AT first glance, Bangladesh seems to be a linguistically homogenous society, however, about 2.0 per cent of the population (3.0 million) belong to ethnically diverse small communities who use their own languages in day to day life. Although this may seem like a small percentage of the total population, their needs and rights deserve equal attention under the premise of development for all. Unfortunately, like in many other countries, both developed and developing, the needs of small ethnic groups are being neglected in Bangladesh. One example are the policies and programmes of the education for all initiative, which are not formulated and implemented considering the fact that children are more likely to be excluded from schooling and/or quality education when they are offered an education through languages other than their mother tongue. And it has been repeated in the case of the Primary Education Development Programme (PEDP-II) where by the educational needs of ethnic minority pupils have been lumped together with other disadvantaged groups; it left no provision for the creation of an educational environment friendly for pupils from small ethnic communities in terms of both medium of instruction and cultural relevance. Concerned with the importance of multilingual education for small ethnic communities, this article advocates a bi-multi-lingual education system.
In order to realise the importance of providing children with a linguistically and culturally appropriate education we must go back to 1953 when the UNESCO published its most, frequently cited report on language issues in education, titled 'The Use of vernacular Languages in Education'. Since then the issue has been debated and tackled in a number of ways. First, experts of language in education asserted that most formal education systems tends to underutilise the knowledge and experience that children of small ethnic communities bring to school. Generally, learning in a language which is not one's own provides a double set of challenges, not only is there the challenge of learning a new language but also that of learning new knowledge contained in that language.
As a result, children find it difficult to incorporate this new knowledge into their cognitive sphere quickly. In this process, in the long run, they feel alienated. Secondly, children usually understand their first language best, and are most comfortable speaking it. But, education in school can become a burden for them when they have to learn a new language of instruction. According to the UNESCO, since language is the main medium of communicating meaning in most learning activities, it is essential that a language that learners understand and speak is used in education. Research studies have repeatedly confirmed that a strong foundation in the first language and a carefully planned process of bridging to the new language is an important factor in minority language learners' success in education. Finally, language is closely linked with identity, nationhood and relations of power structure, the UNESCO states that language is not only a tool for communication and knowledge but also a fundamental attribute of cultural identity and empowerment, both for the individual and the group.
Although linguists argued that linguistically and culturally appropriate education for small ethnic communities is both necessary and feasible, no initiative from government has appeared yet. Recently, organisations such as ASHRAI, and BRAC have made some progress on the issue. Bangladesh Adivashi Forum has recently translated some primary grade books (from grade I and 11) into five languages of small ethnic communities with the help of Action Aid supported by Commonwealth Education Fund (CEF). But these initiatives are still inadequate in addressing the depth of the problem. In studies it was found that children from small ethnic communities in Bangladesh were not likely to ask questions or seek additional assistance if they failed to understand a concept in the classroom. Nevertheless, they are being left behind as a result of 'one size fits all' teaching practices not inspiring their imagination through an inclusive curriculum. Studies imply that any strategy to enhance their learning achievement must address the language needs of these students.
Contemporary societies are becoming increasingly familiar with multicultural interaction and cooperation. 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 national language(s) in learning, and providing access to global languages of communication through education. These challenges may actually be addressed by devising a true bi/multi-lingual education system that has been introduced in many parts of the world including China.
As it is considered as an important component of quality education, particularly in the early years (primary grades), the system may be of the "strong foundation in mother tongue and a good bridge with other language" type. It can refer to the mother tongue as a subject of instruction. The expert view is that mother tongue instruction should cover both the teaching of and the teaching through this language. When we say Education for All, we should imply it really for all including small ethnic communities.
In Bangladesh, the challenge before the education system is to adapt to these complex realities and provide ethnic children a quality education which takes learners' language needs into consideration, at the same time harmonising these with social, cultural and political demands. The burden of responsibility only becomes greater with Bangladesh's historic connection with the World Mother Language Day.
The writer is Staff Researcher, Research and Evaluation Division, BRAC