Saturday, June 16, 2012

Bilingual education offers hope of a better future

Lô Thị Ghenh listens to her teacher at Lao Chai Primary School
UNICEF/2011/Viet Nam/Tattersall
Seven-year-old Lô Thị Ghenh eagerly listens to her teacher at Lao Chai Primary School, in Sa Pa district in northern Vietnam. She is all the more attentive as she is learning in her mother tongue, Mong, as part of a mother tongue-based bilingual education model, supported by UNICEF.

Here, among the cascading rice paddies and misty mountains, 85 per cent of the Mong people live below the poverty line. The quality of education is poor and malnutrition is high. Access to adequate water and sanitation, to health services, and to education are some of the major issues confronting this community.

The Mong are just one of 53 ethnic groups in Viet Nam who are falling behind the majority Kinh population. Yet UNICEF is working with the Ministry of Education and Training to support bilingual education in 15 schools across three provinces (in the north, centre, and south of the country), with the hope of expanding the model further. Lô Thị Ghenh, in grade two, is part of the first cohort of students who started learning in her mother tongue from preschool. Her teacher, M. Chau A Tau, is seeing important gains for ethnic minority children through the bilingual approach.

Fostering Motivation and Participation
“The situation for children is much better than before,” says M. Chau A Tau. “They are more confident, more enthusiastic and willing to speak out. Having taught in the Mong language for two years, I have noticed that, as well as their skills improving at school, they have been able to bring their knowledge back to their homes. They continue to communicate and share experiences with their families and their community.”

Vietnamese schools typically teach students in the Vietnamese language, presenting acute language barriers for children from ethnic minorities, who speak only their mother tongues at home. They cannot fully engage with the learning, soon lose interest, and often drop out of school. It is a situation in stark contrast with the rest of the country, where there have been impressive strides for children, especially in terms of access to quality education.

Ly Thi Hoa teaches mathematics to grade one students at Lao Chai Primary School
UNICEF/2011/Viet Nam/Tattersall

In another classroom, Ms. Ly Thi Hoa is teaching mathematics to grade one students. Ms. Hoa, who wears a traditional and intricate Mong dress, has the attention and admiration of her students as she teaches them basic sums and then asks them to work on their own. Today, she is seeing a marked improvement in the children’s level of engagement. They are relaxed and confident as they read out their answers. “My students now have a much better understanding of school work. I have also seen my relationship with them improve a lot,” she says. This class is part of the second cohort of students at Lao Chai Primary School who have been taught in their native tongue since preschool.

Ms. Hoa has the attention and admiration of her young students
UNICEF/2010/Viet Nam/Tattersall

“Mother tongue-based bilingual education has been proven internationally to support ethnic minority education,” says Mitsue Uemura, UNICEF Viet Nam’s Education Programme Chief. “Engaging ethnic minority students in learning in their first language results in increased access and equity, improved learning outcomes, reduced repetition and dropout rates, sociocultural benefits, and lower overall costs.” The use of local languages also ensures that the knowledge children bring to school is used as a basis for further learning, thus overcoming existing and growing disparities in Viet Nam.

In 2011 and 2012, UNICEF will engage in discussions with Viet Nam’s decision makers to promote scaling-up the approach in provinces where the bilingual education programme has been implemented, so as to cover more classrooms and schools. Indeed, in Lao Cai the number of preschool classrooms where the model is applied has already increased from five classes to twelve for the 2010–2011 school year.

by Martha Tattersall

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