Multilingual Focus for UN Literacy Day

“about 40% of the world’s population does not have access to education in a language they speak or understand” Audrey Azoulay, director-general of UNESCO

The focus of this month’s International Literacy Day was Literacy and Multilingualism, to tie in with the UN’s 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages and the 25th anniversary of the World Conference on Special Needs education, at which the Salamanca Statement on inclusive education was adopted.
To mark the occasion, the main
characteristics of multilingualism in today’s globalized and digitalized world were
discussed, together with their implications for literacy in policies and
practice in order to achieve greater inclusion in multilingual contexts.
According to UNESCO, despite progress made, literacy
challenges persist, distributed unevenly across countries and populations.
Embracing linguistic diversity in education and literacy development is central
to addressing these literacy challenges and to achieving the UN’s Sustainable
Development Goals.
Azoulay, director-general of UNESCO, released the following statement:
“Our world is rich
and diverse
with about 7,000 living languages. These languages
are instruments for communication,
engagement in lifelong learning, and participation in society and the world of work. They are also
closely linked with distinctive identities, cultures, worldviews, and knowledge systems.
Embracing linguistic diversity
in education and literacy development
is therefore a key part of developing
inclusive societies that respect “diversity” and “difference”, upholding human dignity.
“Today, multilingualism—the use of
more than one language in daily
life—has become much more common with greater human mobility and the growing ubiquity of multimodal and instantaneous communication. Its shape has also evolved with globalization and
digitalization. While the use of certain languages has expanded for cross-country and community dialogue, numerous
minority and indigenous languages have been endangered. These trends have implications
for literacy development.
“While different aspects of
policies and practice interact for
the promotion of literacy, building a
solid literacy base in a mother
language, before moving to a second or foreign language, has multiple benefits. However, about
40% of the world’s population does not have access to education
in a language they speak or understand. We need to change
this by making policies and practice
more linguistically and culturally relevant, enriching multilingual literate environments and exploring
the potential of digital technology. For more than seven decades, UNESCO has
supported mother language-based, multilingual approaches to
education as a means to enhance education quality
and intercultural understandings.
Nelson Mandela once said: “if you talk
to a man in a language he
understands, that goes to his head.
If you talk to him in his
language that goes to his heart.” Engaging
with both head and mind is a key
for effective learning.
“This year is the International Year of Indigenous languages; it also marks the 25th anniversary of the World Conference on Special Needs Education, where the Salamanca Statement on Inclusive Education was adopted. In solidarity with these special occasions, and, on the occasion of International Literacy Day 2019, UNESCO invites you to rethink literacy in our contemporary multilingual world as part of the right to education and a means to create more inclusive and linguistically and culturally diverse societies.”
Literacy Day is an opportunity to highlight improvements in world literacy
rates and reflect on the world’s remaining literacy challenges. The issue of
literacy is a key component of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
The UN’s
Sustainable Development Goals, adopted by world leaders in September 2015,
promote universal access to quality education and learning opportunities
throughout people’s lives. Sustainable Development Goal 4 has as one of its
targets ensuring all young people achieve literacy and numeracy and that adults
who lack these skills are given the opportunity to acquire them.


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