Addressing children’s right to use their mother
tongue in early childhood programs
Jessica Ball
School of Child and Youth Care
Human Early Learning Partnership: REACH UVIC
University of Victoria
UNESCO International Symposium:
Translation and Cultural Mediation
Start at the beginning
Early childhood programmes: birth to 8 years old
• Counter linguistic & cultural loss
• Fulfill children’s rights to learn in their mother tongue
• Ensure familiar culture and language during transition to
What are we talking about?
Who are we talking about?
Why are we talking about it?
How are we talking about it?
What’s known?
What’s new?
What’s next?
What are we talking about?
Mother tongue:
The language acquired in early years & that has become
his/her natural instrument of thoughts and
communication (UNESCO)
Early childhood programs:
Supports for primary caregivers &
children from birth through 8 years of age
Who are we talking about?
Some children’s mother tongue is privileged
Other children’s mother tongue is dismissed, denied, or
given only token support by dominant society, cultural
institutions, schools, and policies.
Language-in-education policies routinely contribute to the
minoritization of children whose mother tongue is not the
privileged language(s).
These are the children we’re talking about it.
Why are we talking about it?
Cultural & linguistic endangerment
Educational inequities
Challenges to implementing mother-tongue based early
learning programs
How are we talking about it?
Various frameworks provide rationales:
• Rights
• Cultural & linguistic endangerment/loss
• Psycho-social development
• Participation:
– Education
– Labour force
– Civil society
Child rights
UNCRC (1989) Article 30: stipulates right of Indigenous
Peoples to use their own language in schooling.
UNCRC General Comment 7:
• Young children are holders of all rights enshrined in the
• Early childhood is a critical period for realization of these
• Early childhood: birth through transition to school (8 yrs)
• Programs & policies are required to realize rights in early
• Recognize & incorporate diversities in culture, language,
and child rearing.
Parental rights
UNCRC Article 29
Education of the child shall be directed to development
of respect for the child’s parents, and the child’s own
cultural identity, language and values, as well as for the
national values of the country in which the child is
(Also Article 5)
Community rights
UN Convention and Recommendation against
Discrimination in Education specifically recognizes “the
right of the members of national minorities to carry on
their own educational activities, including…the use or the
teaching of their own language.”
Community rights
UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to
National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities
(1992, Article 4)
– Affirms the rights of minorities, including Indigenous
Peoples, to learn and/or have instruction in their
mother tongue or heritage language.
Cultural and linguistic endangerment / loss
The world’s repository of language and culture is steadily
depleted by language-in-education policies that impose
dominant languages on children’s learning journeys.
About 6000 languages spoken globally now.
10-50% will be spoken by end of 2099.
“Linguistic genocide” (Skutnabb-Kangas)
Language loss endangers identity, heritage, belonging,
cultural knowledges
Psychological development
Cultural identity associated with speaking the language of
one’s culture of origin
Cultural knowledge embodied in language
Belonging within a cultural community that shares a
language or dialect
Inter-generational communication
Self-concept: who am I? Commonalities with ancestors/
Distinctiveness from others
Self-esteem: proud of who one is & special competencies
associated with family of origin
Speech, language & literacy enable participation
Sense of place & value in education, labour force, civil
Familiarity with school, work & social environments
Civil society rich in diverse linguistic & cultural
Community empowerment
Educational equity
UNESCO (1953) encourages mother tongue based early
learning & primary school
Children entering unfamiliar learning environments in an
unfamiliar language:
a significant contributor to persistent high rates of early
school non-attendance, non-engagement, and failure
among minority & Indigenous children.
Moral imperative
Affirming the right of families to support children’s learning
in their mother language.
Affirming the responsibility of the global community to
protect linguistic and cultural diversity and to strengthen
languages at risk of being lost.
What is known?
The dominant language in a society is presented to
children and families as normative, desired, privileged,
high status, and, very often, the required language of
early learning and all education programs.
For minority language children, this is a SUBMERSION
approach (a.k.a. Sink or Swim).
Subtractive bilingualism … second language becomes
more proficient than mother tongue.
Children do not ‘soak up languages like
Many children grow up speaking more than one language.
But language does not spring forth in full bloom during the
early years.
Language acquisition takes a long time.
Outcomes range from conversational fluency to academic
Depends on many factors
Alternative language-in-education approaches
• Mother tongue-based programs
• Bilingual (two-way bilingual) programs
• Multilingual programs
• Developmental bilingualism
– Mother tongue as primary language while second
language is introduced as a subject of study for
eventual transition to learning in the second language
Alternative approaches cont’d
“Bridging”: Planned transition from one language to another
‘Short cut’ or ‘early exit’: abrupt transition after only 2 or 3
years of school.
‘Late transition’ or ‘late exit’: transition after child has
cognitive academic proficiency in first language (CALP)
Maintenance bi/multilingual education
After second language is introduced, both first and second
languages are media of instruction.
First language instruction as a medium of instruction or
subject of study ensures ongoing support for academic
proficiency in the mother tongue.
Also called ‘additive bilingual education’ (languages are
added but do not displace mother tongue)
Tentative conclusions of research
(Lightbown, 2008)
• Children can acquire 2+ languages in EY
• Languages don’t compete for ‘mental space’ and
bilingualism doesn’t ‘confuse’ children.
• Given adequate inputs & opportunities for interaction,
children can acquire multi-lingual proficiency
• Cognitive advantages of developing proficiency in 2+
• Early learning is no guarantee of continued development
or lifelong retention: languages can be maintained,
attenuated, or forgotten
Tentative conclusions of research
Late transition is better than short cut
While children can learn more than one language, whether
they develop more than conversational fluency about
everyday events in a language depends on increasingly
advanced learning opportunities in that language
Cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP) takes
about 6 years of formal education
What about immersion programs?
Immersion programs are provided entirely in a language
that is new to the child.
Popular in foreign language instruction and in heritage
mother tongue revitalization initiatives
Immersion programs for recovering an
endangered language
Heritage mother tongues: the living root of contemporary
identities, regardless of whether one speaks the
language. (McCarty)
Eskasoni Immersion Program:
“A place to be Mi’kmaq”
Indigenous ‘First Nation’ in Nova Scotia, Canada
English or Mi’kmaq from
preschool through
secondary school.
Indigenous pedagogies
& academic content
75% of graduates went
on to college
Aha Pu_nana Leo
Hawaiian language immersion
From 50 to 10,000 speakers in just 20 years
Total family commitment
Language & culture curriculum
Hawaiian medium schools & tracks within schools
English at home, English as a subject of study.
(Wilson, Kamana & Rawlins)
Kaugel First Language First program
Papua New Guinea
Total family commitment
Parents generated curriculum resources
Availability of highly proficient speakers of the heritage
mother tongue
… who have some training and lots of energy to work with
very young children!
Mudiad Ysgolion Meithrin
Welsh-medium programs
Nursery, infant-toddler playgroups, preschool
Welsh-medium, English-medium, & bilingual schooling
Second language taught as subject of study
Community commitment
Government language-in-education policy support
Political will – funding for children’s and parents’ rights to
education in language of choice
Challenges & opportunities
Need multi-level commitments:
Parents: to value their home language
Aha Pu_nana Leo requires commitment from parents to learn the
language & continue to seek schooling for their child in Hawaiian
Preschools: to see mother tongue as a language for ‘school readiness’
Schools: to provide language streams for children to continue learning
their mother tongue & IN their mother tongue
Government: to resource training, employment, curriculum
development & schooling throughout primary school in the mother
Training & employment
Recruit, incentivize, & support mother tongue speakers as
early learning practitioners, teachers, advisors
Kaugel First Language First Program – involved parents &
other community members
Curriculum Resource Development
Curriculum is living & made meaningful in specific cultural
& linguistic frames of reference
Translation vs. interpretation
Need cultural mediation to create relevant, meaningful
learning activities and materials
Culturally based knowledge is embedded in the language
Community involvement is vital
Indigenous pedagogies
Not only what is taught but how
Multi-literacies (oral, text-based, non-verbal)
Computer-mediated learning activities need a cultural and
pedagogical frame
What’s next?
1. Need research documentation of learning outcomes of
alternative mother tongue based EY programs
2. Raise awareness of parents as children’s first language
teachers & helping parents make informed decisions
(e.g., Toronto School District: DVD “Value Your
3. Computer generated curriculum resources in
consultation with cultural/linguistic interpreters
4. Advocacy with government to set language-ineducation policies that support learning in & through
children’s mother tongue.
UNESCO online library
• UNESCO (2008b). Mother tongue instruction in early
childhood education: A selected bibliography. Paris:
• UNESCO (2010). Educational equity for children from
diverse backgrounds: Mother tongue-based bilingual or
multilingual education in the early years: Literature

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