Speak Your Mother Tongue at Home

06Apr12

How do parents play a positive role in fostering good language habits for their children?  Can schools influence what language parents speak to their child at home?

As an EAL teacher, I work daily with young non-English speaking learners and help support their English language acquisition.  As the school language is English, about 60% of the students speak another language other than English at home.  What should parents do?  Speak their home language or their non-fluent English to their children?  Parents want the best for their children, and they want their children to be successful at school.  Many parents feel responsible to teach their students English.   My view?  NO!  Parents please speak your mother tongue and start at the birth of your child!!  Speak your native language at home, and leave English (or other target language) to the system at school.  When non-English speakers teach English to their children, this can present an array of problems for the learner:  confusion of identity; poor grammar; and lack of mother tongue.

Each family situation in unique.  An important role at my school is educating and fostering communication with parents. Meeting with parents and setting up educational workshops is an effective means to help educate parents on current research,  school expectations, and ways they can support their child’s home language.  Research shows: “The level of development of children’s mother tongue is a strong predictor of their second language development.” Jim Cummins.  This means….if your first language is strong, chances are the second, or third language you learn will also be strong.

Here are a few examples of how languages look in different families:

Mai is a girl who speaks Thai at home with her parents.  They read in Thai daily.  She has a good vocabulary and can express herself in Thai very well.  When Mai learned English, she was also able to express her ideas and use a good vocabulary. The strengths of her home language transferred into strengths in her second (…third etc.) language.  A strong first language foundation for Mai was established.

Elan speaks both Hebrew and French at home.  French only with mom, and Hebrew only with dad.  The family language is French and Elan learns English at school.  Elan knows what is expected of her in each speaking context and has little problems speaking the appropriate language for the situation.  When asked what language she thinks in, she says mostly French.  She has the potential to be a successful multilingual, multi-literate citizen and she is 6 years old.  Parents have a clearly made family language plan.

Bryce is Korean.  His parents do not know English very well, yet decided to speak to him in both Korean and English.  The English goal was to help him get ready and have “head-start” in his English speaking school.  Bryce does not read in Korean and has learnt to read in English, yet has difficulty.  Bryce cannot express his ideas clearly in Korean nor in English.  Bryce mixes the languages in context and gets frustrated.  He is weak in both languages.  He faces a deep challenge with understanding his academics.

The lack of a strong first language foundation can have profound effects for learners.

Parents, talk about goals for your children and be consistent :)

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2 Responses to “Speak Your Mother Tongue at Home”

  1. 1 Laura Y

    My parents are both from China. I was born in the United Kingdom and raised in Germany. When I was a child my parents only spoke Chinese with me. They even taught me how to read and write Chinese.
    I learned German later in kindergarten and at school. Today I speak German as mother tongue, besides Chinese.
    I am very thankful that my parents insisted to speak Chinese at home and kept my first language strong. This way they have saved me from an array of problems like ‘confusion of identity, poor grammar and lack of mother tongue’.
    Besides Chinese and German I also speak English, French and a little Japanese. For this I have to thank my parents. Daddy and Mummy, I love you!

    • 2 susi

      您好 Nín hǎo Laura!
      Thank you for sharing your story. So glad that you have a variety of STRONG languages to speak! We should all be so fortunate :) Good on your Mother and Father!


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