[lg policy] The United Nations General Assembly has proclaimed 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Language

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Tue May 21 10:42:02 EDT 2019

By H. Ekkehard Wolff

The United Nations General Assembly has proclaimed 2019 as the International
Year of Indigenous Languages <https://en.iyil2019.org/>. In doing this, it
says, it wants to acknowledge that

languages play a crucial role in the daily lives of people…

Indigenous languages tend to be spoken by politically marginalised groups
whose nations were historically colonised and their languages sidelined in
favour of the colonisers’.

There are over 7,000 known living languages
<https://www.ethnologue.com/guides/how-many-languages>; about one third
<https://www.ethnologue.com/guides/how-many-languages> of them are in
Africa. Most African children grow up in multilingual environments, and are
often familiar with more than one language before they enter school.

The UN’s call makes it an opportune time to examine how best these
languages ought to be re-empowered through intellectualisation and regular
use in education. Drawn from my own extensive, decades-long research
and the work that’s been done by others in the fields of multilingualism
and language education – I have drawn up a list of five ways that promise
to work when it comes to meeting these goals. And I’ve explained why these
approaches matter in the long term.

Doing this is a valuable way
develop, build and champion these languages. Simply continuing the status
quo in education with the almost exclusive use of languages like English,
French, Portuguese and Arabic will exclusively serve the interests of the
former imperialist powers and perpetuates post-colonial political and
cultural dominance.
Golden rules

Recognise and accept multilingualism as the norm: Many development models
from the “Western” world imposed on African countries tend to be based on
the idea that nation-states are ethnically and culturally homogeneous and
basically monolingual. They are totally inadequate in the face of the
essential linguistic plurality and diversity that is characteristic of the
countries in the Global South, including those in Africa.

Don’t teach children in a language they do not understand:Globally, 40% of
<https://en.unesco.org/gem-report/sites/gem-report/files/MLD_2016.pdf> don’t
have access to education in a language they understand. There is no solid
data for Africa, but the rate is likely to be much higher.

That’s because most African countries prioritise a language for education
which is not a language that the children speak at home nor understand at
the point when they enter school. They do this for several reasons. One is
that the education system was already established at independence and
people did not want to change something they perceived as working. Another
is that most countries on the continent are home to several indigenous
languages and new governments did not want to cause conflicts by
prioritising one over another.

This has serious consequences. For one, learning in a foreign language has
a negative impact <https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000212602> on
test scores in practically all content subjects. Research
<https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000212602> has repeatedly shown
children who learn in their own languages, or mother tongues, are more
involved in class and are more likely to complete their schooling.

Learning in the mother tongue also facilitates children’s ability to learn
another language. This could be English or another “global” language,
opening doors to learning or living in other countries.

If necessary, make education trilingual: Some countries may need to
introduce a third language in their education systems. This is because of
migration, displacement and the wide variety of languages found across

In this setup, schools would teach through the local mother tongue as a
first language; a regional *lingua franca* or a national language as a
second language, and a foreign or global language (English, Portuguese,
French) as the third. This will secure early school success (through use of
the first language). It will allow learners to acquire a relevant second
language so they can participate and function fully in regional and
national business. And it will equip them with a “world language” for
official national and international business and politics.

This approach will minimise language barriers, as well as giving learners a
competitive advantage when they leave school.

Trilingual education is being discussed widely on a global scale, but is
being hesitantly implemented. The late Cameroonian linguist Maurice
Tadadjeu proposed this approach <https://kb.osu.edu/handle/1811/81834> for
his country as early as 1975; Kazakhstan is working towards a trilingual
education system with Kazakh, Russian and English. And Luxembourg
<http://www.unavarra.es/tel2l/eng/luxembourg.htm> is a success story:
there, the majority of people are trilingual. Any number of African
countries, among them Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, Nigeria and South Africa,
could follow suit.

Make language policy inclusive: Mother-tongue based education fosters
inclusion and equity <https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000212602>.
It has been shown to have positive effects on girls’ enrolment, attendance,
achievements and transition from school to university rates. It also
de-marginalises minority sections of the population, and can help to
integrate migrants.

It will cost money now, but the long-term gains are enormous:Some argue
that it costs a great deal of money to set up a multilingual education
system. It does, but not that much: research has found that taking this
approach may amount to only up to 2%
a country’s national education budget. And the rewards, as I’ve
highlighted, far outstrip the investment.
What next

The International Year of Indigenous Languages serves as a good impetus to
start implementing policies that will prioritise Africa’s own languages on
the continent. All the evidence suggests this could kick start a
genuine “African

*H. Ekkehard Wolff*
<https://theconversation.com/profiles/h-ekkehard-wolff-437195>*, Emeritus
Professor of African Linguistics, **University of Leipzig.*

This article is republished from The Conversation
<http://theconversation.com/> under a Creative Commons license. Read
the original


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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