The importance of mother tongue in education

Sponsored: Carolyn Savage, former head of education at Winter’s International School Finder, explains the importance of mother tongue and how it benefits education and child development

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.


Mother tongue meaning

Mother tongue can often be referred to as your first language or native language. It is the language that you most commonly speak. However, mother tongue is always referencing the language that the child has used from birth and in important and impacting times in the child’s life.

For example, there are instances where a child is brought up until school age using a particular language at home spoken by their mother, father or other family members, but due to living in another country begins to adopt the language spoken in their interactions in groups or school. But if the child comes back home continually to another language, this is impact can be lessened.

Mother tongue for a child involves more than just language and includes the child’s personal, social and cultural identity. The choice of words and expression carry different meaning across cultures and where in one language asking direct questions is considered intrusive, in another it is inquisitive. This means that the language chosen when speaking is thought about before it is delivered.


What is mother tongue in education?

Mother tongue in education refers to when a school or educational institution integrates the language a child is most familiar with (their mother tongue) into the classroom lesson along with the school’s lesson (such as English). This is normally the language that the child speaks at home with their family.

Some children (particularly those that grow up in a mixed race parent household or those living abroad) already know two or more languages by the time they reach school age, which in education terms means that their mother tongue is the language most spoke at home.

If this is two languages, then the child is lucky enough to have two mother tongue languages since their ability in both languages is equal. However, this is very rare as most commonly in households, one of the languages is predominantly used over another.

Research shows that children learn better when taught in their mother tongue, however it is not always possible.

The importance of mother tongue

The importance of mother tongue is studied because 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.

Using mother tongue helps a child develop their critical thinking and literacy skills


The importance of mother tongue was studied by Professor Jim Cummins from the University of Toronto in Canada. He explored why is it so important that parents speak their own mother tongue to their children.

His research uncovers the link between a child’s development and their mother tongue. He found that children who develop skills in two or even three languages grow up to have a deeper understanding of how to form sentences and expressions, making the use of language as a whole a lot easier.

Children speaking just one mother tongue language had a fixed mindset on how to communicate what they want or need. He also found that children with only one mother tongue did not know how to use the language in the same depth as children using two or mother mother tongue languages.

He discusses how children that speak multiple languages have more advanced critical thinking as they have to explore how to phrase and use the language of choice at that moment in time.

Furthermore, Cummins found that children with a strong mother tongue found it easier to pick up a second language and develop their literacy skills.

He concluded that children’s knowledge and skills transfers across languages. However, skills learnt in mother tongue could also be transferred into the language learning approach, so if a child has to think more about how to deliver the sentence and when to use it, their cultural identity is also easily adapted.

Therefore, it is a healthy approach to learning for parents to teach second languages at home and also develop the child’s use of language and expression.

Role of mother tongue in child development

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.

Mother tongue plays a huge role in the development of personal, social and cultural identity


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.

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.

Irina Bokova, UNESCO director general, said on the role of mother tongue in education: “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.”

Advantages of mother tongue in education

There are many benefits to a child learning in their mother tongue language in the classroom:

  • Mother tongue makes it easier for children to pick up and learn other languages.
  • Mother tongue develops a child’s personal, social and cultural identity.
  • Using mother tongue helps a child develop their critical thinking and literacy skills.
  • Research shows that children learning in mother tongue adopt a better understanding of the curriculum.
  • Skills learnt in mother tongue do not have to be re-taught when when the child transfers to a second language.
  • Children learning in mother tongue enjoy school more and learn faster due to feeling comfortable in their environment.
  • Self-esteem is higher for children learning in mother tongue.
  • Parent child interaction increases as the parent can assist with homework.
  • Studies show that children that capitalise on learning through multilingualism enjoy a higher socioeconomic status earn higher earnings.

Top 20 mother tongues

Three billion people across the globe make up the below list of most widely spoken mother tongue languages. Whilst English is the most widely spoken language, those speaking it as a second language actually outnumber those using it as their mother tongue language by hundreds of millions.

Many languages are shrinking in usage as people begin to adopt more widely spoken languages around the region in which they are from. This is further catapulted by the growing age of digital and internet, particularly the use of social media.

Along with language lost are cultural expressions and cosmologies, which is of concern for the declining pockets of cultures on the verge of extinction.

  1. Mandarin Chinese
  2. Spanish
  3. English
  4. Hindi
  5. Arabic
  6. Portuguese
  7. Bengali
  8. Russian
  9. Japanese
  10. Javanese
  11. German
  12. Wu Chinese
  13. Korean
  14. French
  15. Telugu
  16. Marathi
  17. Turkish
  18. Tamil
  19. Vietnamese
  20. Urdu

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