Today, Monday 12th August, marks International Youth Day 2019, a UN-designated awareness day. The day presents a key opportunity for governments and organisations across the world to draw attention to the issues that specifically affect young people, propose solutions and spark necessary discussions about policy and best practices.

Indeed, with 1.8 billion young people (those between the ages of 10 and 24) currently in the world, the largest youth population ever recorded, there’s never been a more crucial time to empower and embolden young people to achieve their full potential.

International youth gather beside a lake

Education and opportunity

We all know that education offers young people the best possible chance of getting ahead in life – it has the power to instil in oneself a great sense of confidence and self-esteem, enable upward socioeconomic mobility and ultimately break the cycle of poverty.

However, according to the UN, more than half of all children and adolescents aged 6-14 lack basic reading and maths skills, despite the fact that the vast majority of young people now attend school or are in formal education.

As a result, this global learning crisis threatens to “severely hamper progress” towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set out by the United Nations General Assembly for the year 2030, particularly Goal 4: that of ensuring “inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.”

'Transforming education'

With the aim of highlighting efforts to make education “more relevant, equitable and inclusive” for all youth across the world, the theme of International Youth Day 2019 is “Transforming education”.

In the words of UN Secretary-General António Guterres, International Youth Day 2019 is a day to “celebrate the young people, youth-led organizations, governments and others who are working to transform education and uplift young people everywhere.”

Image of six multinational female youths standing behind a multicoloured blanket

If you don't understand, how can you learn?

However, one of the key challenges for transforming education worldwide lies in the statistic that 40% of the global population does not access education in a language they understand.

In the UNESCO-published policy paper If you don’t understand, how can you learn?, it is said that young speakers of indigenous or minority languages in countries including (but certainly not limited to) Turkey, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Guatemala face significant barriers when accessing education.

The paper argues that when governments or state institutions choose to impose a dominant language through the school system, though it is sometimes “a choice of necessity” due to lack of resources or funding, there are wider implications for social and cultural equality.

The educational disparity created between speakers of minority languages and those of the ‘dominant’ language can contribute to marginalisation and discrimination of communities, and has even been linked to the perpetuation of poverty.

The solutions

So how we can support inclusive education on International Youth Day 2019 – education that includes everyone, regardless of your mother tongue?

The first step is advocating for mother-tongue learning and lobbying governments and institutions worldwide, whether it be on the town hall steps or Twitter, to invest in multilingual education.

The UNESCO paper recommends that at least six years of mother-tongue instruction is needed “so that gains from teaching in mother tongue in the early years are sustained.”

Secondly, those who are teachers or are training to become one should ensure they understand the importance of inclusive mother-tongue learning and are prepared for the realities of bilingual teaching.


This might mean undertaking extra training and instruction to gain more confidence when speaking a second or third language, or could simply mean ensuring you give equal importance and weight to ‘minority’ language use in the classroom.

Thirdly, we must support an education that equips young people for today’s ever-changing world. There is no point in advocating for mother tongue learning if the content being taught doesn’t address the social inequalities faced by young people today, particularly those young people who speak indigenous or minority languages.

As António Guterres stated, “Education today should combine knowledge, life skills and critical thinking.”

It should include information on sustainability and climate change. And it should advance gender equality, human rights and a culture of peace.”