“Words are not enough to express our sentiments, and to explain the value of this mother-tongue based education programme” said Mr Nguyen Dac Hoang, Vice Head of Education and Training Board in Sa Pa district, as he praised the UNICEF Representative’s strong support for the programme.
Ms Sylwander, who completes her three and a half year assignment in Viet Nam at the end of this month, was delighted to return to Lao Chai Primary School before leaving the country.
“Lao Chai is the very first school that I visited in Viet Nam, and learnt for myself what difference the bilingual programme makes. I could see in the children’s eyes how confident, curious and engaged they are by learning in their own language.”
Children in Lao Chai learn in both Mong and Vietnamese, as part of an innovative UNICEF supported mother tongue-based bilingual education programme. Each day, many of the children walk long distances to attend their lessons, high in the mist covered mountains and steeply-terraced rice fields that annually draw in thousands of tourists to Sa Pa. Yet the vast majority of Mong still live in poverty with high rates of malnutrition. Poor access to water and sanitation, health services, and education are just some of the major challenges they face.
Like many of the 53 ethnic minority groups in Viet Nam, Mong children start school at a major disadvantage. Unable to understand Vietnamese, the language of school instruction, they often fail to keep up with their learning, lose interest, and drop out long before completing primary school.
However, by teaching children in Mong in the early grades, then gradually building up confidence in Vietnamese, children in Lao Chai are typically fluent in both languages by the time they reach Grade 5. By learning in their mother tongue they can take their learning home to share with their families and communities. It is also making a vital contribution to keeping their language and culture alive.
Speaking on behalf of his classmates, 10 year old Lo A Mang expressed mixed feelings.“For us the years have passed very quickly. We are very happy for your support to learn in our own language, but at the same time very sad that you are now leaving the country.”
Ms Sylwander was obviously moved by the occasion, and made it clear that the children of Lao Chai will always have a special place in her heart. “It has been a very special gift to return and see how much, and how well the children have learnt. My dream is to return one day and see the bilingual programme extended to all ethnic minority children in Viet Nam.”
Following the visit to Sa Pa, Ms Sylwander joined several hundred children in Lao Cai City celebrating International Mother Language Day through ethnic music, drama and dance. Later in the day, as a mark of their deep gratitude, the Lao Cai People’s Committee presented Ms Sylwander with a special Certificate of Merit that made her an ‘honourary citizen’ of Lao Cai, marking the significant contribution she has made to children in the Province.
The Representative’s dream also came one step closer to becoming a reality. Provincial Party Secretary, Mr Nguyen Van Vinh, made a commitment that beyond the existing UNICEF assisted mother tongue based bilingual education programme, Lao Cai authorities will invest their own local resources so that many more ethnic minority children will enjoy mother tongue based bilingual education in future.
Background: UNICEF is working closely with the Ministry of Education and Training, Ethnic Council/National Assembly, Committee for Ethnic Minorities and other agencies to support bilingual education in four schools across three provinces, with the hope of expanding the model further.
International Mother Language Day is an observance held annually on 21 February worldwide since 2000 to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. The theme for 2014 International Mother Language Day is “Local languages for global citizenship: spotlight on science” Ms Sylwander will take up her new position as UNICEF Representative to the Philippines in early March.
by Susan Mackay