NN34, September 2004

Language policy for successful multilingual education: What does it take?
Pages 40-42

Most of the world agrees that "Education for All" is a good and necessary goal. The question is, can education be for "all" when it is packaged in a language that some learners neither speak nor understand? This is the situation faced by many ethnic minority children as they enter formal education systems throughout the world. In spite of scattered efforts to improve educational opportunities for all learners, language and education policies and/or practices remain heavily stacked in favor of students from majority societies who speak majority languages.

Some governments expressly forbid the use of minority languages in the formal education system. Others simply ignore their presence, or call them dialects, and claim that majority language education is appropriate for everyone. With the increasing awareness of the educational rights of ethnic minority peoples, a more common problem now is the mismatch between language and education policies and practices; that is, policies allow for the use of minority languages in school but provide no support for, and even hinder, successful implementation of multilingual education (MLE) programs. Below I describe several of the more common of these mismatch problems and suggest actions that would enhance congruence between policy and practice.

Problem 1: MLE policy in place but no support for implementation. The assumption in this case is that, if minority communities want to use their languages in the classroom, they should be willing to develop their own curriculum, produce their own materials, train their own teachers, monitor and evaluate their own programs, provide their own funding and, at the appropriate time, ensure that their learners can merge successfully into the majority language system. Given that ethnic minority communities are usually among the most socioeconomically marginalized and poorly educated sectors of the population, this expectation is unrealistic, at best.

Suggested action: Successful MLE programs require support from a variety of agencies - government departments, universities and research institutes, international and local NGOs, donor organizations, local schools and the minority communities themselves. This kind of multi-agency collaboration is an important feature of programs that have been sustained over time in diverse settings. In Papua New Guinea, for example, over 300 of the country's 800-plus languages have been incorporated into the formal education system, supported by local, national and international agencies.

Problem 2: MLE policy in place but no provision for local input in developing curriculum. The need to develop curriculum appropriate to diverse languages and cultural settings is often cited as the reason why MLE "can't be done." The common solution is to translate the majority language curriculum into selected minority languages or simply to give minority teachers the regular curriculum and tell them to translate it themselves. While learners may understand the language used in their lessons, the content remains mostly alien to them. As one learner put it, "I feel lost in my own forest."

Suggested action: The strength of strong MLE programs is that they build on the knowledge and experience that learners bring to the classroom. Lessons relate to people, places and activities that are culturally near to the learners, especially in early grades. Curriculum development, therefore, should be a collaborative effort between the center and the local communities. Centrally produced attainment targets ensure that students who begin their education in a variety of languages are at roughly the same point when they move into mainstream classes. A centrally produced but flexible curriculum framework helps local teachers organize their instructional plans but gives them freedom to insert local knowledge and culturally familiar content into the lessons. Centrally supported monitoring and evaluation that values input from local MLE teachers provides information for strengthening the curriculum and builds confidence at the local level.

Problem 3: MLE policy in place but too little time allowed in the learners' first language. Many education planners and policy-makers, as well as parents, still perceive minority languages as impediments to successful acquisition of the majority language. The "logic" of "time-on-task" persists in spite of extensive research documenting the benefits of building a strong foundation in the learners' first language while also acquiring, and learning in, a second language (see, for example, Thomas & Collier, 1997, 2002). That misconception leads to an emphasis on moving learners out of their first language (L1) as quickly as possible and into the majority language. The result is that many children fail to acquire academic competence in either language.

Suggested action: Those committed to and knowledgeable about MLE need to raise awareness among policy makers, education officials and parents about the purposes and benefits of strong (extended) MLE programs. This can be done by helping them understand the process by which children acquire academic competence in a second language; disseminating the results of credible research studies of MLE programs elsewhere; and implementing longitudinal research studies of programs in the South so that the impact of well-planned programs can be established beyond Europe and North America.

Problem 4: MLE policy in place but few L1 speakers with teacher qualifications. In an educational catch-22, while effective L1 teachers are a key to successful MLE programs, the poor quality of education in ethnic minority communities has resulted in a dearth of L1 speakers with the professional qualifications required for teaching in the formal education system. 

Suggested action: Practice has shown that L1 speakers who are not professionally trained but have achieved a certain level of education (ideally, at least Grade 10) can be equipped as effective teachers for the minority language component of MLE classes provided they have access to easy-to-use instructional materials with content that is familiar and relevant to their own and their learners' lives; are provided with regular in-service training to complement thorough pre-service training and practice; and receive regular and supportive supervision.

In many cases, these paraprofessional L1 teachers are able to implement interactive learning activities better than their professional counterparts because they do not have to unlearn the pedagogical traditions, instilled in many teacher training institutions, that oppose learner-centered instruction.

In summary, to develop successful multilingual education programs it takes enlightened policies, innovative practices and collaboration among multiples stakeholders at local, national and international level. Fortunately, collaboration is what many ethnic minority communities do best. The critical question is thus: How will the majority community respond?


Kale, J. & Marimyas, J. (2003). Implementing multilingual education in a country with 860 languages: Challenges for the National Department of Education in Papua New Guinea. Paper presented at the Conference on Language Development, Language Revitalization and Multilingual Education, Bangkok, Thailand, November 2003. Available: www.sil.org/asia/ldc

Maruatona, T. L. (2002). A critique of centralized curricula in literacy programs: The case of Botswana. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 45:8. May 2002.

Thomas, W. & Collier, V. (1997). School effectiveness for language minority students. NCBE Resource Collections Series No. 9. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education. Available: www.ncela.gwu.edu/ncbepubs/resource/effectiveness

Thomas, W. & Collier, V. (2002). A national study of school effectiveness for language minority students? long-term academic achievement. Santa Cruz, CA & Washington DC: Center for Research on Education, Diversity and Excellence. Available: www.crede.ucsc.edu/research/llaa/1.1_final.html