Multilingual education may help build resilience to violence, say experts

By Jillian Slutzker

September 13, 2017

When a child does not understand the language of instruction in his or her classroom, is something more than academics at stake?

In multilingual, multicultural societies, excluding minority languages from the classroom may perpetuate a sense of disenfranchisement among speakers of non-dominant languages and even heighten intergroup tensions, said experts speaking on a panel session.

“Language is inseparable from one’s identity,” said Corrie Blankenbeckler, Senior Associate for Instructional Systems and Governance at Creative Associates International. “It shapes your sense of self, it is linked to your memory and experience.”

Speaking on a panel called “Linguistic Tolerance as a Tool for Resiliency in Multilingual Societies against Violence and Radicalization” at the Society for International Development Washington, D.C. headquarters on Sept. 7, Blankenbeckler said that when a child’s mother language is excluded in school, this can be harmful to his or her self-confidence and sense of identity. Language helps to indicate who we are, where we come from, our background, our status and many other key attributes.

In addition, Blankenbeckler explained that the use of dominant languages at the exclusion of local languages can be a detriment to learning. This practice is all too common in schools around the world, and it has a profound negative effect on education outcomes as learners who do not speak the dominant language cannot understand their instruction, she said.

In the Mozambique context, for example, only 10% of the population claim fluency in Portuguese, the country’s official language and the language of instruction.  The majority of learners speak one of more than two dozen local languages at home, a situation which affects their learning outcomes.

A recent assessment revealed that more than 90 percent of second graders in the provinces of Nampula and Zambézia could not read two words in Portuguese.

A U.S. Agency for International Development-funded program, called Let’s Read! (Vamos Ler! in Portuguese), is supporting an initiative of the Mozambican government to improve the reading and writing skills of children in first, second and third grades by developing literacy materials in the local languages of Emakhuwa, Elomwe and Echuwabo. The program is also simultaneously supporting oral language skills in Portuguese to prepare for the transition to the national language in grade four.

The new program will not only boost student comprehension and performance, but it will foster a more inclusive education system and help to build bridges among students of different backgrounds, explained Blankenbeckler, who oversees the program.

“Language is a resource. It is your tool for communication, but language also is how you identify yourself in many ways,” she added.

Corrie Blankenbeckler (center), Senior Associate for Instructional Systems and Governance at Creative, explains the connection between language and identity at the Society for International Development on Sept. 7. Photo by Natalie Lovenburg.

Acute effects of language policy in conflict areas

In times of crisis and conflict among divergent ethnic or linguistic groups, bringing bilingual or multilingual education into the classroom can have a particularly powerful effect in helping traumatized students to heal and regain a sense of normalcy.

“Education systems, including teachers, can build resilience or contribute to trauma, not only depending on the language they are using, but in how they communicate with children,” says Blankenbeckler.

Harsh words in a classroom, for example, or not being able to understand what’s happening in the classroom can contribute to the hardship experienced by children in a conflict zone, she explained.

“Imagine all of the children around the world who are faced with traumatic situations or extreme poverty, and then they enter the classroom and it’s not even their language, and that adds to the trauma.”

In fact, in places where intergroup relations are fraught, exclusionary language policies have had magnified negative effects on youth populations and communities at large.

Kimmo Kosonen, a Senior Education Consultant with SIL International, pointed to other multilingual contexts from French-speaking Quebec, Canada to German-speaking South Tyrol, Italy where battles over language policies have come into the spotlight as part of larger struggles for autonomy for cultural minority groups.

An expert in Southeast Asia, which is home to more than 1,200 languages, he presented the case of the Patani Malay. The minority non-Thai-speaking group lives in the south of Thailand, a country with some 70 spoken languages. There, grievances over the language of instruction (Thai) have in part contributed to low student performance and dropout, as well as high rates of youth unemployment and a disconnection from mainstream Thai society.

“Not everyone will be successful, just because they don’t understand,” explained Kosonen.

He added that these children and youth who fail and are disillusioned are more likely to be drawn into the ongoing insurgency, whose atrocities have included the burning of Thai schools and killing of Thai teachers.

In this and other cases, Kosonen said that while language policy might not be the cause of the conflict, it can certainly be an underlying factor in sharpening divisions.

Though a direct link to violence may be unclear, the denial of linguistic rights or instruction in a language that students understand and with which they identify can help to fuel grievances that make individuals more susceptible to radicalization toward extremism, panelists noted.

Feelings of being under attack or excluded are very common frustrations cited by former violent extremists, says Anne Speckhard, Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism, who has interviewed nearly 500 former violent extremists, their family members and supporters around the world.

“Certainly language and, more deeply, culture is a part of it,” she said. “If we think of language as a symbol for culture, it’s a big part of it as well.”

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