International Mother Language Day 2023: How an education module in tribal dialects became a game changer in Odisha

An experiment in mother language based education for children from the Kolha tribe showed how developing text books and primers in tribal languages and recruiting teachers from the tribal community can transform the experience of learning

By Trina Chakrabarti
Published: Tuesday 21 February 2023
A morning class attended by children of the Mahali tribe. Photo: CRY__

Five-year-old Birsa and seven-year-old Salman live in a remote tribal village in Kaptipada block, Mayurbhanj district, Odisha. They are from the Kolha community. Birsa never got admitted to school and Salman dropped out in Class 1. Reason: they could not follow and understand the language in which lessons were being taught in class.

Birsa and Salman are not alone in their woes. According to UNESCO estimates, 40 per cent of the world’s population does not have access to education in a language they speak or understand. There are about 7,000 languages spoken around the world today. But linguistic diversity is increasingly being threatened as more and more languages disappear at an alarming rate. 

UNESCO advocates multilingual education (MLE) based on the mother tongue from the earliest years of schooling. Research shows that education in the mother tongue is a key factor for inclusion and quality learning and it also improves learning outcomes and academic performance. This is crucial, especially in primary schools, to avoid knowledge gaps and increase the speed of learning and comprehension. And most importantly, multilingual education fosters mutual understanding and respect for one another and helps preserve cultural diversity and traditional heritage embedded in every language around the world. 

In India, education for large swathes of the tribal population has been greatly hindered by the lack of mother-language teaching. Tribal groups speak their own language and not the mainstream language of the particular state, in which the books and classroom teaching takes place. 

To address this issue, multi-lingual education has been attempted in states such as Odisha, where Birsa and Salman live, with employment of trained teachers to teach in tribe-specific languages in class, gradually integrating into the state language. A few civil society organisations have set up alternative schools for tribal children, which use innovative teaching learning materials, experimental learning and local object references and specific tribal languages in classroom lessons.  

Ray of Hope

Sikshasandhan, a grass roots level organisation partnered with CRY – Child Rights and You, currently works towards implementation of MLE for tribal children in Mayurbhanj. Established as a Resource Centre for education in 1995, the organisation opened a series of alternative education centres during 1999-2001. 

Sikshasandhan developed educational learning materials in tribal languages (Soura, Desiya and Juang) during the initial years and started mother-tongue based schooling for children from the Kolha tribe in a block in Mayurbhanj in 2011. Around the same time, the Government of Odisha was trying to start local language teaching in other parts of the state, in other tribal languages. Sikshasandhan developed the primer for grade One in the Ho language for this purpose. In fact, a new primer was made first in Odia and then adapted to the tribal language, Ho. A person from the Kolha community, working as a school teacher, helped in this process of adaptation.

While working on this initiative, Sikshasandhan realised the importance of having teachers or language assistants from the community. With funding that they received for the purpose, the organisation engaged teachers or teaching assistants to help with the tribal language in a set of schools. The district collector of Mayurbhanj extended the programme to 176 other schools in the district. This initiative was subsumed when the state government scaled up the MLE in 2014 to cover other districts and other tribal groups. 

Sikshasandhan has trained 3,500 MLE teachers who now reach out to more than 5,000 tribal children. It has also coached / mentored the teachers and helped them to crack the government test to becoming regular teachers. It runs a residential Bridge course for 100 girls from the tribal community. These girls, between 11 and 14 years of age, have never been enrolled in schools or have dropped out early. The course enables them to complete schooling till grade V with a compact and accelerated curriculum for one year in their local language. On successful completion of grade V, it is ensured that their transition to middle and secondary schools is smooth.

Sikshasandhan also publishes books and magazines in Odia and tribal languages. SIKSHA, a bi-monthly magazine in Odia, deals with articles on elementary education. RANSA, a quarterly bi-lingual children’s magazine, is replete with folk stories, songs, riddles, village histories, paintings and the experiences of children.

Ground Impact

The initiatives have benefited tribal children immensely. Earlier, the language of communication used to be Odia. The tribal children could not understand and follow the lessons and eventually dropped out. The parents too did not show much interest, as they could not communicate with the teachers. But now, with the teachers hailing from the local community and teaching in the local language, communication flow is smooth. Children are enjoying their lessons, learning new things and staying back in school. Birsa and Salman are among them. Both of them are in school, books in their hands and dreams in their eyes.

An Odisha state government order stipulates that any school with a student count less than 50 will be merged with a nearby school having more students. This would make a huge number of students from a particular village travel long distances to attend school, increasing the risk of drop-outs. But with MLE in place all nine schools in Sikshasandhan’s intervention area, they are still happily operational.  

With school enrolment and retention showing a positive trend, child migration and child labour in the region are on the wane. Parents think twice before engaging their children in collecting leaves and making plates, the primary source of livelihood in the region. Sending them away to other states for work has also stopped completely. More importantly, recruitment of multilingual education teachers from the local community has boosted employment in the area, bringing down the rate of labour outflow. 

There was a time when kids from tribal communities would complete primary education and drop out. With MLE in place, more and more of them are moving on to secondary and higher secondary education, boosted by a slow integration to the state language books through the MLE system. Many students travel to Bhubaneswar and Cuttack to pursue higher education and get good opportunities. Back in their village, they become role models for parents who want the same for their children. 

Looking ahead

February 21 is International Mother Language Day, established by UNESCO’s General Conference in 1999. The day is an essential platform to promote the importance of cultural and linguistic diversity and multilingualism for sustainable societies. When children are taught in languages they do not speak at home, this hinders their acquisition of critically important early literacy and numeracy skills, with a detrimental effect on their learning in general and, indeed, their opportunities in life. It is for governments, civil society organisations and all concerned stakeholders to ensure that all learners can savour and enjoy their right to education in their mother language.

Trina Chakrabarti is Regional Director, CRY – Child Rights and You (East)

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth 

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