On the occasion of this Day, I launch an appeal for the potential of multilingual education to be acknowledged everywhere, in education and administrative systems, in cultural expressions and the media, cyberspace and trade.
Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director-General
Every year I write a post about this day, but it’s important to remember that “Mother language” isn’t about a day in a year, it’s about a lifetime of language. Like so many of these celebratory days, we take a moment in time to consider an issue that impacts children every day, all year. Here are some facts about why “mother tongue” is important:
- A child’s mother tongue/home language is their primary vehicle of cognitive development in the early years. This is why changing language at school-entry is difficult, and often detrimental to, young children. When you take away their strongest language for cognitive processing and put them into a new language, you set them back significantly in terms of what they can understand and learn.
- This fact correlates with educational research that demonstrates that children who are schooled in a second language, with no access to their mother tongue/home language tend to do less well in school and have lower rates of school attendance in many parts of the world.
- A child’s mother tongue/home language is also an integral part of their character and culture. Not allowing them to use it at school essentially sentences them to who they are within the limits of their second language development, rather than who they are as a whole person.
- There is no different in value between languages and dialects. No one language is superior to any other, in grammar, vocabulary or expression. Any language with a written script can be used for education, even if it has not traditionally been used in this way. Languages can be developed to meet educational needs if the will (and the funding) is available. Consider all the words that English has had to invent to keep up with the technological revolution: computer, internet, mouse, googling, blogging, vlogging…
- It is possible to design and implement a broad spectrum multilingual curriculum, in which children can access learning in their own languages, while simultaneously developing a new school language for further use. It takes time, effort and leadership (and money…), but it has been done and can be done again. A brief example is the growth of Mother-tongue based, multilingual education (MTB-MLE) in the Philippines, where diverse communities have been making every effort to provide for community languages to be used in the early years of primary education, rather than an abrupt submersion into English and/or Tagalog at school age.
All of these factors also apply to children in international schools, not only to minority language speakers. There is often a mistaken perception that children in international schools who are in language-immersion situations, without the presence of their mother tongue/home language are somehow exempt from the complications that can arise from going to school in a language you are only learning. This, of course, is not true, and even in high-status international schools children benefit from accessing education in their own language, if not as medium of instruction then by way of robust multilingual classroom practices.
We all – parents, educators, administrators, policy makers – need to start paying more attention to our own participation in the dialogue about, and progress towards, a more inclusive education system for all students.
100 Words for a children’s endangered language dictionary is a project I recently supported, let me know if you know of others.
Happy Mother Language Day 2017!