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The importance of mother tongue in education

Carolyn Savage, Head of Education at Winter's School Finder, explains why schools should encourage pupils' mother tongues

Posted by Rianna Newman | August 22, 2017 | People, policy, politics

With increased migration and the growing popularity of international schools, the number of children learning in a language other than their mother tongue is growing rapidly. Research indicates that having a strong mother tongue foundation leads to a much better understanding of the curriculum as well as a more positive attitude towards school, so it’s vital that children maintain their first language when they begin schooling in a different language. 

When children develop their mother tongue, they are simultaneously fostering a whole host of other essential skills, such as critical thinking and literacy skills. It is these skills that they take with them into formal education, and research tells us that any skills and concepts gained in the learner’s home language don’t have to be re-taught when they transfer to a second language. For example, if a child has developed the ability to guess the meaning of a word through its context, or to infer meaning by reading between the lines, these skills are easily transferred when they begin studying in a second language. It is much harder, however, to teach these abstract skills directly through a second language.

It’s also well known that a strong mother tongue foundation equips children with the skills they need to learn additional languages, allowing them to transfer their understanding of the structure of language to several new languages. The intuitive understanding of grammar that develops when children learn their first language can easily be passed on to other languages. With multilingualism becoming an increasingly sought-after attribute within the workplace, this advantage cannot be overstated; globalisation and increased co-operation between nations mean that, in many organisations, it has become a requirement to have language skills in addition to being a specialist within a particular field. 

Language and mother tongue also play a huge role in the development of personal, social and cultural identity. Children with a strong foundation in their first language often display a deeper understanding of themselves and their place within society, along with an increased sense of wellbeing and confidence. Naturally, this flows down into every aspect of their lives, including their academic achievement. 

This is, of course, one of the reasons why bilingual education systems are growing in popularity around the world and many international schools are focusing their resources on establishing strong mother tongue programmes. Parent workshops outlining the importance of the mother tongue are becoming increasingly popular, because many parents mistakenly believe that they should only speak to their children in the school’s language of instruction, often contributing to children not gaining complete fluency in either their first or second language. In Cambodia, for example, our EAL (English as an Additional Language) specialists regularly invited parents into school for evening workshops. They outlined research showing how children learn languages, discussed the school’s teaching methodology for language learning, and, most importantly, explained the importance of a strong mother tongue foundation and the vital role that parents play in developing and maintaining this. 

Carolyn Savage: "A strong mother tongue foundation equips children with the skills they need to learn additional languages."

When I taught in Bratislava, we encouraged children to bring in books written in their home language(s) and to share these with the class. Sometimes, children chose to read small extracts out loud, allowing them to demonstrate more developed reading skills, whilst simultaneously building pride in their own culture and developing respect for all cultures within the school. This was just one small part of the jigsaw that made up our in-depth mother tongue programme. 

As Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director General said, “Mother languages in a multilingual approach are essential components of quality education, which is itself the foundation for empowering women and men and their societies.”   

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