Category Archives: education

Literacy Day double take

UNESCO ILD2016 posterThere are two days devoted to literacy: International Literacy Day, today, 8 September 2016 (poster on right); and Indigenous Literacy Day, which was celebrated in Australia yesterday.

International Literacy Day has been observed for a half-century, with UNESCO taking the lead by, among other things, choosing a theme (this year’s is “Reading the Past, Writing the Future”) and sponsoring major events (this year over two days at its headquarters in Paris).

Indigenous Literacy Day is more recent, and organized by the Australian NGO, Indigenous Literacy Foundation. It is a “fundraising and advocacy day” on which the organization and partners “spread the word about improving literacy levels and opportunities for Indigenous children living in some of the most remote and isolated parts of our country.”

Both have important roles, though in contexts where some languages are minoritized, the question can be posed about which languages – whose languages – are prioritized. A tweet raised just that issue regarding Indigenous Literacy Day:

Another question is what are compelling criteria for setting up such separate observances for literacy, rather than concentrating efforts on the main international observance. This is not to say everyone (group, organization) has to so limit themselves, but rather that it is a good to ask what the separate observance brings to specific targeted linguistic and cultural demographics on the one hand, and global efforts to expand literacy on the other.

Literacy prizes

In the run up to International Literacy Day, the two annual literacy prizes were announced (on 31 August; the awards are given on 8 September):

The King Sejong Literacy Prize was awarded to:

  • the Center for Knowledge Assistance and Community Development’s programme “Books for rural areas of Viet Nam’
  • the Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia of the Mahidol University in Thailand for its programme ‘Patani Malay-Thai Bi/Multilingual Education Project.’

The UNESCO Confucius Prize for Literacy was awarded to:

  • the South African Department of Basic Education’s ‘Kha Ri Gude Mass Literacy Campaign’
  • the Jan Shikshan Sansthan organization in Kerala, India for its programme, Vocational and Skill Development for Sustainable Development
  • the Directorate of Literacy and National Languages in Senegal for its ‘National Education Programme for Illiterate Youth and Adults through ICTs.
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International Mother Language Day, 2016

IMLD 2016 posterThe 17th annual International Mother Language Day (IMLD), observed today (21 February 2016), has as its theme “Quality education, language(s) of instruction and learning outcomes.” Each IMLD has had a theme, and this year’s links mother languages to Sustainable Development Goal 4 of the recently adopted 2030 Agenda, which “focuses on quality education and lifelong learning for all,” and to the implementing plan for Goal 4, the Education 2030 Framework for Action.

According to  Ms. Irina Bokova, the Director-General of UNESCO, in her message on the occasion of IMLD, the Education 2030 FFA encourages “full respect for the use of mother language in teaching and learning, and the promotion and preservation of linguistic diversity.”

IMLD has been observed every year following its proclamation by UNESCO in 1999 (i.e., starting in 2000). IMLD events are organized locally, with UNESCO hosting the main annual event(s) in Paris. There is no definitive list of observances, which probably would not be possible anyway, as some are very small and not widely publicized. Nevertheless, one can get an idea of the range of activities from the internet, via searches or in social media (Facebook has several groups, pages, and event listings – see for example this one).

Although IMLD is international, a fair number of events around the world that are organized by Bangladeshi groups reflect the origins of the observance: In 1952, several students were killed in a protest over language of instruction in what was then East Pakistan, an event that has been marked as Language Movement Day in that country after it became independent as Bangladesh

TweetMotherLanguage.org logoOn the internet there is an IMLD “Tweet in your #MotherLanguage” campaign again this year (first begun in 2014?). It’s not clear what those of us whose mother language is the dominant one on Twitter should do that’s different on IMLD, but there’s always the option to (re)tweet something in another language.

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Visualizing language, development, education & ICT connections

A few years ago, I came across the following “model of development communication with regard to language(s) and education” by Ekkehard Wolff, a professor emeritus and former Chair of African Studies at the University of Leipzig. It was presented in a 2006 working document entitled “Optimizing Learning and Education in Africa – the Language Factor: A Stock-taking Research on Mother Tongue and Bilingual Education in Sub-Saharan Africa” (later revised and published in 2011 as “Optimising Learning, Education and Publishing in Africa: The Language Factor“).*

What first struck me was that this simple triangular model portraying the relative strength of links among development, language, and education captures the essence of the situation as regards African languages in development and education programming in Africa.

Secondly, the model could easily reflect development communication – or extension work – in a mostly monolingual country, where almost everyone speaks a single tongue as their first language (“L1”), and those who don’t mostly have that same language as an “L2.” Language is not a factor that needs particular attention beyond the appropriate use of the common tongue.

Third, it is significant, though not surprising, that this came in discussion of education. The field of education tends to give more attention to issues relating to language and languages, for instance in research and policy recommendations on mother-tongue based/multilingual education, than does the field of development studies. (For a more complete discussion, see Prof. Dr. Wolff’s chapter 1 in the last version of the above-cited document).

And finally, it also occurred to me that one could readily extend this model in a third dimension by adding another factor: information and communications technology (ICT). ICT after all is (1) a more or less established dimension of development assistance (per ICT4D), (2) a feature of some projects to assist education, and also (3) the focus of a range of language technology and localization efforts. So the connections of ICT with all three are natural.

Expanding the model

The expanded model with four factors – language, development, technology, and ICT – is a triangular pyramid or tetrahedron that allows us to visualize six related pairs of factors and characterize their relative weight in development communication (programming, extension, etc.).

These six pairs with comments (those on the first three are Wolff’s) are:

  • Development ↔ Education: “Widely accepted on a priori groun ds, but with little understanding of exact nature of relationship”
  • Education ↔ Language: “Little understood outside expert circles,   particularly in terms of MoI [medium of instruction] vs. SoI [subject of instruction]”
  • Language ↔ Development: “Largely ignored”
  • Development ↔ ICT: Established in development thinking and practice as ICT4D
  • Education ↔ ICT: Established connection, often as part of ICT4D or as  local-level projects
  • Language ↔ ICT: Linkage well established for major languages as “localization” (“L10n”), but not as well supported in terms of policy or technology, for less-resourced languages

This model also facilitates visualization of other dynamics beyond the language-development-education triangle introduced by Wolff, each of which which involve ICT. Specifically:

  • Links among language-development-ICT (is L10n part of ICT4D projects? do L10n projects address development needs?)
  • Links among language-education -ICT (does use of ICT in education projects include localized content or interfaces?)
  • Links among development-education-ICT (how are ICT4D and ICT4E linked?)

Language belongs in the picture

Overall, any such model incorporating language among the dynamics of development helps expand thinking about development and learning processes. Communication is fundamental to development and education, and one of the principal uses of ICT, and language is fundamental to communication.

Why has language been so neglected in this regard (particularly in Africa)? That is another discussion. In the meantime, Prof. Dr. Wolff’s chapter (referenced above) is highly recommended as an analysis of the state of affairs and disciplinary divides involved.


* Hassana Alidou, et al. 2006. Optimizing Learning and Education in Africa – the Language Factor:  A Stock-taking Research on Mother Tongue and Bilingual Education in Sub-Saharan Africa. Paris: Association for the Development of Education in Africa. (NB- This document carries the note that it is a draft and not for dissemination, however it is widely available on the web and has been cited in at least two published books.)
Adama Ouane and Christine Glanz, eds. 2011. Optimising Learning, Education and Publishing in Africa: The Language Factor A Review and Analysis of Theory and Practice in Mother-Tongue and Bilingual Education in sub-Saharan Africa. Hamburg: UIL & Tunis: ADEA.

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International Decade of Languages?

As we draw to the end of 2008 – which is designated as, among other things, International Year of Languages (IYL) – I wanted to ask what’s next? And to propose the possibility of an International Decade of Languages to follow up on issues that the IYL dealt with as well as some others.

A year is a short time to do much more than raise awareness, achieve some limited project results, and begin to link and expand networks interested in such a vast topic as languages. Is it time to prepare the rationale and plans for a longer term campaign?

Issues that could be addressed by an International Decade of Languages might include:

  • What more can be done for endangered languages and their speakers, from documentation and preservation, to development and education
  • Highlight the situation of languages that are not on lists of endangered languages like the Red Book, but are contracting or not being developed for education and advancement of their first language speakers.
  • Explore how the languages of the least powerful regularly get less attention in education and development, than those of the more powerful, even when significant numbers of speakers are involved.
  • Related to the above, consider the importance of languages in achieving the Millennium Development Goals, the objectives of the UN Literacy Decade, etc.
  • Discuss how to develop language policy and planning worldwide, on country, regional and global levels.
  • Consider the importance of language education for individuals and in regard to other goals of education and language development.
  • Develop an official International Declaration of Linguistic Rights for ratification by the UN and the world’s countries.
  • Explore how localization of ICT and application of human language technologies can impact language preservation, development, arts, and learning.
  • Consider whether, how and when to adopt an official international auxiliary language (or to just let English continue to evolve into this role de facto).
  • And others.

There is a little bit of time yet to consider such a concept before the end of the IYL – which was officially launched on the last International Mother Language Day (21 Feb. 2008) and will officially close on the next (21 Feb. 2009). Should proclamation of an International Decade of Languages be a recommendation to come out of the IYL experience?

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What about the “Declaration of Linguistic Rights”?

Logo of UDLRThere are probably not many people who have heard of the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights (UDLR). The whole concept of linguistic rights is not widely known or discussed outside of some “MINEL” (minority, indigenous, national, endangered, local) language communities and language experts and activists. During this International Year of Languages, and with an upcoming Symposium on Linguistic Rights in the World (Geneva, 24 April), it would seem to be an ideal moment to ask where we are going with the UDLR and the whole concept.

The story behind the UDLR apparently is that it was initiated in September 1994 by the International PEN Club’s Translations and Linguistic Rights Committee and the Escarré International Centre for Ethnic Minorities and Nations, and culminated with its adoption at the World Conference on Linguistic Rights held in Barcelona on 6-9 June 1996. UNESCO was asked for its support, and apparently accorded it. However the UDLR has not been ratified by the UN General Assembly and does not have the status in international law that something like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) has.

Speaking of the latter, language is mentioned as a factor not to be used to limit application of the rights enumerated therein:

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. … (UDHR, Article 2; my emphasis added)

However, this is not quite the same as – or at least does not have the same emphasis as – “linguistic rights,” which concern individual and community rights to use a language. Hence the motivation to write something like the UDLR.

The point is perhaps clearer in considering the extreme opposite – “linguistic genocide” – which refers to deliberate efforts by a government or power to prevent, limit, and ultimately eliminate the use of a specific language, and may be regarded as a type of cultural genocide.

There is an interesting discussion of the latter and international law in the advanced version of an expert paper on children’s education and human rights prepared for the upcoming 7th Session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (21 April-2 May in New York). The paper was submitted by Lars Anders-Baer (prepared in cooperation with Ole Henrik-Magga, Robert Dunbar and Tove Skutnabb-Kangas) and entitled “Forms of Education of Indigenous Children as Crimes Against Humanity?” According to the authors, cultural genocide was not explicitly included in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (adopted by the UN in 1948, the same year as the UDHR) for various reasons. However the authors find that there are still ways that this international agreement can be used against cultural genocide, and linguistic genocide.

Nevertheless it seems that while the field of international law and human rights is a complex and evolving one, there are some significant gaps when it come to languages. Specifically there are apparently no explicit protections of linguistic rights such as proposed in the still unofficial UDLR of 1996. But is the ULDR the best way to fill these gaps? One expert suggested that it might need a rewrite before it could hope for international ratification. But there has to my knowledge been no such discussion. It would be a shame if the International Year of Languages were to pass without any serious consideration of picking up this initiative.

A small positive step would be to begin by focusing on the rights of children, as the abovementioned article does. In a different context I’ve also called attention to the punishment of children for speaking their mother tongues in Africa (a practice that has been known in many other parts of the world as well). An earlier example is Tove Skutnabb-Kangas’s “Declaration of Children’s Linguistic Rights” published in 1995 (originally in 1986; thanks to Joan Wink for calling my attention to it):

  1. Every child should have the right to identify with her original mother tongue(s) and have her identification accepted and respected by others.
  2. Every child should have the right to learn the mother tongue(s) fully.
  3. Every child should have the right to choose when she wants to use the mother tongue(s) in all official situations.

At the very least, perhaps this short formulation and the longer UDLR could be publicized more in order to help raise awareness about linguistic rights issues.

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