Growing up in the hot city of Managua, Nicaragua, I was seven and remember playing ‘mom and dad’ with my younger sister Elizabeth who was five. While playing, we spoke an invented language imagining that it was fun to use a code that no one could understand. We didn’t even understand each other, but I guess our gestures and facial expressions were enough to play our game.
Being a bilingual child forty years ago was a little bit unusual. Elizabeth and I were born in a multicultural family, from a Scottish father and a Nicaraguan mother living in Montreal. Thus, English and Spanish were our father/mother tongues although English was the dominant one due to the surrounding environment. Unfortunately, one day we found ourselves surprisingly immersed into a Spanish speaking world. Nicaragua had become our new home after my parents’ divorce. My mother thought best that English should no longer be spoken at home in order to better integrate in what was to become our new country and culture. It was a difficult experience because part of my identity was taken away. It lasted eight years, when the civil war in Nicaragua forced us to emigrate to Miami, USA. Luckily, we were able to speak English again. But this time it was Spanish that was prohibited in public places, and teachers reminded students how important was to speak English at home. Nothing was mentioned about the students’ mother tongue; on the contrary it denied them their identities.
Now, I understand that ‘assimilationist policies in education discourage students from maintaining their mother tongues.’ (Cummins, 2001:3)
Today, I am an ESOL (English as a second/other language) teacher and I believe in the importance of developing and protecting a child’s mother tongue because it is the one that carries a person’s identity and culture. This is why in 2007 the United Nations Declaration of human rights of Indigenous people declared mother tongue a human right. Cummins, 2009:5 explains how fragile mother tongues are and how easily one can lose them during the first years of schooling. My own family experience shows how difficult it is to keep mother tongue(s) when my husband has Luxembourgish as his first language and I have Spanish/English, and, to complicate matters, we live in a foreign country. When our daughters started school in Belgium, their teachers recommended that we speak French to avoid confusing our children. In spite of speaking Spanish or English to our children, most of the time they will respond in French.
Although mother tongue has been declared a human right, the fact is that in present day societies, people travel much more than ten years ago. Thus, in many cases children find themselves submersed in a foreign language that they adopt as their first one. According to Cummins, 2001:3 any foreign language imposed creates a distance in the relationship between children and parents as well as grandparents. In many cases the foreign language becomes the official other tongue at home.
When it comes to the area of linguistics one’s mother tongue is the one that helps a child build the learning of other languages (Cummins, 2001:3). Cummins explains that children who are taught in their mother tongue are able to transfer their knowledge into another language because they have had a good foundation (i.e. vocabulary, grammar, idiomatic expressions) of the first language at home and later in school.
What can be done to stop children from losing their mother tongue?
Cummins, 2001:5 suggests that parents should practice their mother tongue at home and continue doing the reading and writing activities. In addition, families can create the possibilities for children to practice their mother tongue, for example keeping in contact with a mother tongue community, and visiting the home country; children should meet play groups where they can speak their mother tongue, etc.
If the school does not provide mother tongue education, teachers should promote mother tongue development by giving positive messages about the importance of learning different languages (Cummins 2001:5).
Teachers should encourage communication by all means. If children struggle to respond to a question in a foreign language, they should be able to express it using their mother tongue. In my teaching experience, I have asked another student to translate the response. This practice, I believe, increases the child’s learning confidence.
Children should be encouraged to produce identity texts; texts that can be poems, songs, video clips, using their mother tongue and afterwards the words can be translated into the foreign language (Cummins, 2006:61). It is a way to value the cultural capital of each child.
In sum if we want to have an enriched diverse society and preserve our cultures, it is important that we continue to protect, develop and share our mother tongues at home, school and public places.
Cummins, J. 2001. Bilingual Children and mother tongue: Why is it important for education? Accessed on: April 14th 2013 http://www.iteachilearn.com/cummins/mother.htm
Cummins, J. 2006. Identity texts: The Imaginative Construction of Self through Multiliteracies Pedagogy. In Garcia, O., Skutnabb-Kangas, T. and Guzman-Torres, M. Imagining Multilingual Schools. New York: Multilingual Matters.
Cummins, J. 2009. Bilingual children’s mother tongue: Why is it important for education? Linguamon, House of Languages. University of Toronto.
*mother tongue and first language are terms used interchangeably in this article.