Save the Children Canada

Save the Children Canada

November 26, 2009 00:01 ET

Language Barriers Keeping Millions of Children Out of Education, Warns Save the Children

TORONTO, ONTARIO--(Marketwire - Nov. 26, 2009) - Millions of children are missing out on an education because their schools teach in a language they don't understand, according to a new report released by Save the Children today.

New research shows that of the 75 million children who are out of school worldwide, 54 million (72%) live in countries that have big divisions between different language groups. Only the national language tends to be used for teaching in these countries. An estimated 221 million children worldwide are not able to learn in a language they speak at home.

Helen Pinnock, Save the Children's Education Advisor, said: "Not being able to understand the language used for teaching is a major reason why children drop out of school or fail to do well. It contributes to millions of children missing out on a decent education simply because they can't speak the school language."

Whether or not a child is taught in their first language can have a strong impact on their school attendance and on how well they perform. Children who are not taught in their mother tongue often perform worse in tests and can learn to copy and recite texts from blackboards without being able to understand them properly.

In Canada, the challenges facing Native Canadian languages are manifested in a different context. The Innu communities of Quebec and Labrador, for example, rightfully fear that their language, Innu-aimun, will become extinct. Preschool and primary education are important places for children to learn about their identity, history and culture, but materials in their mother-tongue are generally not available, thereby preventing children and youth from connecting with their language and culture in school.

The country with the largest number of spoken languages is Indonesia with 747, but even those with fewer linguistic groups face significant challenges. In some countries, school is taught in a former colonial language that very few families speak at home. For example in the Democratic Republic of Congo, school is taught in French but most people speak local languages like Lingala, Kiswahili, Kikongo or Tshiluba. This has an impact on children's performance as they struggle to learn in a language with which they are not familiar. In other countries, like China or India, with a large number of ethnic minority groups, having to learn in an unfamiliar language can add to the discrimination these groups already face.

Governments in countries where many languages are spoken often promote one language as important for communication and economic advancement. However, the fact that large percentages of school-aged children are not being properly educated can actually delay the economic growth of a country. Excluding groups who do not speak the main language from education can also lead to conflict and political instability.

David Morley, President and CEO of Save the Children Canada states, "The money that is being invested in education would go a lot further if it were focused on children understanding their lessons. In countries where children aren't taught in their first language, breaking down language barriers is one of the best ways of tackling dropout and poor educational performance."

Notes to Editors:

1. The new figure was found by cross-referencing UNESCO's latest Education For All data on the numbers of primary school aged children who had never been to school in each country with Alesina et al's (2003) analysis of countries which had the biggest divides between language groups.

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