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UN highlights importance of mother tongue education

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mother tongue education Ha Noi, 21 February 2015 - On this 15th anniversary of International Mother Language Day, the UN in Viet Nam stresses that 'language matters' in ensuring education for all.

In spite of Viet Nam's achievement in reaching universal primary and lower secondary education, a large gap still remains between the educational opportunities for Kinh and ethnic minority children.

For example, in 2011, the literacy rate among Mong ethnic minorities aged 15 and above was only 38 per cent, while the national average was 94 per cent. Similarly, only 73 per cent of Mong and 86 per cent of Khmer primary school aged children were enrolled in primary school, while the rate for their Kinh peers was as high as 97 per cent.

Over many years UNESCO and UNICEF have supported Viet Nam to achieve the global 'Education For All' goals. As highlighted by UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova in her message today, "Education in the mother language is an essential part of achieving these goals -- to facilitate learning and to bolster skills in reading, writing and mathematics. A sharper focus on teaching training, revisions of academic programmes and the creation of suitable learning environments is required to continue to move this forward".

While remote location and access can limit educational achievement, language is another barrier that must be overcome for ethnic minority children. With Vietnamese the official language in schools and only a few teachers able to communicate in their mother-tongue, ethnic minority children find themselves at a learning disadvantage. Many struggle to learn or quickly drop out of school, severely limiting opportunities to reach their full potential.

However, in a country with around 91 million inhabitants and 54 ethnic groups, mother tongue-based bilingual education is already proving to be a highly effective strategy for improving the learning outcomes of ethnic minority children. Mother tongue bilingual education not only helps improve the quality of learning – it also helps boost multilingualism, and respect for linguistic and cultural diversity, particularly in rapidly developing societies.

With UNICEF support, the Ministry of Education and Training has successfully piloted an Action Research Initiative for mother tongue-based bilingual education (MTBBE) in three provinces of Lao Cai, Gia Lai and Tra Vinh since 2008. Experience from the pre-schools and primary schools participating in this ground breaking initiative confirms that ethnic minority children using their mother tongue as the language of instruction out perform their peers who start formal education in Vietnamese.

"The use of mother tongue during the first years of school encourages and supports learning of ethnic minority students, allowing them to stay longer in school and to improve their learning achievements including Vietnamese language or international language in the later years. Mother tongue based bilingual education is an effective way to help us leave no children behind and out of quality inclusive education. Therefore, this helps empower ethnic minority groups to integrate into society and contribute better to the nation's sustainable development", said Mr. Youssouf Abdel-Jelil, UNICEF Viet Nam's Representative.

Given the success of the programme, provincial authorities in Lao Cai, Gia Lai and An Giang provincial authorities are now expanding the approach, with other provinces committing to apply the same methodology.

Combined with a number of other mother tongue teaching initiatives, and stronger national policies and public investment to support wider application, Viet Nam now has a vital opportunity to further embrace its linguistic and cultural diversity. Mother tongue education can make a significant contribution to achieving equitable and sustainable socio-economic development.


International Mother Language Day was proclaimed by the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in November 1999.

International Mother Language Day has been observed every year since February 2000 to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. The date represents the day in 1952 when students demonstrating for recognition of their language, Bangla, as one of the two national languages of the then Pakistan, were shot and killed by police in Dhaka, the capital of what is now Bangladesh.

Languages are the most powerful instruments of preserving and developing our tangible and intangible heritage. All moves to promote the dissemination of mother tongues will serve not only to encourage linguistic diversity and multilingual education but also to develop fuller awareness of linguistic and cultural traditions throughout the world and to inspire solidarity based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue.

The Mission of the United Nations in Viet Nam

The United Nations, in partnership with the government and people of Viet Nam, works to ensure that all Vietnamese people enjoy an increasingly healthy and prosperous life with greater human dignity and expanded choices. Collectively and through its individual agencies, the United Nations cares and creates opportunities for the poor and most vulnerable, and for youth, to whom the future belongs.

In accordance with the United Nations Charter and Millennium Declaration, the United Nations advances the principles of equality and social justice, while providing impartial advice, technical expertise, access to global knowledge and local experience to meet Viet Nam's development challenges.

For further information, please contact:

  • Ms. Susan Mackay, UN Communication Manager, UN Communications Office, Viet Nam,
    Email: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. , Tel :+84 43822 4383 (ext 104), Mobile: +84 913 901 405;
  • Ms. Laura Ngo Fontaine, UNICEF Communication Specialist, UNICEF Viet Nam
    Email: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. , Tel : (84-4) 39425706, ext. 271, Mobile: (84-9) 66539673




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