What do we mean by multilingual education (MLE)?
For language education to be classified as multilingual there must be more than two languages being used as languages of instruction. That is, at least three languages must be used for content-based instruction, not just taught as subjects, i.e., as second or foreign languages. Frequently, however, MLE is also used to refer to mother tongue-based multilingual education (MTB-MLE), a term that is slightly more complex to define.
Mother tongues and mother tongue-based multilingual education (MTB-MLE)
The term mother tongue is used to describe the language(s) an individual speaks in the home and/or community. The term is problematic because many multilinguals may consider several languages to be their mother tongues, particularly in the ethnolinguistically diverse countries of the global South. The United Nations defines a mother tongue or first language (L1) as the language one has (a) learned first; (b) identifies with or is identified by others; (c) knows best; and (d) uses most (UNESCO 2003). A useful definition for educational purposes is that it is a language one speaks and understands well enough to absorb curriculum content at the right age level (Kosonen & Young 2009). This definition allows for the fact that while children may use one language at home, they may also speak another community language well enough to understand it at school.
Increasing evidence from countries of the global South shows that MTB-MLE programs improve educational participation and outcomes. The strongest forms of MTB-MLE show the best results. Strong MTB-MLE programs maintain L1s throughout the primary years. For instance, studies in Ethiopia and the Philippines provide strong evidence that maintaining L1s in the curriculum for as long as possible improves literacy and numeracy outcomes. In its MTB-MLE policy guidelines Timor-Leste can boast some of the most ambitious proposals in Southeast Asia to date to guide education policy development and this is what makes it worthy of special attention from those interested in effective education for children from diverse language backgrounds. For further information on the MTB-MLE policy for Timor-Leste, see Taylor-Leech, 2012.
Kosonen, K. & Young, C. (2009). Mother Tongue as a Bridge Language of Instruction: Policies and Experiences in Southeast Asia. Bangkok: SEAMEO.
Taylor-Leech, K. (2012). Timor-Leste: Multilingual education for all? Ellipsis, 10, 79-96.
UNESCO (2003). Position paper: Education in a Multilingual World. Paris: UNESCO, Paris.