UNESCO urges teaching from earliest age in indigenous mother languages



20 February 2004 With an average of two indigenous languages dying out every month, the United Nations cultural agency has called for national education systems to teach children in mother tongues from the earliest age as a means both of stimulating learning ability and preserving the world’s rich heritage of linguistic diversity.

“It is widely acknowledged nowadays that teaching in both the mother tongue and the official national language helps children to obtain better results and stimulates their cognitive development and capacity to learn,” the Director-General of the UN Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Koïchiro Matsuura, said in a message for International Mother Language Day, which is celebrated on 21 February.

UNESCO’s General Conference 1999 proclaimed the Day in recognition of the importance of the world’s linguistic diversity and to promote mother tongue languages. But a survey being undertaken by the agency indicates that although the use of mother languages as a medium of instruction is gaining ground, few countries have incorporated the idea into their education systems.

The study shows that India is one of the world leaders in the development of multilingual education systems, with about 80 languages being used to teach children at different levels of schooling. But across Africa, where an estimated 2,011 languages are spoken, the languages of the former colonial powers - English, French, Spanish and Portuguese - still dominate education systems. A similar situation prevails in Latin America.

According to the “Atlas of the World Languages in Danger of Disappearing” there are more than 6,000 languages spoken in the world today. Ninety five percent of these languages are spoken by only four percent of the population, and an average of two die out each month.