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Education for Multilingualism and Multi-literacy in Ethnic Minority Communities

Susan Malone

Since 1990, the world-wide emphasis on “Education for All”
has led to greater commitment on the part of most govern-
ments in Asia to provide quality education for their citizens,
with special focus on girls and women, the disabled and peo-
ple with HIV/AIDS. Until the last 3–4 years, however, there
has been less awareness that the “all” in “Education for All”
also includes the speakers of ethnic minority languages. In
spite of lobbying by language groups and NGOs and clearly
stated support from some multi-lateral agencies
, few gov-
ernments in Asia have yet demonstrated a commitment to
providing linguistically and culturally appropriate education
for their minority peoples
Even so, the number of programs that promote multilin-
gualism and multi-literacy among minority language speak-
ers is slowly growing. This article argues that linguistically
and culturally appropriate education in ethnic minority com-
munities is both necessary and feasible. It presents an over-
view of the types of MLE programs that have been established
and describes the program features that seem to be essen-
tial for achieving the programs’ long term goals.

Current Situation of Education in Ethnic Minority
Almost one-third of the world’s 6,000 languages are spoken
in Asia. A study of language and education policies and prac-
tices in the region, however, reveals that in most countries, a
limited number of languages are associated with power and
privilege while the rest are tolerated, ignored or suppressed.
Nowhere are these differences more clear than in education.
Although there are exceptions, most formal education sys-
tems tend to underutilize the knowledge and experience that
ethnic minority children bring to school. Following are some
of the situation which exist:
• Only Language of Wider Communication (LWC)
(this extreme is rarely seen now).
• LWC used as Medium of Instruction (MOI), Minority Lan-
guage (ML) allowed informally.
• LWC used as MOI, ML used to explain new concepts, as
• ML used for special classes. Instruction is in the LWC ex-
cept during “Culture Time” classes.
• ML used to introduce children to school.
• ML used as initial MOI with rapid transition to LWC.

The Need for Policy and Program Change

Three types of action are needed if linguistic and cultural
diversity is to be preserved and if ethnic minority communi-
ties are truly to be included in “Education for All”:
1) New language and education policies that affirm and pro-
tect language diversity and provide linguistically and cultur-
ally appropriate education for ethnic minority communities;
2) New models of development that meet the needs of all
segments of society and that encourage integration, rather
than forcing assimilation of ethnic minority groups into the
majority society and
3) New education programs that enable ethnic minority learn- ers to achieve their educational goals without forcing them
to sacrifice their linguistic and cultural heritage. Such pro-
grams would
• Provide a strong educational foundation in the language
the learners know best, enabling them to build on the knowl-
edge and experience they bring to the classroom;
• Provide a good bridge to speaking and listening, reading
and writing the new language using sound educational prin-
ciples to build the learners’ fluency and confidence; and
• Encourage and enable them to use both/all their languages
to continue learning.
Research studies have demonstrated repeatedly that a strong
foundation in the first language and a carefully planned pro-
cess of bridging to the new language is an important factor
in minority language learners’ success in education.

Variety of MLE programs in Asia
At this point, most MLE programs in Asia are found within
non-formal education systems and are the result of “grass-
roots” movements—local communities usually supported by
NGOs and occasionally by universities. However, a limited
number of programs have also been initiated in primary
schools with varying degrees of support from local, state or
national governments. Programs are established for children
and adults, in some cases to help ML speakers bridge into
the LWC for education and/or employment, and in other cas-
es to help learners bridge back into their heritage language,
usually as part of a larger language revitalization movement.
Four categories of MLE programs can be identified (Malone,
(Type 1) Programs for ML children who must learn the LWC
to succeed in formal education. MLE classes for ML children
begin in the children’s heritage language and later add the
LWC. Some programs begin as pre-primary classes and con-
tinue as after-school and weekend classes once the children
start school. Other programs are incorporated into the for-
mal system.
Examples of Type 1 programs are the elementary classes
that have been established in over 300 languages in Papua
New Guinea
, the Kalinga language program
in the Philip-
pines and the Dong language program
in China. The Dong
program, now in its third year, was planned specifically to
provide a strong foundation in the ML and good bridge to
Chinese. It begins with two years of pre-primary classes in ABD 2004 Vol. 34 No. 2
which focus is on the children’s oral language development
in Dong and on helping them acquire reading and writing
skills in that language. The children are then introduced grad-
ually to oral and written Chinese. Over the six years of pri-
mary school, the time devoted to Chinese will increase each
year so that the children will achieve the government’s ex-
pectations for Chinese language learning by the time they
finish Grade 6. Dong language and culture will remain a vital
part of the curriculum throughout primary school.
(Type 2) Programs for ethnic minority children for whom the
LWC has become the first language. The purpose of Type 2
programs is to help ethnic minority children who have lost
most of their heritage language learn to speak, read and write
that language. This type of MLE/ language revitalization pro-
gram may be established outside the formal system as after-
school or weekend classes or incorporated into the “Culture
Time” component of the school curriculum.
An example of a Type 2 program in the formal system is
the Chong language revitalization program
in Thailand. In
this program, ML classes begin in Grade 3 and focus on help-
ing the children become comfortable using oral Chong, then
help them bridge into reading and writing that language. Be-
cause the Chong orthography is based on Thai script with
only a few adaptations, the children are able to transfer from
Thai into Chong literacy relatively quickly.
(Type 3) Programs for young people and adults with no pre-
vious education who are monolingual in their heritage lan-
guage (ML). Successful MLE classes for monolingual adults
begin by introducing them to literacy in their heritage lan-
guage. As they gain fluency in reading and writing that lan-
guage, they are introduced to the oral LWC but bridge to
LWC literacy only when they have developed confidence and
oral fluency in the new language, a process that may take
several years.
An example of a successful program of this type is the
Central Subanen adult literacy program in the Philippines
According to reports, the adult learners in this program have
become bilingual and bi-literate (their own language and Fil-
(Type 4) Programs for young people and adults who are bi-
lingual in their heritage language and the LWC and have
learned to read and write the LWC. The purpose for this type
of MLE program is to help bilingual adults, who have some
LWC literacy skills, bridge back into literacy in their heritage
language. Members of the minority community may attend
these classes for a variety of reasons: to read their sacred
texts and/or traditional literature, to write letters to family
members, to re-establish their ties to their heritage language
and culture or to prepare for teaching in their community’s
MLE program. If the ML and LWC use the same script, the
bridging process might require only self-study transfer guides
and diglot reading materials (text in both ML and LWC). Un-
fortunately, there are few written reports of these types of
programs, possibly because learning is often informal and
through self-teaching 

 Features of Strong MLE Programs
Sustainable MLE programs can be divided into four general
stages although the length and specific activities of each stage
are context-specific.
Stage 1—Beginning Literacy.
An early emphasis in Stage 1 of children’s (but not adults’)
programs is on oral language development. Children’s ac-
tivities involve talking about familiar people, places and ac-
tivities, singing songs, acting out stories and playing games.
The learners (children and adults) are introduced to reading
and writing in their L1, which is also used as medium of in-
struction (MOI). Curriculum and reading materials are based
on topics that are familiar to the learners and relevant to their
Stage 2—Fluency.
Emphasis now is on gaining fluency in reading and writing
the L1, which is still used as the MOI. Also at this stage, teach-
ers introduce the learners to oral L2 (no reading and writing
Stage 3—Bridging.
As the learners have attained fluency in L1 literacy and are
gaining confidence in using L2 orally, they begin bridging to
L2 literacy. The duration of the bridging process is determined
by several factors, among them the degree of difference (oral
and written) between L1 and L2, the availability of reading
materials in both languages, the teachers’ educational level
and quality of training and supervision, the availability of
instructional materials that focus on the bridging process and
the age and previous education of the learners. Unfortunately,
this crucial stage is too often implemented without careful
planning, good teacher training or relevant materials. Con-
sequently, this is the point at which MLE programs most fre-
quently fail. Careful attention to the bridging strategy, good
instructional materials and good training and supervision of
the teachers help to ensure that the learners will succeed at
this stage.
Stage 4—On-going education.
At this stage, minority language learners should be able to
continue learning in both their first and second languages,
either in the formal or non-formal education systems or
through informal learning.

Challenges to developing MLE programs in multilin-
gual contexts
Most people agree that it makes little sense to force children
or adults to learn in a language they neither speak nor un-
derstand. Why, then, has there not been more support for
MLE? The following reasons are frequently given why MLE
“can’t be done”:

“Supporting diversity will foster divisiveness and lead to eth-
nic conflict.”
Some LWC speakers claim that linguistic and
are necessary for linguistically and culturally appropriate eth-
nic minority education programs.
“Is it really necessary?”
Perhaps a better question would be:
Is it really acceptable to force minority learners into educa-
tion programs that are inappropriate to their lives and de-
structive to their heritage language and culture? John Waiko,
himself a member of a minority community in Papua New
Guinea, provides his perspective on the second question:
The failure of formal education for indigenous minorities [is]
well understood by indigenous peoples all over the world. The
so-called drop-out rates and failures of indigenous people with-
in non-indigenous education systems should be viewed for what
they really are—rejection rates. (John Waiko, PNG Minister of
Education. 2001).
“Is it worth the effort?”
Perhaps the best people to answer
that question are the members of the ethnic minority com-
munities themselves.
For you, schooling simply serves to open the door to profes-
sional employment, but for me it is something else. It is the
means of training for life... I would start with what I already
possess [my language and culture] and add what is given to
me, rather than abandoning what I possess to look for what
might be given (From a speech by Chief Djoumessi, translated
and abridged from Momo 1997:10).
Education for All that is truly for “all” must not leave the
minority feeling rejected by the majority or force minority
learners to abandon what they already possess—their
community-centered knowledge and experience and their
linguistic and cultural heritage.
Better that the majority—government agencies, NGOs and
academic institutions—support ethnic minority communities
in developing education programs that celebrate who they
are and what they have been given and, in so doing, provide
them with “training for life”.

UNESCO’s clearly stated position paper, “Education in a Multilingual World”
(2002), emphasizing the right of all people to education in a language they speak
and understand is on the internet at
The paper is adapted from the author’s plenary presentation at the Conference on
Language Development, Language Revitalization and Multilingual Education in
Bangkok, Thailand, 6–8 November 2003. (Conference Proceedings to be published.)
The following terms (with abbreviations) are used in this paper to talk about the
languages used in education: Language of Wider Communication or LWC: usually
a dominant or majority language which is often also a national and/or official
language; minority language or ML: the heritage language, or Mother tongue, of
ethnic minority community members; Medium of Instruction or MOI: language
used for school instruction.
Kale and Marimyas, presented at November 2003 Conference in Bangkok
Dekker and Dumatog, -ditto-
Geary, 2002, and Cobbey –ditto

Susan Malone
She is an international consultant in minority language education. She
has authored several books and numerous articles and papers on plan-
ning minority language education programs and since 1982 has served
as trainer and consultant for governments, NGOs and language groups
in Papua New Guinea and Asia. She received her PhD in Education from
Indiana University, USA.
Susan Malone
Consultant, SIL International, 41/5 Soi Sailom, Phahol Yothin road, Bangkok 10400
Thailand, phone 66 2 270-0211, e-mail:,

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