Strengthening education with indigenous languages in Bangladesh

Apr 26, 2010

Pictures: The Language of Learning
hotos: Salman Saeed / UNDP)

It is 8:30 a.m. in the village of Matiranga, in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh; school is about to start. The Hill Tracts are one of the most diverse regions in Bangladesh, home to around 1.5 million people and many different indigenous communities.

Since 2003, UNDP has been working to help the people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts meet their immediate development needs and create long-term opportunities. This effort includes the creation of an education programme that aims to strengthen primary and secondary education within the Chittagong Hill Tract community.

In December 2009, with funding from the European Union, the programme began a new phase that is focusing on making education relevant and accessible to young people. This initiative has resulted in the introduction of multilingual education into 150 schools in the region.

“Children belonging to these ethnic communities are faced with a language barrier, so to overcome that [UNDP] has introduced mother tongue-based multilingual education whereby children in preschool get schooling in their own languages,” said Prashanta Tripura, Chief of Service Delivery for UNDP in Bangladesh.

Multilingual education allows teachers to gradually introduce the official language of Bengali, so that towards the end of primary school students can switch completely to the national curriculum, with Bengali as the main language of instruction.

This approach is delivering tangible results in a region where low school enrolment and high dropout rates have been a problem for years. The change is being felt by all.

“Now children are improving their learning in their mother languages and this has made them enthusiastic to come to the school regularly,” said Sujita Tripura, a multilingual teacher in Matiranga. “The community here has accepted the new system of education and the children really love the way we teach.”

Multilingual education is providing these young children with the incentive to come to school – and to stay there at a time when they are just starting down their education paths.

Keeping languages alive

Around the world, indigenous peoples contribute to humanity's cultural diversity, enriching it with more than two thirds of its languages and an extraordinary amount of its traditional knowledge. Programmes such as the one in the Chittagong Hill Tract community in Bangladesh help keep such languages and traditions alive. Of the some 7,000 languages today, it is estimated that more than 4,000 are spoken by indigenous peoples. Language specialists predict that up to 90 percent of the world’s languages are likely to become extinct—or threatened with extinction—by the end of the century.