Did you know - there are 27 languages spoken in Cambodia, 122 languages spoken in Nepal and 120 languages spoken in Myanmar?

Multilingual countries across the globe face difficult decisions about language(s) of instruction that have real implications for learning. These decisions continue to be informed by the relationships between language and power, rather than equality and access. The more multilingual the country, the more complex the challenge in being able to offer universal access to public education. In highly multilingual countries, indigenous ethnic minority groups disproportionately miss out on education due to the language factor - there simply isn’t the option to attend school and receive an education in a language they understand. Although we may assume that “everyone speaks English” or another very large language, estimates suggest that 94% of the world’s population speak only 5% of its languages. The vast majority of the world’s languages are therefore spoken by a tiny proportion of the world’s population, but this should not mean that they matter less.

On International Mother Language Day held on 21 February, we celebrated the linguistic diversity of the communities we work with in South Asia, one of the most linguistically diverse regions in the world. The remote communities with whom we work in Cambodia, Nepal and Myanmar are mostly made up of ethnic minority groups whose first languages are languages other than the national language. Myanmar alone is home to over 100 indigenous ethnic groups, all of whom have their own linguistic varieties. We believe that education is a right for everyone, and our work is oriented towards achieving Sustainable Development Goal 4 to ensure inclusive and quality education for all. This is why we train teachers from the communities in which we are working who are able to teach the children in a language they understand.

It is estimated that 40% of the world’s population do not have access to education in a language that they speak or understand.

Although indigenous peoples and their languages are internationally recognised as needing protection, the challenges of providing education in many languages means that even highly multilingual countries often opt for one “national language” as the language of instruction in education. However, when indigenous language speakers are placed in immersion education without any support for their first language, this tends to have a negative effect on their linguistic ability, and ultimately impedes their learning. What’s more, this denies them the right to learn in a language they understand, and they are placed at a disadvantage compared to other children who speak the national language as their first language. By employing community teachers in our schools who speak the same languages as the children, we work hard to maximise our students’ ability to learn the national language whilst also protecting indigenous languages and cultures.

Of the world’s 7,000 or so languages (the exact number is highly contested!) 2,680 are considered to be in danger. The UN has recognised this year as International Year of Indigenous Languages in a bid to promote the importance of these linguistic and cultural heritages which are under threat. The question around language of instruction in school is much bigger than just a conundrum in education, with some discussing this as a question of human rights. There is no reason not to protect indigenous languages and promote an education that is multilingual – after all, there are many advantages to being able to converse in several languages – from cognitive advantages, cultural agility, improved job prospects….all languages matter!

Donate today to United World Schools and help us ensure inclusive education for children across Cambodia, Myanmar and Nepal. With your help we can help put a stop to language being a barrier to education. 


Global Education Monitoring Report 2016

Ethnologue: Languages of the World

International Year of Indigenous Languages