By Ms Ruth Tabuniar, Learning and Development Specialist, National Teachers College
The Asia Pacific Multilingual Working Group, composed of the British Council and other international non-governmental organisations, led the 13th Language and Development Conference last 24–26 September at the Amari Watergate in Bangkok, Thailand. The conference, dubbed as The Inclusion, Mobility and Multilingual Education Conference: Exploring the Role of Languages for Education and Development, was attended by over 400 international participants with over 100 presentations in parallel and plenary sessions.
The opening discussions on the role of language set the tone for the sessions which covered various perspectives of what might initially look like a conflict between a dominant language as English and mother tongue. While some of the sessions argued for lobbying re-integrating mother tongue instruction back into schools, a greater discussion on multilingual education brokered a neutral view and highlighted the acceptance of English and other dominant languages as not necessarily inimical. It was raised that multilingual education is the way to go in terms of keeping a good balance between and among realities of identity preservation, meaningful learning, and development. The Thai experience of pushing students to study two languages offered a strong case study of this balancing act.
The Philippine experience on Mother Tongue Based Multilingual Education (MTB-MLE) was highly admired by participants and is seen as a great success, given its translation into a national policy. Dr Isabel Pefianco-Martin of the Ateneo de Manila University clarified several misconceptions on MTB-MLE; foremost of which is the need for more meaningful understanding of the policy from top to bottom, so it may be leveraged with reasonable interpretation and adjustment when implemented on the ground. Furthermore, she added that the direction the country is taking pursuant to the policy, among others, is mainly materials and resource development to help teachers. Moreover, teacher training remains to be an area of opportunity.
Nothing short of apt was one of the closing presentations delivered by Katheleen Heugh, an Associate Professor in Applied Linguistics at the University of South Australia and who has served as a policy advisor to several governments and nonprofit agencies in Africa, Asia and Europe. She stated that students and teachers must be encouraged to bring their own ‘multilingualness’ inside the classroom in order to be truly inclusive, as meaningful learning requires expression of one's experience, local knowledge, and identity. Moreover, a multilingual classroom requires a teacher to be good at English. Preventing students from speaking their own language is a violation of their rights.