Mother tongue is what we learn from birth and each word is learnt with all its background, history, and linkages without us noticing it.  Our social environment, naturally and effortlessly constitute lots of meaning in language that we speak.

The importance of the mother tongue, and more specifically of mother-tongue education, is recognized globally. The use of the mother tongue is regarded as one of the most effective ways to act and perform cognitively, socially and communally. It is also true that there is a strong relation between one’s mother tongue and one’s identity. One’s mother tongue is also an important connection between one’s culture and one’s history. The different characteristics and components of a person’s personality are balanced and equalized by a healthy identity, and communities verbalize part of their identities in their mother tongues. The positive result of this is that communities make good, informed choices and decisions that promote harmony, consistency, and the development of self-assured individuals. Moreover, the protection of one’s mother tongue is fundamental for the protection and safeguarding of one’s own culture and existence, and also for the recognition of a need for a sense of “belonging” and shared heritage.

It has been established that good linguistic foundations have to be laid by the age of six and consolidated by the age of 12. Poor command over language leads to inability to put thoughts together and adequately express them. This damages confidence, which results in an entire generation that is poor in thought and expression with loss of confidence and self-respect. Poverty of thought is the worst poverty of all.

Not only does the recognition of the value of one’s mother tongue help develop a sense of pride in it, it can help promote an attitude of mind towards other cultures and tongues, as being due a reciprocal respect. Early exposure to mother tongue as well as the official language can be part of this development of empathy before formal educations begins.

If more young children were presented with the idea of learning a language as an adventure, they would be more inclined to it. Learning a language doesn’t have to be “hard”. Children whose primary language is not the language of instruction in school are more likely to drop out of school or fail in early grades. Research has shown that children’s first language is the optimal language for literacy and learning throughout primary school. In spite of growing evidence and parent demand, many educational systems around the world insist on exclusive use of one or sometimes several privileged languages. This means excluding other languages and with them the children who speak them

Building a strong foundation in the first language helps second language learning much more than early or prolonged exposure to the additional language Studies have shown it is more efficient to develop the first language because the skills and concepts can then easily be transferred to the second. Children normally require 5-7 years of learning a second language before they can learn academic subjects in this language. 

At home, parents are encouraged to continue the use of the mother tongue through reading stories and writing emails, listening to radio and television and doing internet research in this language. In addition to building language, it helps the child maintain social-emotional ties with the home culture and society. More families are seeking mother tongue learning as an embedded part of their child’s curriculum. That nervous child at the school gate today may be tomorrow’s employee with those ‘soft skills’ employers value: multilingual, flexible in thinking, and with an ability to view situations from different perspectives and operate easily in multi-cultural environments.

Teaching of the mother tongue alongside the second language, allows the sounds and structures of the language to be transferred more easily. The child builds on what is already known and understood. Even if the written structure of the languages is different, if the child already knows how to read in the first language, the processes of learning to read, understanding how language structure works, as well as literacy strategies, sensory motor skills and coordination are more easily transferred. As the language development progresses, concepts already understood in the first language are more easily transferred into the second language. The transition, however, is a process whereby a student shifts from reliance on the mother tongue to his or her second language. It should begin on the first day of school when the mother tongue teacher may be using key cards with important words. With a young child, this can be done with pictures to help them in the first few weeks. Simultaneous mother tongue language and second language learners have enhanced linguistic and educational development. They develop a deeper understanding and are able to compare, contrast and use multiple linguistic systems, giving greater depth of understanding. Some feel this also leads to greater flexibility in their thinking as they filter through different languages.

Increasingly, studies are finding students who have a strong first language foundation perform better in second language exams and education, although long-term research at this point is still preliminary. Bi and multi-language learners have a greater breadth in their additional language learning. Through transition, the two languages become inter-dependent. Going back to the concept of transfer, building on the foundation of the mother tongue provides greater access to other viewpoints and sources of knowledge. Bi and multilingual students are able to access different sources of learning— from newspapers, grandparents and other sources in the home country which expand on their learning in the new one.

First language skills can be easily lost within 2-3 years of starting school. Without language and literacy support in the mother tongue, a child’s home language begins to degrade. The student may still be able to speak and respond, but they will feel uncomfortable reading or writing in the home language, alienating the child from the home culture, relatives, family and society.



Article by: Blessing Bassey

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