Multilingualism and technology in education

FEBRUARY 21 has been celebrated worldwide as International Mother Language Day since 1999. The declaration was made by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to maintain linguistic diversity for the good of a sustainable world. The day takes root on February 21, 1952. The people of Bangladesh sacrificed their lives on this day for the right of their mother tongue, Bengali, as the state language, making it the only nation in the story to do.

It has been a tradition that UNESCO observes International Mother Language Day on February 21 every year based on a particular theme since 1999. Considering the reality of the Covid pandemic and reflecting on technologies and their potential To support multilingual teaching and learning, the theme for International Mother Language Day Language Day 2022 is: “Using Technology for Multilingual Learning: Challenges and Opportunities”.

Education has become ubiquitous thanks to information and communication technology, or ICT. Therefore, language learning is no exception. Based on ICT, there are heaps of learning apps that make learning easy at your fingertips. When it comes to technology in education, it has significant potential to address some of the complex challenges in education today. It would not be possible to meet such challenges without technology. Judicious use of technology in education can accelerate efforts to ensure equitable and inclusive learning opportunities throughout life. However, it should be guided by the fundamental principles of inclusive education to ensure equity in learning.

Unfortunately, the Covid pandemic has put us at risk in maintaining equity in education. During the long Covid pandemic, due to the closure of educational institutions around the world, many countries have used technological solutions to maintain the continuity of learning. A recent survey by UNESCO, UNICEF, the World Bank and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development of the national responses of 143 countries to school closures due to Covid-19 showed that 96 % of high-income countries offered distance education through online platforms for at least one level of education, compared to only 58% of low-income countries.

In the context of low-income countries, the majority of countries reported using audiovisual media such as television — 83% — and radio — 85% — to support continuity of learning. In Bangladesh, according to a number of research reports, only 27% of the total secondary school students could connect to online classes. In 2020, according to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, only 5.6% of households had a computer at home and only 37.6% of households had internet access at home. Students in low and lower-middle income groups have been hardest hit during the pandemic. The pandemic has harshly exposed the digital divide in society that was not visible in “normal” times.

In addition, teachers and learners were not prepared for the shift from face-to-face mode to online mode. They therefore lacked the skills and preparation to use digital devices for distance teaching and learning. Many learners lacked the necessary equipment, internet access, accessible materials, adapted content and support that would have enabled them to take distance learning. Moreover, distance education, learning tools, programs and content were not and still are not able to reflect linguistic diversity.

Appropriate policies are what prepare a community or country to embrace linguistic diversity in education to make it inclusive for all. One of the key elements of inclusive education is to introduce multilingual education based on the mother tongue of the country concerned. Multilingual education has grown significantly over the past 10 to 15 years. Multilingual education generally refers to education ‘in the first language’, ie schooling that begins in the mother tongue and moves on to other languages. Several studies suggest that multilingualism has a strong influence on children’s cognitive skills and helps them perform better than children who speak only one language and, therefore, have a limited vocabulary and poor academic performance in the language. together. Multilingual education offers monolingual students the opportunity to learn a second language and become polyglots.

A large body of research now shows that multilingualism helps people develop various cognitive and sociolinguistic skills throughout their lives. Multilingual children develop an understanding of grammatical rules and structures earlier than monolingual children. Besides language-related skills, learning to speak two or more languages ​​helps people develop other cognitive skills, such as attention, inhibition, confidence, and faster auditory and visual processing.

We now live in a multilingual world where the English language serves as the lingua franca for education, commerce and employment. Having proficiency in English is considered an essential skill for anyone wishing to succeed both academically and professionally in the 21st century. The reality of a multilingual context leads to a multicultural society where languages ​​overlap and collide.

Many scholars argue that the unbridled and unprecedented influence of English as the lingua franca is endangering indigenous languages ​​in many countries. However, a well-managed language policy can help ensure that English can be taught effectively and integrated into a society without undermining the native language, culture and identity of English learners.

However, in addition to facilitating the development of English skills, maintaining one’s native language skills is equally essential to maintaining the ability to maintain communications and relationships with one’s family and community. Multilingual education can help English-speaking learners learn the English language while retaining their first-language skills and maintaining their connection to family and community.

Other neurological benefits are also available to multilinguals throughout their lives. For example, multilingual people observe their environment better. They can easily spot anything unusual or misleading. They are also better than their monolingual peers at identifying misleading information, which is considered a fundamental skill in today’s era of data science. Some research also indicates that older adults can slow the onset of Alzheimer’s disease symptoms better than their monolingual counterparts by developing the necessary cognitive skills using multilingual learning from an early age.

Therefore, to help develop both academic skills and life skills, a country’s ideal educational framework should provide a diverse language repertoire and an understanding of which languages ​​people should learn for what purpose. This suggests a language policy that improves the quality of curriculum, teaching and learning in national education, as well as a policy that helps position the roles of multiple languages ​​in a more positive context. Furthermore, as we live in the era of information and communication technologies, a multilingual education policy must be underpinned by the integration of digital technology.

In today’s world, communities tend to be both multilingual and multicultural for various reasons. Recognizing this fact, all Member States of the United Nations observe and uphold the spirit of the Bangladesh language movement around the world in the name of unity in linguistic diversity and cultural integrity.

SM Akramul Kabir is a researcher in language education policy and an assistant professor of English at the Directorate of Secondary and Higher Education.

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