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Upholding Children's Right to Linguistically Inclusive Education

By Naomi Fillmore, PhD Student at University of Queensland

The GCLR supports grass roots advocacy efforts and promotes the voices of language advocates around the world by publishing their content on our blog. The views expressed in this post are the views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Coalition.

This week is an important week for language rights globally. February 21st is International Mother Language Day, a day that has been marked since 1999. February 22nd, is Global Language Advocacy Day, being celebrated for the first time. And this year, both dates are commemorated during the first year of the UN’s International Decade of Indigenous Languages. To mark the confluence of these occasions, I discuss the right to linguistically inclusive education, why it matters, and what is and can be done to uphold this right.

Language rights are human rights, and these rights are critical in education. Since the 1940s, international bodies have recognised this fact by implementing a number of treaties and agreements that call for the full inclusion of minoritised languages in education. Some of these include:

● The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) enshrines the right to freedom of expression (Article 19) and to education (Article 26) without discrimination on the basis of language (Article 2).

● The Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989, Article 30) states that ‘a child … shall not be denied the right… to enjoy his or her own culture, to profess and practise his or her own religion, or to use his or her own language.’

● The Coolangatta Statement on Indigenous Peoples Rights in Education (1999), representing the collective voice of Indigenous peoples from around the world, asserts that ‘the use of existing Indigenous languages is our right’.

● The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007, Article 14) states that ‘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.’

● The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs, Goal 4.5) set the following target of eliminating ‘disparities in education and [ensuring] equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable, including persons with disabilities, Indigenous peoples and children in vulnerable situations.’

Linguistically inclusive education for all children is therefore a basic human right, one that all nations have a duty to uphold. Professor Tom Calma, an Elder of the Kungarakan and the Iwaidja nations, explains that “it is no accident that education is a fundamental human right… Education gives us an enormously important start in life so it must be available, accessible and appropriate without discrimination”.

Decades of research have now shown that the most accessible and appropriate education is delivered in the language that a student knows best. Education that is linguistically inclusive leads to a wide range of positive learning, engagement, wellbeing, and health outcomes.

Conversely, denying these rights by providing education exclusively in the dominant language curtails children’s capabilities, perpetuates poverty, and causes serious mental harm. Appallingly, one third of the world’s population lacks access to education in their first language. The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated pre-pandemic divides; of the 1.6 billion learners who have been affected by school closures, Indigenous and language minoritised students have been acutely impacted. Language in education always intersects with other factors, including poverty, race, ethnicity, disability, and gender – after all, as late Hawaiian language advocate and leader Sam L. No'eau Warner points out, “language issues [are] always people issues”.

Fortunately, there are many examples of individuals, communities, and organisations who have come together to challenge long-standing exclusions and fight for their children’s right to linguistically inclusive education. Here are just a few examples of initiatives I’ve had the privilege of observing firsthand:

● In Indonesia, the most linguistically diverse country in Asia, but with among the lowest access to linguistically inclusive education, teachers are using a new problem-driven approach to co-design locally-relevant solutions and resources in Bahasa Mbojo.

● In Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people are using technology to revitalise and reclaim their language by working alongside Elders to document and share language elements for revitalisation, teaching, and learning.

● In Nepal, the federal government affirmed children’s right to education in all of the 126+ languages spoken in the country, enshrining this commitment at the highest levels through the 2015 Constitution. Teachers, parents, and communities have long advocated for this recognition and now share their perspectives on the enablers and challenges to its implementation at the local level.

These are just a few instances of the incredible work Indigenous and language minoritised communities are undertaking all around the world to promote their languages in education and policy. These communities are starting from their local context, but are also calling for systemic change at all levels. First Nations people young and old are leading this movement.

Transformative education that recognises and develops children’s full linguistic repertoire is a question of human rights and social justice. It goes further than surface level nods to inclusion; it requires systemic change in all areas of education: from the classroom level (e.g. mediums of instruction, teaching materials, assessment practices), school and community relationships (e.g. parent and Elder engagement, enrolment process), right up to systemic, structural changes (e.g. teacher recruitment, training, and distribution, data collection and management, curriculum). All areas of education must be seen through a multilingual, rather than monolingual, lens.

Upholding children’s right to education in their own languages is a powerful tool for social justice, empowerment, and freedom for all. International events such as Global Language Advocacy Day, Mother Language Day, and the Decade of Indigenous Languages help to promote and celebrate this fact. But individuals and governments must support language rights every day of the year.

Sign up to be part of the Global Coalition for Language Rights to join the movement calling for change.


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