Mother Tongues matter amid English-language push in Asia

British Council Senior Adviser John Knagg calls it “the global, suicidal run to early English” – the penchant of many education systems to prioritize English at the expense of other non-dominant languages, often children’s mother tongues.

It’s an issue that is particularly relevant in Southeast Asia, as countries belonging to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) come together – and compete – in the early days of the ASEAN Economic Community.

While respect for the “different cultures, languages and religions of all the peoples” is a founding principle in ASEAN’s charter, that same document also specifies English as the grouping’s official working language. Underscoring this importance, ASEAN Secretary-General Le Luong Minh called English an “indispensable tool to bring our community closer together. ”

The 10 countries that comprise ASEAN are home to more than 1,000 languages and many of these are minority tongues whose existence is already precarious – Indonesia alone has 143 entries in UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger.

With English compulsory at the primary level in nine of 10 ASEAN countries (Indonesia the exception), experts argue that these languages could be crushed completely under the weight of policies that strive for inner-ASEAN competiveness by adopting a “dominant language plus English” formula in education.

Read more: Global Partnership for Education

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