NN34, September 2004

Education in a multicultural world: UNESCO's position
Pages 39-40

Education in many countries of the world takes place in multilingual contexts. Most plurilingual societies have developed an ethos which balances and respects the use of different languages in daily life. From the perspective of these societies and of the language communities themselves, multilingualism is more a way of life than a problem to be solved. The challenge is for education systems to adapt to these complex realities and provide a quality education which takes into consideration learners' needs, while balancing these at the same time with social, cultural and political demands. While uniform solutions for plural societies may be both administratively and managerially simpler, they disregard the risks involved both in terms of learning achievement and loss of linguistic and cultural diversity.

The status and role of languages internationally have been the subject of numerous declarations, recommendations and agreements. Some of these are particularly relevant to the discussion on language and education. The discussion on language may be placed within a framework of United Nations agreements and standard-setting instruments, as well as mandates of UNESCO's mission at international level, and declarations and recommendations emanating from inter-governmental conferences as well. Thus there is broad international agreement on the issue of language and its importance in the education system.

Certain basic guiding principles have been common to all these documents, agreements and recommendations produced through the years of UNESCO's mandate for action in this field. These have led us to produce a set of guidelines which represent the organisation's current approach to language and education in the twenty-first century, and which should serve to state the position of the international community in its various member states. These guidelines are entirely based on a review of previous declarations and recommendations and represent the diversity of thinking on this complex and challenging issue. The guidelines are summed up in three basic principles:

  • UNESCO supports mother tongue instruction as a means of improving education quality by building upon the knowledge and experience of the learners and teachers.
  • UNESCO supports 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.
  • UNESCO supports 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 complete text of this UNESCO position paper may be found online.