingual, multireligious and multicultural character.
International Mother Language Day, which is celebrated on 21 February, is a good occasion for promoting Nisha’s right.
Maithili, Nisha’s mother language or “mother tongue”, is the language in which she spoke her first words and expressed her first thoughts. It is the language that she speaks most fluently. And it is a crucial tool for her to understand the world and it is a fundamental expression of her history and identity.
Nearly 7,000 languages are spoken in our world today. Given that the United Nations comprises 193 member states, multilingual, multicultural nations are clearly the norm, not the exception. Virtually all countries have citizens whose mother language differs from the majority language.
Often, the most disadvantaged people in a country are those whose mother language is different from the national language. This creates problems in many areas: education, health, income disparity, risk of exploitation, exposure to environmental hazards, access to the legal system, etc. Policies sympathetic to a diversity of mother languages can help unite a country while strong monolingual policies can contribute to social division.
Governments and development organizations must take language into account when engaging people, rather than embracing a “one size fits all” mentality; as one slogan for the United Nations International Year of Languages declared: “Languages Matter!”
Languages matter for the fulfillment of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), adopted in 2000 by the General Assembly of the United Nations to eradicate extreme poverty and deprivation by 2015.
Languages matter in the quest to eliminate illiteracy and facilitate better learning, as emphasized in the global Education for All movement. They matter in fostering openness towards diversity and tolerance of other cultures, which is essential to building inclusive societies. They matter for peace and mutual understanding in areas of inter-ethnic conflict. Indeed, the role of languages in the educational, cultural and economic fabric of our societies is too great to be ignored.
Evidence from around the world shows that children learn best when taught in their mother language in the initial years at school. Yet, too often, children are immersed in classrooms and taught in a language that they do not recognize. Children are expected to effortlessly learn in the school language without additional support. Typically less than 15 per cent are able to do so and achieve acceptable marks; the majority does not. While they are physically included in school, the language barrier excludes them from effective learning.
In Nepal, a mother tongue based equivalency programme for out-of-school and dropout children, that was recently piloted in the Siraha and Dhanusa districts, used the mother tongue Maithili as a medium of instruction. It showed remarkable results: lower absenteeism, high retention and high learning achievements. Significantly, majority of children were girls who performed better or equally well as boys.
Similar results have been observed in mother tongue based multilingual education schools supported by Nepal’s Ministry of Education in both formal and non-formal settings.
This is why UNESCO, UNICEF, and other development partners strongly advocate mother tongue based-multilingual education.
For children of minority language background, learning in their own language in the early years is not a luxury; it is a fundamental right to access educational opportunities. Furthermore, their ability to acquire second and additional languages is determined by the strength of their linguistic foundations in the first language. Therefore, learning in the mother language is also the right way to promote better learning of the national language.
Nisha was the beneficiary of such an effort. Her father is landless and works as a sweeper in the local hospital. But she got an opportunity to join an out-of-school children class conducted in one of the Community Development Centers in her community with the assistance of a Japanese funded UNESCO project. She learnt her lessons in Maithili and completed the bridge course successfully. Now, she wants to enroll in grade IV in a community school. She has become a model in her Dom Tole.