Implementing bilingual education for minorities: Lessons from Ecuador and Germany
Policies to guarantee education in the mother tongue of minorities are put in place around the world. Ecuador and Germany have bilingual schools that use Kichwa and Sorbian, respectively, as languages of instruction. This achievement comes with everyday challenges of implementation that show the need for holistic planning.
Have you ever imagined starting school in a language you do not know? According to Article 4 of the Declaration on the Rights of Persons belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic minorities, it is the states’ responsibility to provide “opportunities […] to have instruction in their mother tongue.”[i] Thereby, governments aim to guarantee the preservation of linguistic diversity and the quality of learning for minority language speakers. In Ecuador, Germany and around the world, this has translated into the implementation of bilingual educational policies, with differing levels of success.[ii] It is worth analysing the obstacles these systems face, especially in terms of key features of teacher training that improved, as well as what new bilingual education policies need to overcome.
History of Kichwa yachachikuy
The first article of the Ecuadorian Constitution states that the country is multicultural. Official data from the national census shows that the indigenous population comprises approximately one million people from 14 different indigenous nationalities (see Map 1). From these groups, Kichwa is the largest nationality, with almost half of the total indigenous population, spreading across the highlands and smaller communities in the Amazon region.[iii]
In the Ecuadorian Constitution of 1984, Kichwa was officially recognised as the language of education for regions where a majority of the population speaks it at home.[iv] Furthermore, the Bilingual Intercultural System of Education (SEIB), which is part of the National System of Education, allows indigenous people to learn in their language and in accordance with their cultural views, while promoting Spanish as a language for intercultural communication.[v] [vi] At the beginning stages of formal education in the SEIB, students and teachers use only Kichwa; later, in high school 40% of classes take place in Kichwa and 40% in Spanish, with the final 20% taking place in a foreign language.[vii]
Schools of the SEIB are built in regions with a large indigenous population. The government integrates small rural community schools with Spanish-speaking schools to create larger institutions with better services. In 2017, 146 thousand students with different backgrounds were assigned to intercultural schools based on the proximity of their homes to the institutions. The curriculum they follow covers the main subjects of the National System and adds specific cultural knowledge as well as language lessons.[viii]
History of Sorbian kubłanje
Upper and Lower Sorbian are recognised minority languages in Germany.[ix] Nowadays, only about half of the approximately 60,000 Sorbs living in Upper and Lower Lusatia (Saxony/ Brandenburg) are considered active speakers of the endangered Sorbian languages (see Map 2).[x] Federal and international policies protect Sorbian minority rights, such as the preservation of their culture and language. However, the government’s’ policy of ‘economic rationalism’ keeps those aforementioned rights “a blueprint for an idealistic situation,” as outlined by Ted Cichon.[xi]The closure of two Sorbian high schools in Crostwitz and Panschwitz-Kuckau due to insufficient demand exemplifies this. In Crostwitz, the Saxon State Ministry of Education and Cultural Affairs (SMK) closed a school because three of the 20 required enrolments were missing. Although citizens protested and pursued legal actions to claim exceptions granted by policies that protect the Sorb’s rights, the decision was not changed.[xii] In contrast, the Witaj Center for Language and the Sorbian School Association, two institutions with overlapping responsibilities, prevail notwithstanding expert’s critique of dual administrative structures.[xiii]
Whereas Brandenburg has no standardised bilingual educational model, the SMK has implemented the ‘2plus Concept’ for bilingual schools since 2013. In the framework of this project, students learn in German and Sorbian and acquire additional foreign languages (for example, English). Specifically, Sorbian serves as the language of instruction in three bilingually-taught subjects during primary school and five during high school.[xiv] The concept’s underlying idea is to form heterogeneous classes, which are only separated into skill-based subgroups for Sorbian language lessons. The idea builds on the successful Witaj-kindergarten model that provides Sorbian immersive environments for children from all linguistic backgrounds in Lusatia.
In contrast to Ecuador, where Kichwa is mainly used at home,[xv] the services of infant immersion in Sorbian language are important because the generational transmission of the language in Sorbian households, while still frequent in Upper Lusatia, happens only in singular cases in Lower Lusatia.[xvi] This difference can be attributed to historical processes; the Sorbian community suffered from religious and linguistic persecution, especially during the 19th and 20th centuries. The confessional differences are associated with less frequent inheritance of Sorbian in households across the Protestant region of Brandenburg, in comparison to their Catholic counterparts in Saxony.[xvii]The use of Sorbian continues to decrease, but negative perceptions of these communities started to turn with the recognition of Sorbian rights in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and, particularly, with the German Unification.
Currently, the only explicit statement of the Sorbian communities’ rights is found at the federal level in the constitutions of Saxony and Brandenburg, with no mention at the national level. On the contrary, the Kichwa community has national recognition partly due to the size of the population. Although the amount of indigenous people in Ecuador has determined their inclusion in politics through social mobilisation,[xviii] it also represents a challenge in the regulation of intercultural education and the different languages. In Ecuador, the institutionalisation of indigenous languages, including Kichwa, is still in progress. This process comes with imminent standardisation that erases differences in the language spoken in different regions. For example, Kichwa people in the Amazon region encounter a strange language in bilingual institutions because the words and expressions are not the same as the ones used in their home communities.[xix] Despite the longer history of two institutionalised variations of the Sorbian language, standardisation is still a source of tension in the Sorbian community.[xx] As was briefly described above, bilingual education in Ecuador and Germany is complex in different ways due to the countries’ distinctive features. However, the existence of minorities in these countries and their aim at providing appropriate education is a common concern that is exacerbated by the existence of various minority groups in both.
Qualified teachers are key – and missing!
To achieve proper bilingual education, schools depend on skilled professionals who master the language of instruction and adequate teaching methodologies. The obstacles in Germany and Ecuador begin with recruitment. Approximately 100 Sorbian-speaking teachers will retire in Lusatia by 2025; meanwhile, the number of people enrolled in the official Sorbian teacher training numbered approximately 20 in the past couple of years and is decreasing.[xxi] This exacerbates the fact that 30% of the currently employed teachers are not qualified to teach in Sorbian.[xxii] As for Ecuador, 60% of teachers in the bilingual system are Mestizo and often do not speak Kichwa fluently.[xxiii] [xxiv] [xxv]
Linguistic qualification is not the only barrier to teaching additional subjects in a minority language. A survey for bilingual teachers in public schools in Ecuador shows that they are not familiar with the methodologies to use Kichwa exclusively and teach Spanish as a second language. They report that both languages are usually treated as a first language also due to the presence of non-Kichwa students in the same classrooms.[xxvi] To handle the special didactical challenge of teaching students with diverse levels of fluency in the minority language, the ‘2plus Concept’ suggests teaching teams of one German and one Sorbian native speaker per class. What seems effective in terms of handling the students’ heterogeneous linguistic needs, increases the number of (Sorbian) teachers required, in a system with no extra funds for bilingual schools.[xxvii] Another problem for teachers in both countries is the lack of substantiated guidance due to difficult and “almost non-existent”[xxviii] scientific studies to evaluate the bilingual education models.[xxix] [xxx] In response, both countries’ education ministries implemented workshops to reinforce knowledge on methodologies, the bilingual system and its curriculum. Aware of the shortage of qualified teachers, they also promote enrolment in teaching careers among local high school students and other professionals.[xxxi][xxxii]
Bottlenecks of higher education
Once a person decides to enter the promoted teacher career, there are limited options due to university entrance exams and scarce institutions with remote locations. In Ecuador, the ‘Ser Bachiller’ assessment is mandatory to achieve a high school diploma; it determines access to public universities and programmes of study.[xxxiii] The exam is only available in Spanish, even for students in the SEIB. In Germany, the ‘Abitur’ exam is available in Sorbian, but only at one Sorbian grammar school per state. Students from other areas can only attend if they enrol in boarding schools.[xxxiv]
Limited supplies of services are also seen in the amount of higher education institutions that prepare for bilingual teaching. In both Germany and Ecuador there is only one public university that offers the specific programme. The University of Leipzig itself lacks qualified lecturers.[xxxv] Therefore, courses designed to prepare future teachers for either Upper or Lower Sorbian separately are joined and held only in Upper Sorbian at the expense of Lower Sorbian speakers.[xxxvi] In Ecuador, the programme of the National University of Education (UNAE) contains some training on pedagogic methodologies but focuses on educational research and project design. Furthermore, the core courses are in Spanish, while Kichwa is merely treated as a subject.[xxxvii] There are also concerns in terms of the geographic accessibility of these institutions. Leipzig is located relatively far from Sorbian areas, limiting the possibilities of practical experience in bilingual schools.[xxxviii] UNAE is located in the southern region of Ecuador, although most indigenous communities settle in the north. However, the availability of the programme online decreases the impact of the distant location.[xxxix]
Lessons to learn
Around the world, children are still starting school in a language they do not know. Many countries are in the process of putting the rights of linguistic minorities into practice. Even Ecuador and Germany have more minority languages than Kichwa or Sorbian to cover. The above cases analysed, despite of their differences, teach us a lesson on common problems faced when implementing bilingual schools to guarantee education in different mother tongues. Preparedness and the location of teachers and institutions should be treated as prerequisites that cannot be considered merely along the way. To accomplish this, the academic systems must be adapted, and the scientific gap needs to be filled to integrate specialised teacher training courses and bachelor’s degrees. These should consider that the methodology for bilingual and intercultural education is as crucial as the linguistic ability to ensure quality education for heterogeneous groups of students. Keeping the institutions regional creates accessibility and involvement of native speakers to solve their recruitment issues. Foremost, policy makers need to determine the desired impact of minorities’ education. The limited opportunities for minority groups go beyond school premises. Their right to use their mother tongue, for example in academic or professional careers, must be contemplated to ensure that the long-term objectives of bilingual systems are met.
Distribution of (endangered) indigenous languages in Ecuador
© El Telégrafo
El Telégrafo (2017). Las lenguas en Ecuador, entre la vitalidad y la vulnerabilidad. Cultura. Retrieved from: https://www.eltelegrafo.com.ec/noticias/cultura/7/las-lenguas-en-ecuador-entre-la-vitalidad-y-la-vulnerabilidad (23.02.2018)
Map of Sorbian kindergartens and schools (2017/18)
© Witaj Language Center, directly from institution, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
A publication by the University of Cuenca in 2012 (p. 476) mentions four state technical institutes of pedagogy for intercultural education. However, further research gives no information on their status.
[i] United Nations (1992) Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities. http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/Minorities.aspx (23 April 2018).
[ii] Bühmann, B. and Trudell, B. (2008) Mother Tongue Matters: Local Language as a Key to Effective Learning. France: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
[iii] Ministerio Coordinador de Patrimonio & UNICEF (2014) Nacionalidades y Pueblos Indígenas, y políticas interculturales en Ecuador: Una mirada desde la Educación. Quito.
[iv] Asamblea Nacional Constituyente (1984) Constitución Política de la República del Ecuador. Artículo 27. Quito.
[v] Asamblea Nacional Constituyente (2008) Constitución Política de la República del Ecuador. Artículo 69. Quito.
[vi] Subsecretaría de Educación Intercultural Bilingüe. Ministerio de Educación (2013) Modelo del Sistema de Educación Intercultural Bilingüe. Quito.
[vii] Subsecretaría de Educación Intercultural Bilingüe. Ministerio de Educación (2013) Modelo del Sistema de Educación Intercultural Bilingüe. Quito.
[viii] Asamblea Nacional (2011) Ley Orgánica de Educación Intercultural. Título Cuarto. Quito.
[ix] European Union (1992) European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. Strasbourg, (05.11.1992).https://www.coe.int/en/web/conventions/full-list/-/conventions/treaty/148 (21 April 2018).
[x] Another common name is “Wends”. There is no significant difference in meaning but “Sorbs” became more frequently used due to a pejorative connotation of “Wends” in the past. Official documents all include both names or state the intention to actively include all Wends when using the term Sorbs, which is what we chose for this article. They refer to themselves as “serbski” (the “b” is silent). The number is estimated as the avowal to Sorbian identity is voluntary. Ministerium für Wissenschaft, Forschung und Kultur (2017) 1. Bericht der Landesregierung zur Lage des sorbischen/wendischen Volkes im Land Brandenburg. 15. http://www.mwfk.brandenburg.de/media_fast/4055/Landessorbenbericht2017.pdf (25 April 2018). and Staatsregierung Sachsen (2017) Fünfter Bericht der Sächsischen Staatsregierung zur Lage des sorbischen Volkes. http://edas.landtag.sachsen.de/viewer.aspx?dok_nr=11575&dok_art=Drs&leg_per=6&pos_dok=&dok_id=242817 (22 April 2018).
[xi] Cichon, T. (2004) Qualitative Changes in Ethno-Linguistic Status: A Case Study of the Sorbs in Germany. PhD Thesis, Australia: University of Tasmania. 446-447.
[xii] Nuk, J. (2004) Zur aktuellen Situation des sorbischen Schulwesens. DOMOWINA (eds.) (2004) Das sorbische Schulwesen als Minderheitenschulwesen im Kontext europäischer Übereinkommen. Bautzen: Lausitzer Druck- und Verlagshaus, 10-20.
[xiii] Vogt, M. (2012) Empfehlungen zur Stärkung der sorbischen Minderheit. Europäisches Journal für Minderheitenfragen, 5(4): 257, 323.
[xiv] Brezan, B. and Nowak, M. (2016) Sorbian: The Sorbian Language in Education in Germany. Mercator European Research Centre on Multilingualism and Language Learning, 2016: 26-27, 33. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED573644.pdf (24 April 2018).
[xv] Universidad de Cuenca (2012) Sabiduría de la Cultura Kichwa de la Amazonía Ecuatoriana. Serie Sabiduría Amazónica. Cuenca.
[xvi] Brezan, B. and Nowak, M. (2016) Sorbian: The Sorbian Language in Education in Germany. Mercator European Research Centre on Multilingualism and Language Learning, 2016: 5. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED573644.pdf (24 April 2018).
[xvii] Spreng, E. (2011) “Walking the line”: Bilingual Sorbs, Emotions, and the Endangerment in Eastern Germany. PhD Thesis, United States: University of Illinois, 38.
[xviii] Rodríguez, M. (2015) La educación intercultural bilingüe en el Ecuador del Buen Vivir. De la normativización legislativa a la praxis educativa. In: Gómez, S. et al. (eds.) Derechos humanos emergentes y periodismo. Sevilla, 656-692.
[xix] Uzendoski, M. (2009). La textualidad oral Napo Kichwa y las paradojas de la educación bilingüe intercultural en la Amazonía. In: Martínez, C. (ed.) Repensando las identidades y políticas indígenas en América Latina. 147-171.
[xx] Spreng, E. (2011) “Walking the line”: Bilingual Sorbs, Emotions, and the Endangerment in Eastern Germany. PhD Thesis, United States: University of Illinois. 62, 169.
[xxi] Kelch, M. (2016) Neue Maßnahmen für mehr Lehrer an sorbischen Schulen. Online: SMK-Blog (23.08.2016). https://www.bildung.sachsen.de/blog/index.php/2016/08/23/neue-massnahmen-fuer-mehr-lehrer-an-sorbischen-schulen/ (22 April 2018).
[xxii] Nuk, J. (2004) Zur aktuellen Situation des sorbischen Schulwesens. DOMOWINA (eds.) (2004) Das sorbische Schulwesen als Minderheitenschulwesen im Kontext europäischer Übereinkommen. Bautzen: Lausitzer Druck- und Verlagshaus, 17.
[xxiii] Ministerio de Educación (2010) Manual de Metodología de Enseñanza de Lenguas. Quito,
[xxiv] Arellano, A. (2008) Educación Intercultural Bilingüe en el Ecuador. La propuesta educativa y su proceso. Alteridad, November: 64-82.
[xxv] Rodríguez, M. (2015) La educación intercultural bilingüe en el Ecuador del Buen Vivir. De la normativización legislativa a la praxis educativa. In: Gómez, S. et al. (eds.) Derechos humanos emergentes y periodismo. Sevilla, 656-692.
[xxvi] Ministerio de Educación (2010) Manual de Metodología de Enseñanza de Lenguas. Quito, 6-32.
[xxvii] Nuk, J. (2004) Zur aktuellen Situation des sorbischen Schulwesens. DOMOWINA (eds.) (2004) Das sorbische Schulwesen als Minderheitenschulwesen im Kontext europäischer Übereinkommen. Bautzen: Lausitzer Druck- und Verlagshaus, 18.
[xxviii] Stoop, C. (2017) Children’s Rights to Mother-Tongue Education in a Multilingual World: A Comparative Analysis between South Africa and Germany. PER / PELJ, 2017(20): 2-35. http://dx.doi.org/10.17159/1727- 3781/2017/v20i0a820 (12 April 2018).
[xxix] Werner, P. (2015) Sorbische Sprachpolitik im 20./ 21. Jh. und das heutige sorbische Bildungssystem in Sachsen. Online: Witaj Sprachzentrum (2016) https://www.witaj-sprachzentrum.de/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2016/05/Werner_wiss_Arbeit_Bildungssystem.pdf (25 April 2018).
[xxx] Nuk, J. (2004) Zur aktuellen Situation des sorbischen Schulwesens. DOMOWINA (eds.) (2004) Das sorbische Schulwesen als Minderheitenschulwesen im Kontext europäischer Übereinkommen. Bautzen: Lausitzer Druck- und Verlagshaus, 17.
[xxxi] Ministerio de Educación (2018) Talleres fortalecen la Educación Intercultural Bilingüe en el país. Tena. https://educacion.gob.ec/talleres-fortalecen-la-educacion-intercultural-bilingue-en-el-pais/ (15 April 2018).
[xxxii] Kelch, M. (2016) Neue Maßnahmen für mehr Lehrer an sorbischen Schulen. Online: SMK-Blog (23.08.2016). https://www.bildung.sachsen.de/blog/index.php/2016/08/23/neue-massnahmen-fuer-mehr-lehrer-an-sorbischen-schulen/ (22 April 2018).
[xxxiii] Instituto Nacional de Evaluación Educativa (2017) El examen Ser Bachiller lleva cinco años cambiando y mejorando. http://www.evaluacion.gob.ec/el-examen-ser-bachiller-lleva-cinco-anos-cambiando-y-mejorando/ (23 April 2018).
[xxxiv] Ministerium für Wissenschaft, Forschung und Kultur (2017) 1. Bericht der Landesregierung zur Lage des sorbischen/wendischen Volkes im Land Brandenburg, 48. http://www.mwfk.brandenburg.de/media_fast/4055/Landessorbenbericht2017.pdf (25 April 2018).
[xxxv] Staatsregierung Sachsen (2017) Fünfter Bericht der Sächsischen Staatsregierung zur Lage des sorbischen Volkes, 49-50. http://edas.landtag.sachsen.de/viewer.aspx?dok_nr=11575&dok_art=Drs&leg_per=6&pos_dok=&dok_id=242817 (22 April 2018).
[xxxvi] Brezan, B. and Nowak, M. (2016) Sorbian: The Sorbian Language in Education in Germany. Mercator European Research Centre on Multilingualism and Language Learning 2016: 42. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED573644.pdf (24 April 2018).
[xxxvii] More information about the program: http://www.unae.edu.ec/interculturalbillingue (26 April 2018).
[xxxviii] The vocational training of pre-school/kindergarten teachers takes place in the centre of Lusatia in Bautzen but isn’t ideal either, as 160 hours during the three years course are insufficient for the acquisition of the appropriate language skills for the Witaj immersion model. See:Brezan, B. and Nowak, M. (2016) Sorbian: The Sorbian Language in Education in Germany. Mercator European Research Centre on Multilingualism and Language Learning 2016: 36. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED573644.pdf (24 April 2018).
[xxxix] Ministerio de Educación (2017) Docentes con título de bachiller, técnico y tecnológico podrán acceder a carrera en ciencias de la educación. Quito. https://educacion.gob.ec/docentes-con-titulo-de-bachiller-tecnico-y-tecnologico-podran-acceder-a-carrera-en-ciencias-de-la-educacion/ (20 April 2018).
Rebecca Gramlich (Germany) and Paz Patiño (Ecuador)
Rebecca Gramlich graduated with a Master’s degree in North and Latin American Studies at the University of Passau, from which she as well obtained a Bachelor’s degree in International Cultural and Business Studies. She combines her research interest in Sustainability, (Brazilian) political Theater and Alternative Educational Methods as well as her studies abroad in Brazil and Canada to generate sustainable impact by connecting people and promoting opportunities for dialogue and exchange between LAC and other parts of the world. As such, she formed part of the committee that hosts the PLA Passauer Lateinamerika Gespräche, a conference on LAC organised by students. Paz Patiño holds a Master’s in Development Studies from the University of Passau, Germany and obtained her Bachelor’s degree in Integrated Social Sciences at Jacobs University in Bremen. After graduation, she chose to follow her interest in education by working at the National Institute for Evaluation of Education in Ecuador. For two years, she researched methodologies of standardised assessment and constructed frameworks of evaluation. She participated in projects to measure the quality of the Ecuadorian Intercultural System of Education, including ancestral languages.