International Mother Language Day – 2019

Linguistic diversity is increasingly threatened as more and more languages disappear. Globally 40 per cent of the population does not have access to an education in a language they speak or understand. Nevertheless, progress is being made in mother tongue-based multilingual education with growing understanding of its importance, particularly in early schooling, and more commitment to its development in public life.

Multilingual and multicultural societies exist through their languages which transmit and preserve traditional knowledge and cultures in a sustainable way.

“Indigenous peoples have always expressed their desire for education in their own languages, as set out in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Since 2019 is the International Year of Indigenous Languages, the theme of this year’s International Mother Language Day will be indigenous languages as a factor in development, peace and reconciliation.
Indigenous peoples number some 370 million and their languages account for the majority of the approximately 7,000 living languages on Earth. Many indigenous peoples continue to suffer from marginalization, discrimination and extreme poverty, and are the victims of human-rights violations (…). On this International Mother Language Day, I thus invite all UNESCO Member States, our partners and education stakeholders to recognize and enforce the rights of indigenous peoples.”

— Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, on the occasion of International Mother Language Day

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Having worked with children who were often denied their right to quality education, as they did not speak the language of instruction,I know how important this issue is for many families. There are often political issues ,such as not wanting to encourage ‘tribalism’ which could lead to conflict, yet a few low cost interventions could prevent many children dropping out through lack of success at school or even worse -outright discrimination.

In education, this should be taken more seriously, but rarely is unfortunately. One day, one year may not be enough but worth trying….

International Mother Language Day 2015

International Mother Language Day 2015


My mother spoke Welsh. My parents believed, at the time, that Welsh was a dying language and English was the only future for us -so we did not speak Welsh at home.

Now Welsh is flourishing -a Welsh TV channel, pop groups proud to sing in Welsh -it is certainly living. My despair is that I did not grow up bilngual, and that my neural networks were not enhanced at an  early age by learning two languages.

So I understand the importance of ‘Mother Language Day’.

I have been working in Tanzania, where 77% of 6 year old children in the 7 regions in which we work, do not speak Kiswahili at home yet join Standard 1 primary where everything is being taught in Kiswahili. Is it no surprise that when tested at standard 3 they underachieve in maths and Kiswahili compared those who speak Kiswahili at home?Teachers are not trained to deal with those children who do not speak the language of instruction at home. So ‘inclusion’ is a key word and is the theme of this year’s International Mother Language Day.




International Mother Language Day, observed since 1999 on 21 February, honours the world’s abundant cultural and linguistic diversity. The celebration draws attention to the significance of pluri-lingualism and the need for language preservation. For example, UNESCO’s Interactive Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger categorises more than 2000 languages along various levels of endangerment.

Photo: Zinat Rehana/ UNESCO EFA Report

This year’s special theme is inclusion in and through education: language counts. During celebrations for the International Mother Language Day at UNESCO, yesterday, attention focused on the role of mother language as a factor of inclusion in the post-2015 sustainable development agenda.

While most countries are bi- or multilingual, education is generally taught in the dominant or national language. Today, minorities repeatedly become marginalised and isolated because of linguistic barriers. These communities are socially, economically, and politically excluded, and if they are able to attend school, are likely to perform poorly on assessments and often eventually drop out. Not only does this impede children’s chances of succeeding but it exacerbates social inequality and reduces citizenship participation.

The EFA movement has long promoted bilingual education to ensure quality of education. The upcoming 2015 EFA Global Monitoring Report, which takes a comprehensive look at the progress countries have made towards achieving the six EFA goals, will address the significant role that maternal languages play in improving the quality of education and diminishing illiteracy among children, youth and adults. Many of the problems in these areas stem from large communities being discouraged from participating in educational programmes because their spoken tongues are disregarded or considered inferior. To address this issue, governments are implementing effective policies to preserve and protect dialects, as well as to ensure that every citizen have access to education in their native language. As a matter of fact, there is a global trend of recognising minority languages as part of a country’s cultural make-up and even giving them official statuses can considerably change people’s experiences and attitudes in education.

To combat adult illiteracy, language recognition was a key strategy. According to a 2010 census, Mexico’s indigenous languages were spoken by about 6.6 million people, which accounted for 6.5% of the population. In 2000, the government launched a programme, Modelo Educación para la Vida y el Trabajo, with an initiative to incorporate representatives of minority language groups in educational initiatives. The government’s efforts to identify the importance of the range of languages spoken in Mexico and their quotidian practice led to usage of 45 languages in learning and teaching literacy. This method reduced the level of illiteracy in Mexico from 4.7 % in 2006 to 3.5% by 2015.

At the school level, language often interacts with culture and poverty, increasing the risk of children being left behind. Among poor rural grade 6 students in Guatemala who speak a minority (usually indigenous) language at home, only 47% reach the minimum achievement level in mathematics, but 88% of rich urban students speaking Spanish reach that level (Altinok, 2013b). Disadvantage associated with language and poverty continues into secondary school. New analysis by the EFA Report shows that in Turkey, 15-year-olds speaking a non-Turkish language, predominantly Kurdish, were among the lowest performers in the PISA 2012 assessment: around 50% of poor non-Turkish speakers achieved minimum learning benchmarks in reading, against the national average of 80%.

Since dialects are important to society because they enhance diversity, conserve traditions and amplify countries’ rich cultural backgrounds and it is imperative to offer opportunities for the youngest. For example, the ‘language nest model’ early childhood program in New Zealand allows Maori children to retain their customs by using their ancestral language in interaction with the elders in their community.

UNESCO states that “appropriate language education is fundamental to enable learners to benefit from quality education, learn thorough life, and have access to information”. During the celebration of the international mother language day, UNESCO reaffirmed the crucial necessity of mother tongue instruction to enhance global citizenship, a key target for the post-2015 agenda that aims to encourage every child, teenager and adult to act locally and globally for a sustainable, peaceful and inclusive society.


From Cultural Survival

an example of suggested actions you can take

Celebrate the power of dreams and meet the nearly twenty year-old Wopanaak Language Reclamation Project, which is “bringing language home” to the Wampanoag Nation of southeastern Massachusetts after many generations passed without fluent speakers.  Order copies of the film for personal, institutional, or activist use at Makepeace Productions, with a portion of the proceeds benefiting WLRP.
Be inclusive – respect the diversity of languages.

International Mother Language Day [UNESCO] – 21st February 2012

International Mother Language Day is an observance held annually on 21 February worldwide to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism.

International Mother Language Day was proclaimed by the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in November 1999 .

On 16 May 2009 the United Nations General Assembly in its resolution A/RES/61/266 called upon Member States “to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples of the world”. By the same resolution, the General Assembly proclaimed 2008 as the International Year of Languages, to promote unity in diversity and international understanding, through multilingualism and multiculturalism.

International Mother Language Day has been observed every year since February 2000 to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. The date represents the day in 1952 when students demonstrating for recognition of their language, Bangla, as one of the two national languages of the then Pakistan, were shot and killed by police in Dhaka, the capital of what is now Bangladesh.

Languages are the most powerful instruments of preserving and developing our tangible and intangible heritage. All moves to promote the dissemination of mother tongues will serve not only to encourage linguistic diversity and multilingual education but also to develop fuller awareness of linguistic and cultural traditions throughout the world and to inspire solidarity based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue.

From the UN website

How to participate | Possible action fields:

Projects on languages and multilingualism take many forms – building capacity, research and analysis, raising awareness, supporting projects, developing networks, disseminating information – and have diverse outreach (local, regional or global). These activities are often interdisciplinary, but they can also address particular aspects of language issues, including:

  • Educational initiatives promoting inclusion and quality learning by supporting bi-and multi-lingual education, especially the use of the mother-tongue, at all levels and in formal and non-formal settings; including special attention to teacher training, literacy provision and health education.
  • Projects in the field of science aimed at enhancing communication and collaboration between scientific researchers and institutions across linguistic divides; translating and disseminating scientific materials to communities in order to overcome language barriers; recognizing the central role of vernacular languages in indigenous ways of knowing.
  • Social and human sciences projects focusing on languages and human and cultural rights, migrations and urbanization and other social issues (e.g. exclusion and poverty).
  • Culture-centered projects on cultural diversity, dialogue and exchange, protecting cultural heritage, safeguarding endangered languages (i.e. through translations and publications for instance).
  • Communication and information initiatives that concentrate on building knowledge societies in which everyone can participate and benefit; promoting universal access to information and wider access to ICTs by ensuring the use of a greater number of languages; promoting cultural and linguistic diversity in the media and international information networks.


Below are some notes from the INEE website:

As the  theme this year is “Mother tongue instruction and inclusive education,” it highlighs the importance of mother tongue as part of the right to education. Below is  a message from the Mother-Tongue Based and Multilingual Education Network:


Children from 0 to 5 years of age need a strong foundation in their home language and culture to become good students and productive adults. Yet in conflict environments, preschool and school age children are often forced to learn in an unknown language in culturally different schools. Research results reveal that when children are unable to understand the language of instruction, they do not learn well. They usually withdraw and are unable to cope with home and school environments.


There are several advantages to teaching children in their mother tongue. Learning in a familiar language helps them to deal with their new reality, learn better and more rapidly, and benefit from cultural continuity with their former home. Once they are able to read and write in their first language and have learned developmentally appropriate concepts, they will be ready to learn in another language.


Many nations now accept that early childhood services and the early primary school grades should be provided in the mother tongue. They know that research has shown that teaching in the home language is more effective than teaching in a foreign language in achieving positive learning outcomes and developing children’s strong cultural identity and sense of self worth. It is also more cost effective and cost efficient, and prepares children for success in multilingual education (MLE). In addition, mother tongue instruction and services are internationally acknowledged in Articles 2, 17, 20 and 30 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.


Some humanitarian assistance workers believe that it is hard to develop mother tongue-based (MTB) materials and activities because they lack the requisite skills or it is cost prohibitive. Yet effective methods for developing MTB learning materials exist. Should aid workers lack those skills, specialists are available to help them, and mother tongue speakers can assist teachers and help to bridge language barriers. Moreover, providing materials in a language that children understand will help them learn, thereby increasing success rates and cost-effectiveness.


The MTB-MLE Network, located in Washington, DC but with a global membership, has developed a website to provide guidance and resources that can help educators and others, including those working in emergency and crises situations, to develop MTB-MLE programs, materials and services ( A short list of related resources pulled from the MTB-MLE “e-library” and INEE Toolkit can be found at the end of this message.


While providing children with a linguistically and culturally appropriate education in a conflict or post-conflict situation is vital, efforts also should be made to collaborate with ministries of education to identify how MTB-MLE services can be integrated sustainably into national educational and health policies and service systems. Ultimately, ensuring that children and their families have access to education, health and other vital services in their home languages is key to ensuring a successful future.


Some background documents:

Legal Instruments

Equity and Inclusion in Education – A Guide to Support Education Sector Plan Preparation, Revision, and Appraisal

From the new INEE newsletter comes this  new guide on the integration of equity and inclusion issues in education. It is well presented and very practical:

This guide is a joint product of the UN Girls’ Education Initiative, the UNAIDS Inter-Agency Task Team on Education, the Global Task Force on Child Labour and EFA, the EFA Flagship on the Right to Education for Persons with Disabilities, and the EFA FTI Secretariat. It was developed to support the integration of equity and inclusion issues in education sector plans while they are developed, revised or appraised. It promotes a more comprehensive and evidence-based approach to providing equitable education, which is at the heart of Education for All.  This guide is designed primarily for use by local education groups, specifically governments. It can also be used to foster dialogue and the planning process among other stakeholders, including civil society organizations (CSOs) and communities. The guide complements existing knowledge products from the Education for All Fast Track Initiative (EFA FTI) (annex 1) but focuses on disadvantaged children in society and their right to education.

For access to the full report click here.

Getting Girls into School: A Development Benefit for All

Author/Publisher: INEE
Language: English

Download: English

A disproportionate number of girls remain out of schools in many developing countries. Evidence shows there is a need for ‘gender-targeted’ programs. Such targeted programs may be financial incentives – which a number have studies have found to be effective – or female-friendly schools, for which the evidence base is weak.

Advocacy Kit for Promoting Multilingual Education – Including the Excluded

Having worked in Vietnam for the last 4 years I realise the importance of providing governments enough hard information and research findings to base education policy which will first of all realise EFA and Millenium Development Goals but also provide meaningful learning experiences for all children.

From UNESCO as reported in the INEE newsletter:

In some countries in Asia, bi/multilingual education programmes, through non-formal education, are helping to prepare ethnic/linguistic minority learners for literacy in both mother tongue and national languages. However, there is a serious lack of recognition and understanding of the role that bi/multilingual education can play in increasing enrolment, retention and achievement in the formal school system. This kit advocates making education systems more responsive to cultural diversity. It provides important insights into the value of mother tongue-based multilingual education, which respects the rights of children and learners and encourages readers to think about the importance of language issues and to investigate them further. It builds on research findings and experiences gained over many years by many organizations and individuals working on mother tongue-based multilingual education.

This kit contains three main booklets. Each booklet has a designated audience: 1) policy makers, 2) education programme planners and practitioners and 3) community members.

This kit can be used in many different ways. For those who are already involved in MLE programmes, you might use these ideas to help you to promote mother tongue instruction and strengthen your programme.   Those who are not familiar with multilingual education but want to improve educational access for minority language students might use these booklets to identify specific points that they can investigate and discuss in their own contexts.

To access the complete toolkit click here.

And in the same vein:

On February 19th, the United Nations launched UN Language Days, a new initiative which seeks to celebrate multilingualism and cultural diversity as well as to promote equal use of all six of its official working languages throughout the Organization.

UN duty stations around the world will celebrate six new observances dedicated to a UN official language: French (20 March), English (23 April), Russian (6 June), Spanish (12 October), Arabic (18 December) and Chinese (to be determined).

The new initiative – which seeks to increase awareness and respect for the history, culture and achievements of each of the six working languages among the UN community – is part of this year’s observance of International Mother Language Day, observed annually on 21 February.

The observance of the Day will also feature a special screening of the Danish documentary In Languages We Live – Voices of the World at UN Headquarters in New York today. The film explores the world’s linguistic diversity, especially in light of the fact that half of the world’s approximately 6,500 languages will disappear by the end of the century – currently, at least one language is disappearing every 14 days.

In addition, a two-day symposium on translation and cultural mediation will open on 22 February at the Paris headquarters of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

This year, UNESCO is celebrating Mother Language Day as part of the 2010 International Year of Rapprochement of Cultures (2010), the agency’s Director-General Irina Bokova noted in her message for the Day.

For more information visit: