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Bridging Worlds: Mother Tongue Based Multilingual Education for Ethnic Minorities

As of 2020, there are 7,360 languages in the world, but not all languages are equal. When your language is not the dominant language used in education or in wider society, you are automatically disadvantaged.



Many non-dominant language communities are found in remote villages and many children in these families often see their mother tongues as obstacles to their integration with mainstream education in the national language. Low achievement is common amongst these communities, limiting social mobility. These minority language cultures see themselves as recipients, not agents, of change. The hope of Mother Tongue Based Multilingual Education programmes (MTB-MLE) is to change this perspective—to turn their native language from burden to asset in improving eventual education outcomes.

This type of programme is particularly suitable in rural areas of developing countries where the community is largely homogeneous and children have limited exposure or access to the national language, which is the language of instruction used in school.


A typical MTB-MLE programme

First, an initial survey of the language’s status is made to determine the appropriate measures required for teaching and learning the language in the community. Local stakeholders such as community leaders and educators are always involved so that they play an important role in preserving their minority language culture, easing collaboration with the relevant authorities. The next stage is the development of curriculum materials and training village teachers, boosting literacy rates in the community and providing employment opportunities. In schools, the mother tongue then becomes a stepping stone in the transition to a national language curriculum. Such programmes also encourage an ethnic minority to hold on to their own language and culture alongside the national language, rather than regarding their own language as without value.


Reading and writing is a transferable cognitive skill in language learning, and it has been shown that children who start learning in their mother tongue and transition later into the national language do better in the long run (with lower drop-out rates) than children who are monolingual in the mother tongue and plunged into the national language from Primary school.


Bridging worlds

MTB-MLE brings hope as it connects these underprivileged communities to the wider world and opens doors for breakthroughs in livelihoods. As more young people from these ethnic groups achieve higher levels of education, it is hoped that they will return to their hometowns to support such programmes—be it through community teaching or engaging with local governments and schools—and help narrow the social and economic disparity between their villages and the national average.


MLE-MTB has been well received in several countries in South and Southeast Asia with efforts focused on community development and social justice. Will you join us in bringing hope to future generations in these communities?


Read more:

Mother Tongue Based Multilingual Education Programs; SIL

Mother Tongue Based Multilingual Education; Asian Development Bank


Wycliffe Singapore’s R200 Programme is currently supporting two MTB-MLE projects. If you wish to support a project, please contact us here.


Acknowledgements: thanks to Pearle*, member of WBTS, for her insight on serving in the area of adult literacy and children’s multilingual education programmes.

*name changed for security reasons

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