Displaced children need education support in a language they understand

Lessons learned from mother tongue-based multilingual education can lead the way.

August 17, 2020 by Kirk R. Person, Ph.D., SIL International
4 minutes read
Students are playing hopscotch at Peam Ror School in Peam Koh village. Peam Ror District. Svay Rieng Province. Cambodia, 2018
Students are playing hopscotch at Peam Ror School in Peam Koh village. Peam Ror District. Svay Rieng Province. Cambodia, 2018.
Credit: Photo credit: UNICEF/UN0235536/Fani Llaurado


The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated the need for pedagogically sound, locally sustainable practices that keep young minds growing.

This is particularly important for displaced children, whether they are refugees, migrants or internally displaced. Indeed, the number of school-aged migrant and refugee children worldwide has grown by 26% since 2000 (UNESCO 2018).

Often missing from the refugee and migrant education dialogue is discussion of the language of education. In the midst of a crisis, there is a tendency to reach for whatever learning resources are most readily available.

Paying attention to the language of instruction

Many refugees spending 10 to 15 years in camps or non-formal settings prior to repatriation or resettlement (World Bank 2016). More attention thus needs to be given to enhancing the effectiveness of displaced children’s learning, to ensure that their formative years are not wasted.

Many of today’s displaced children come from linguistic minority groups in their country of origin. Thus, whatever education they may receive while “on the move” is rarely delivered in their first or home language. This is true of children studying in refugee camp schools, non-formal migrant learning centers, or national schools in a host country.

Since 2004, the Asia-Pacific Multilingual Education Working Group (MLE-WG) — a coalition of United Nations agencies and major international development organizations—has sought to remove barriers and promote inclusive quality education for ethnic minority and indigenous children who enter school without understanding the dominant school language.

Recently, the MLE-WG has become increasingly concerned about displaced children, recognizing that the same well-researched, mother tongue-based education approaches we champion apply to refugee and migrant children.

A new report to highlight key findings for Asia-Pacific

The MLE-WG thus commissioned a regional situation survey, bringing attention to both gaps and good practices. Approaches to Language in Education for Migrants and Refugees in the Asia-Pacific Region was released last June to mark World Refugee Day.

Key findings of the report include:

  • Asia-Pacific hosts the largest number of refugee and displaced people in the world, and is the birthplace of nearly half of all international migrants. The region is also home to half of the world’s 7000+ languages
  • The unique language-in-education needs of displaced children in Asia-Pacific are little understood; more research is urgently needed
  • Language-of-instruction issues impact millions of refugee and migrant children, contributing to low academic achievement and high drop-out rates
  • Integrating displaced children’s language and culture into the classroom brings social-emotional and cognitive benefits.
Mother tongue-based multilingual education

The report also highlights good practices from Asia, Africa and Oceania that can inform education programming decisions, including:

  • Mother tongue-based multilingual education materials developed for ethnic minority children in Thailand, which have been adapted for non-formal migrant learning centers serving the children of migrant laborers from Myanmar (roughly 50% of whom are out of school)
  • The Language, Education and Social Cohesion (LESC) initiative in Myanmar, which facilitated discussions between linguistic minority communities and local government education officials in post-conflict zones, where inclusion of ethnic minority mother tongues in government schools and recognition of existing private ethnic education systems was perceived as a confidence-building measure supporting the peace process
  • Australia’s Victorian School of Languages, which engages community members and schools to provide mother tongue learning support to migrant children in more than 40 languages in Melbourne and surrounding cities
  • A study of English language teaching in Afghanistan, which modeled rigorous educational data collection in collaboration with multiple stakeholders under extremely difficult circumstances against the backdrop of resettlement concerns including government recognition of refugee camp education
  • Refugee camps in Chad, where Massalit language materials and mother-tongue teaching proved more effective than French or Arabic-based approaches for developing basic literacy skills; these have since been used outside the camps by Massalit communities in Chad and Sudan, as well as the Massalit diaspora in North America
  • The use of translanguaging (utilizing all the child’s languages as learning resources) and other culturally-sustaining teaching practices in linguistically diverse classrooms.

More research and resources

This report is not alone in focusing attention on the benefits of integrating displaced children’s language and culture into the classroom. Recent publications from the British Council, UNESCO, the Salzburg Global Seminar, and the MLE-WG draw similar conclusions.

UNESCO’s Bangkok Statement on Language and Inclusion, endorsed by 16 Asia-Pacific countries with more in the pipeline, links displaced and otherwise minoritized children’s language-in-education issues to SDG 4 tracking.

Such an open-minded outlook stands to benefit both displaced and host country children, as they learn to live together and thrive in our incredibly diverse, deeply challenged 21st century world.

The Asia-Pacific Multilingual Education Working Group contributed to this blog.

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Every education should mainly focus on a common language. so that students have no problem to understand.

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