In our increasingly multilingual classrooms, digital technology potentially offers infinite opportunities for language-friendly learning. Teachers don’t need to know all the languages their students speak, and still offer their students the opportunity to utilize their full linguistic repertoire to support their learning.

But when Dr. Emmanuelle Le Pichon-Vorstman (University of Toronto and co-founder of the Language Friendly School) conducted a study on the effects of a multilingual web-based platform for learning mathematics, she realized there are challenges. Why are teachers not making more use of digital technology to facilitate language-friendly learning? According to Dr. Le Pichon it is not because students with lower socio-economic backgrounds don’t have access to computers or internet. The main challenges lie elsewhere.

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sad child in doorway

“Miranda Washinawatok, 12 years old, was harshly reprimanded by a teacher for using her native language at school. She had translated the words ‘hello’, ‘I love you’, and ‘thank you’ when talking to two girls in class. The teacher ‘slammed her hands on the desk and stated: ‘You are not to speak like that. How do I know you’re not saying something bad? How would you like if I spoke in Polish and you didn’t understand?’”*

Everyday, all around the world, children who speak their home language at school, risk being reprimanded, punished or even expelled from school. In a new article on Language-Based Discrimination in schools published by the Global Campus Human Rights Journal, Deena Hurwitz (human rights consultant) and Ellen-Rose Kambel (director Rutu Foundation), address the issue from a human rights perspective. Language-based discrimination in education has a long history. It is deeply rooted in colonialism and nation building on the basis of notions of class and racial superiority. This continues today, but remains unrecognised as a human rights problem.

The right of students (and their parents) not to be discriminated against for using their mother tongue on school grounds

“This [article] is not about the right to be educated in and through one’s mother tongue, but about the right of students (and their parents) not to be discriminated against, excluded, restricted or punished for using their mother tongue on school grounds, including in the classroom. While the former problem has caught the attention of children’s rights advocates, the latter has been rather neglected. An overview of examples of such practices found in different sources and covering various parts of the world is given to show that it is widespread and damaging to the children’s development. The human rights implications of such practice are considered by referring to the international instruments in force regarding children’s rights in education, with a focus on the European context and its relevant framework.” (Chiara Altafin, Editorial of the special focus on children’s rights).

The Language Friendly School initiative: welcoming all languages

The Language Friendly School, a global network and school label, was developed by the Rutu Foundation as a way to tackle language-based discrimination in education. The whole-school approach can be applied to all types of schools, regardless of their geographic location, pedagogic strategy, (religious) affiliation, or status as a public or private school.

While harmful language-based discrimination takes place at school, addressing children’s rights cannot be left only to schools. Governments need to fulfil their international human rights obligations, and human rights advocates need to hold them accountable.

Have you experienced language-based discrimination in school?

If you, your child or anyone else you know have experienced language discrimination in school, we would like to hear from you and encourage you to fill out this survey. The purpose of the survey is to supplement the lack of data and compile case studies to help us eliminate language-based exclusion and punishment in schools.


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* The image used (photo by rubberduck1951–3713510) has no relation to the story about Miranda Washinawatok.

A new report issued by the UN Special Rapporteur on racism and xenophobia calls on the Dutch government to end racism and discrimination in education. The report is based on widespread consultations with government officials and various groups in society.

Examples of racism and discrimination in education mentioned in the report are the higher drop-out rates among racial minorities compared to ethnic Netherlanders. Also, students with a Turkish, Moroccan, Surinamese or Antillean background disproportionally enter secondary education at lower levels (referring to the 2018 Annual Report of the Central Bureau of Statistics).

The Special Rapporteur recommends among others, that the Dutch government: Continue Reading