The Significant Role of Mother Tongue in Education
One consequence of population mobility is an increasing diversity within schools. To illustrate, in the city of Toronto in Canada, 58% of kindergarten pupils come from homes where English is not the usual language of communication. Schools in Europe and North America have experienced this diversity for years, and educational policies and practices vary widely between countries and even within countries. Some political parties and groups search for ways to solve the problem of diverse communities and their integration in schools and society. However, they see few positive consequences for the host society and worry that this diversity threatens the identity of the host society. Consequently, they promote unfortunate educational policies that will make the “problem” disappear. If students retain their culture and language, they are viewed as less capable of identifying with the mainstream culture and learning the mainstream language of the society.
The challenge for educator and policy-makers is to shape the evolution of national identity in such a way that rights of all citizens (including school children) are respected, and the cultural linguistic, and economic resources of the nation are maximised. To waste the resources of the nation by discouraging children from developing their mother tongues is quite simply unintelligent from the point of view of national self-interest. A first step in providing an appropriate education for culturally and linguistically diverse children is to examine what the existing research says about the role of children’s mother tongues in their educational development.
In fact, the research is very clear. When children continue to develop their abilities in two or more languages throughout their primary school, they gain a deeper understanding of language and how to use it effectively. They have more practice in processing language, especially when they develop literacy in both. More than 150 research studies conducted during the past 25 years strongly support what Goethe, the famous eighteenth-century German philosopher, once said: the person who knows only one language does not truly know that language. Research suggests that bilingual children may also develop more flexibility in their thinking as a result of processing information through two different languages.
The level of development of children’s mother tongue is a strong predictor of their second language development. Children who come to school with a solid foundation in their mother tongue develop stronger literacy abilities in the school language. When parents and other caregivers (e.g. grandparents) are able to spend time with their children and tell stories or discuss issues with them in a way that develops their mother tongue, children come to school well-prepared to learn the school language and succeed educationally. Children’s knowledge and skills transfer across languages from the mother tongue to the school language. Transfer across languages can be two-way: both languages nurture each other when the educational environment permits children access to both languages.
Some educators and parents are suspicious of mother tongue-based teaching programs because they worry that they take time away from the majority language. For example, in a bilingual program when 50% of the time is spent teaching through children’s home language and 50% through the majority language, surely children won’t progress as far in the latter? One of the most strongly established findings of educational research, however, is that well-implemented bilingual programs can promote literacy and subject-matter knowledge in a minority language without any negative effects on children’s development in the majority language. Within Europe, the Foyer program in Belgium, which develops children’s speaking and literacy abilities in three languages (their mother tongue, Dutch and French), most clearly illustrates the benefits of bilingual and trilingual education (see Cummins, 2000).
It is easy to understand how this happens. When children are learning through a minority language, they are learning concepts and intellectual skills too. Pupils who know how to tell the time in their mother tongue understand the concept of telling time. In order to tell time in the majority language, they do not need to re-learn the concept. Similarly, at more advanced stages, there, is transfer across languages in other skills such as knowing how to distinguish the main idea from the supporting details of a written passage or story, and distinguishing fact from opinion. Studies of secondary school pupils are providing interesting findings in this area, and it would be worth extending this research.
Many people marvel at how quickly bilingual children seem to “pick up” conversational skills in the majority language at school (although it takes much longer for them to catch up with native speakers in academic language skills). However, educators are often much less aware of how quickly children can lose their ability to use their mother tongue, even in the home context. The extent and rapidity of language loss will vary according to the concentration of families from a particular linguistic group in the neighborhood. Where the mother tongue is used extensively in the community, then language loss among young children will be less. However, where language communities are not concentrated in particular neighborhoods, children can lose their ability to communicate in their mother tongue within 2-3 years of starting school. They may retain receptive skills in the language but they will use the majority language, in speaking with their peers and siblings and in responding to their parents. By the time children become adolescents, the linguistic division between parents and children has become an emotional chasm. Pupils frequently become alienated from the cultures of both home and school with predictable results.