Languages matter: for full participation in education

Photo by Jean Paul Gouffo

It’s a startling statistic. Around the globe, speakers of non-dominant languages represent just eight percent of the total population, but more than 40 percent of the world’s non-literate people. As a result, minority language speakers are frequently marginalized within the education systems of their nations and face challenges in accessing development opportunities.

SIL believes in lowering the barrier for access to quality education. That’s why we work with hundreds of local communities, government and non-government agencies, and national institutions to support mother tongue-based multilingual education programs for children, youth and adults speaking minority languages. We support programs that are:

  • learner-centered: methods and content are relevant to students’ lives and respect the knowledge and experience they bring to the learning situation
  • community-centered: learners and other members of the community are the primary decision-makers for their programs
  • development-centered: reading and writing are recognized as tools that the learners can use to achieve their own goals for their own and their community’s development.

These programs take many forms and include a wide variety of activities. One example of such a program can be found in East Cameroon among the Baka people. Numbering about 40,000, these semi-nomadic people, being historically called pygmies, are often held in low regard by surrounding populations.   

SIL, with its demonstrated expertise in education among minority language communities, was approached by Plan International Cameroon to develop an intercultural and multilingual education (IME) program for young Baka children who have normally been taught in French, one of Cameroon’s official languages.

SIL personnel collaborated with community members to develop materials for the IME program and then provided two types of training. They equipped teachers to learn to read and write the Baka language and then teach children using their mother tongue. The improvement in student performance has been clear.

In the village of Nomedjoh, Solange Gouffo, a long-time teacher in the local public school, has 50 children in her primary school first-year class.

“As a teacher among the Baka for over 15 years, I have found that, since I have been teaching Baka [children] in French, they have never been able to read or reproduce texts in French,” she says. “But as soon as we introduced IME, I was very surprised . . . that by the end of year, children could read in French and Baka without hesitation.”

Solange says the students can take dictation and copy written texts with very few mistakes compared to those not in the IME system. And drop-out rates among the students have been reduced.

“It is also the first time that I have found children who have completed the early elementary grades, in preparing for the upper elementary grades, without repeating a year and with good grades.

“This is proof that IME is an excellent method for the education among the Baka children.”

These types of results are being repeated again and again around the world as SIL works alongside hundreds of minority language groups with an important goal in mind: removing barriers to appropriate, effective and quality education.  

SIL is pleased that 2019 has been declared as International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL) by the United Nations. For us, every year is a year of languages. That’s because researching, revitalizing and promoting use of lesser-known languages is at the heart of who we are and what we have been doing for the past 85 years. This article is one in a series that explains SIL’s work as it relates to key themes of IYIL.