Yesterday, we held a seminar for parents at the primary school we are using as our pilot school for the EAL training project. The point of the seminar was to help parents understand the process of becoming bilingual through school, and how they can best help their children through the process. At the end, one woman put her hand up to say how much she had enjoyed it, and how happy she was to hear that their home language, Arabic, was just as important as English. It reminded me how hard it is for parents trying to raise children to be bilingual in English-speaking places. English is so pervasive, and convincing, that parents and children often end up thinking that it would be better to become “English only” than to become bilingual.
Here are my top reasons why “bilingual” is better than “English only”:

1. Bilingualism is good for (almost) all children, socially, cognitively and linguistically, so why choose against it?

2. The child’s first language(s) (home language, mother tongue, L1) is critical to cognitive development – it’s the language the child learns best in, while they are learning English. It should be used to support the learning that they are struggling with at school due to lack of language.

3. Confidence – children need to continue using the language that they are best at, to promote confidence and appropriate socialization. In the early years of learning English (or other) at school, they can’t really be who they are, as they don’t have the same level of language or social skill. Encouraging them and finding opportunities for them to use their strongest language will give them a niche to be themselves, fully.

4. Culture – Children who grow without the language of their parents (or one parent) exist in a kind of cultural vacuum, where they are part “something” culturally, but are not accepted into this culture because they do not speak the language. I have met many adults in this position, who feel that they have lost their roots, because they do not have access, through language, to part of who they are, and often they feel resentful towards their parents.

5. There is no research evidence demonstrating that it is better, for any reason, to lose a language. In fact, most often research demonstrates negative aspects to losing a language.

The bottom line is that having another language will not interfere with a child’s learning of a new language at school (what many parents are afraid of), and in fact, the stronger their first language, they better their English will grow as well. At our pilot school, the teaching assistants have started using L1 with new arrivals when possible, to help them understand better and integrate. The stories they tell of how use of the mother tongue in school has changed children’s perceptions of school and helped them feel more comfortable are moving. In addition, they have also noted (anecdotally) that the children with mother tongue support at school are actually improving in English more quickly than before.

So, remind someone today that their mother tongue is important!