Focus on Policy: Language and Inclusion, Lao, PDR
In Lao PDR children are instructed in the official language, Lao, from the beginning of primary school. Yet 43 per cent of school children are learning to speak, read and write Lao as a second language. These learners are at an enormous disadvantage and often have significant linguistic difficulties – contributing to learning breakdown. Low expectations, discrimination, and a lack of role models and cultural peers mean that children who do not speak Lao as their first language are more likely to drop out of school. Anupam Ahuja demonstrates the link between linguistic exclusion and school failure, and describes the Lao Government’s strategy to address this issue.
In order to promote Lao as the national language, the education policy requires that it be used as the medium of instruction in schools. This is problematic as there are 82 officially recognised languages in Lao PDR and many different dialects. All are living languages, but not all have scripts.
Although the law states that minority languages can be used for teaching, in reality the Lao language is used. Mother-tongue teaching is difficult, as it is not clear which language(s) should be used.
Statistics show that non-Lao speaking children frequently experience early learning failure. This is partly responsible for the high drop-out and repetition rates, especially in primary grades one and two. This proves costly to the Ministry of Education, as high repetition rates mean the per-capita costs of education are also high. The socio-economic development of the country is suffering and the rights of minority peoples are being overlooked. Effective interventions to minimise the inherent problems of this policy need to be developed.
Language difficulties are intensified by traditional teaching methods. Most teachers have a limited understanding of how children develop language and literacy, and of how to plan useful language activities. The curriculum and textbooks focus on mainstream culture and language. Changes are taking place, however, and a more welcoming and diversity-responsive system is being developed.
The Ministry of Education is taking appropriate measures to minimise the negative effects of the policy, and to consolidate and improve the national language. Teachers are:
- being prepared to use suitable methodologies to teach Lao
- being equipped to bring language to life by arranging classroom interactions so that children talk, read and write about things familiar to them
- encouraged to use a variety of teaching and learning aids (eg, pictures, visual aids and body language) to give meaning to the language used
- given training in active learning methods and activities, which allow children to link what they see and hear with what they experience – essential for language development
- learning that small group work is an integral part of active learning.
“She is shy because of her hare lip and seems to have difficulty in learning”, insisted the four pre-school teachers. “Vieng speaks Hmong at home. She does not know much Lao. She is shy to go outside – it’s the hare lip”, Vieng’s mother told me.
When I asked if anyone could speak Hmong, two girls and a boy came forward. I asked them to help me teach the class how to count in Hmong. We said the numbers in Lao and in Hmong. I looked over to Vieng. Suddenly she sat up and joined in – she blossomed like a lotus bud in a muddy pond.
On the way out, I spoke to her teachers about encouraging the children to teach each other some words and songs in Lao, Hmong and Khmu. “Do you think Vieng is mentally disabled?” one teacher asked me. I switched instantly from Lao into Hindi and babbled on for about a minute. They didn’t understand me. “You are speaking a foreign language to her” I said.
“Can you encourage the Hmong children to help everyone learn some Hmong words?” I asked the head teacher. She agreed, but gave me a hesitant look. She would be breaking the regulations.
Dr Anupam Ahuja is a freelance consultant with over 20 years of experience in the field of education and a focus on developing inclusive practices. She has worked at national and international levels in Africa and Asia and can be contacted at:
A-59 Malviya Nagar
New Delhi – 10 017
Tel: +91 11 26681303
Fax: +91 11 24362798