Mother Tongues and Multilingual Education


The term ‘multilingual education’ which embodies the idea of using at least three languages in education, namely, the mother tongue, a regional or national language, and an international language was adopted by the United Nations’ Educational, Social, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) at its General Conference in 1999. As one of its important roles, the organization provides international frameworks and parameters for educational policy makers to guide their decisions about complex issues. Language, or rather the choice of the language of instruction, is one such area. A 2003 UNESCO position paper about mother tongue and multilingual education makes this observation: "While there are strong educational arguments in favour of mother tongue (or first language) instruction, a careful balance also needs to be made between enabling people to use local languages in learning, and providing access to global languages of communication through education."

The UNESCO deals with the linguistic rights issue in multilingual societies in accordance with three basic principles:

UNESCO supports ….

1) "… mother tongue instruction as a means of improving

educational quality by building upon the knowledge and experience

of the learners and teachers",

2) "… bilingual and/or multilingual education at all levels

of education as a means of promoting both social and gender equality

and as a key element of linguistically diverse societies",

3) "… language as an essential component of inter-cultural

education in order to encourage understanding between different

population groups and ensure respect for fundamental rights".

The ‘multilingual’ education system we are so assiduously working to establish will most likely give rise to a situation where the sort of linguistic rights concerns we have seen raised by linguists in affluent countries with concentrations of immigrants from diverse cultures could apply in respect of our indigenous languages Sinhala and Tamil. This will be so unless we keep a due sense of proportion in the pursuit of excellence through English. In a context where English occupies an privileged position the speakers of local mother tongue languages are at a disadvantage; and it will be again monolingual education through English, not multilingual education. It could be a scenario which will call for the invocation of principles established over the past half a century by the UN for the protection of the linguistic rights of especially minority communities.

As early as 1984 Professor Tove Skutnabb-Kangas of the University of Roskilde, Denmark suggested four different definitions of mother tongue from the perspectives of origin, identification, competence, and function. Mother tongue by origin, she explained, is the first language that a person learns; mother tongue by identification is of two kinds: a) by internal identification, i.e. the language one identifies oneself with, and b) by external identification, i.e. the language that others associate one with; if competence is the defining element, then one’s mother tongue is the language that one knows best; and finally, mother tongue by function means the language that one uses most.

Professor Skutnabb-Kangas discusses her ideas again in an essay in 2008. She considers how definitions of mother tongue could be made relevant to linguistic minorities found within a multilingual society including such linguistic minorities as the deaf who need an appropriate sign language, and the forcibly assimilated Indigenous or other minority children. She thinks that the four short definitions she has described converge for a linguistic majority; but she avers that for linguistic minorities "often a combination of mother tongue definitions by origin and by internal identification is a good mother tongue definition."

Professor Skutnabb-Kangas’s attempts in this connection reveal her concern for the protection of the linguistic human rights of minorities. The same attitude is shared by other Western linguists such as Jim Cummins of the University of Toronto, Canada, and Nadine Dutcher of the Center for Applied Linguistics, Washington, DC. USA, who have had the experience of pitting minority languages against a dominant majority language (e.g. in Denmark the sole official language is Danish which is spoken by 90% of the population, while among the minority/foreign languages are English 86%, German 58%, and French 12%; in France the single official language is French with minority languages such as Maghrebi Arabic, Berber, Turkish, etc). They are especially interested in the language rights of immigrant populations in the affluent European and North American societies, and in allied countries where the local languages are both the majority languages and the dominant languages, and where ‘linguicism’ is identified as threatening the linguistic rights of minorities. { Linguicism is a concept and a coinage proposed in the mid-1980’s by Professor Skutnabb-Kangas. It denotes what she calls  "ideologies and structures which are used to legitimate, effectuate, and reproduce unequal division of power and resources (both material and non-material) between groups which are defined on the basis of language." The words quoted are reproduced from Wikipedia.}

The suitability of what Skutnabb-Kangas suggests as a good definition of ‘mother tongue’ for minorities ("a combination of mother tongue definitions by origin and by internal identification") to contexts where the language of power is also the language of the majority as in the European and North American countries is clear: it recognises the right of individual members of linguistic and cultural minorities in such societies to adopt, out of the diversity of languages available, the language that is closest to them as their mother tongue.

Sri Lanka’s multilingual situation is the reverse of that found in Europe and North America because the language of the majority (Sinhalese) cannot be called the dominant language here. Both Sinhala and Tamil are official languages, and English is designated in the constitution as a link language. Those who can speak English form a little less than 10% of the population (9.9%). Only about 10,000 people out of a population of roughly 20 million are said to use English as their first language. ("First language" here must be taken as identical with mother tongue, for if the term ‘first language’ is defined as the language someone mainly uses to function in in day to day life, as in education, scientific research, professions, and commerce, then this figure should be substantially higher since English serves as the first language in this sense for many educated Sri Lankans whose mother tongue is Sinhalese or Tamil, which is their usual home language.) The significant thing, nevertheless, is that English dominates the linguistic scene in our society. So, whereas in UK, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand etc English dominates as the language of the majority, in Sri Lanka it dominates as the language of a minority. In other words, we have the case of a (numerically) minority language usurping the place of a majority language.

In the Sri Lankan context, however, the term ‘minority language’ when applied to English can be misleading in view of this reality. Though it is the language of a numerical minority, in terms of its influence particularly in such fields as education, research, business, and international communication, it functions as a ‘majority’ language pushing the indigenous languages into ‘minority’ language status in that sense. This dominance of English is not one of choice, but the result of a complex of historical, political, and economic factors specific to our country reinforced by the impact of the phenomenon known as globalization.

A new manifestation of the West’s capitalist domination of the world, globalization is an inescapable fact of life today. It may be an unmixed blessing for business people and industrialists since it opens extensive markets for industry and commerce. Yet it’s not so for others. Though it’s mainly to do with business, it draws the nations together in all important spheres including education, leading to general progress in those areas. But globalization is not always for their benefit. Among the iniquities that it brings in its wake is its tendency to increase the gap between rich and poor nations. Political instability, terrorism, and civil unrest either caused or compounded by economic hardships encourage large movements of people as helpless refugees or desperate job seekers from poor countries to rich countries.

The movement of populations is thus usually from the poor countries to the rich. The resultant cultural diversity of societies in the host countries is viewed in opposite ways by sections of the local populations: some tolerate it, some don’t. In Canada, for instance, according to Jim Cummins of Toronto University the neo-fascists want immigrants expelled or at least excluded from mainstream society, while the more liberal groups want them to be assimilated. Professor Cummins feels that exclusion and assimilation are similar in that both regard cultural diversity as ‘a problem’ that should be made to disappear.

In Cummins’s view, this way of looking at the phenomenon of cultural diversity that is dominant in EU and North American countries can have disastrous consequences for children and their families. The reason is that assimilation policies tend to discourage students from retaining their native language and culture for fear that it would hinder their ability to identify with the mainstream culture. The subliminal message that is conveyed to them is that they must renounce their allegiance to their home language and culture if they want to be properly integrated into the host society. This involves a violation of UN-recognized human rights (related to language) of communities affected.

Apropos of the multilingual situation in Sri Lanka, there is no question about transforming our education system from monolingual to multilingual status. Probably, however, what multilingual education in our specific context does or should mean is still not clear to many though they think they know. The popular perception seems to be in terms of a so-called quality education through the medium of English with or without a knowledge of Sinhala and Tamil (the mother tongues of 95% of the population). (I’m not saying that this notion corresponds to the policy of the official trilingual plan now underway.)

It has been long established that for a child’s proper education, particularly in the first years, the mother tongue/the home language is the best medium of instruction. Cummins refers to his own writings, and those of others such as Baker and Skutnabbs-Kangas among more recent researches in the field to confirm the importance of the mother tongue for the education of bilingual children. As educators these authorities hold that "children’s cultural and linguistic experience in the home is the foundation of their future learning and we must build on that foundation rather than undermine it; every child has the right to have their talents recognized and promoted within the school". School education should not squander "the linguistic, cultural, and intellectual resources they bring from their homes to our schools and societies". Though these statements were made in connection with multilingual societies different to ours, the importance of the mother tongue for children’s education, and through it to the society at large is the same.

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