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Why you should not deny your children their mother tongue

  • "It's okay to be proud of your good English. But don't be proud of being poor at your mother tongue. Only the scum of the earth do that." ― Manasa Rao

    Cambridge Dictionary defines mother tongue as the first language someone learns when he/she is a baby, rather than a language learned at school or as an adult. UNESCO defines mother tongue or mother language as a child’s first language, the language learned at home from older family members.

    Rather than the ‘artificial efforts’ needed to acquire new languages whether in school or as an adult, mother language comes naturally to children as part of their growing up. Linguists consider that as a process of language acquisition rather than learning, for a second language.

    Sadly, there is a growing preference for the so-called global languages – English, French, etc. – at the expense of the mother tongues, particularly in the third world countries where the mother tongues do not have wider speakers or international recognition.

    For instance, in Nigeria, many parents believe that the native languages, Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo, Efik, etc. do not have many prospects and present little or no opportunities for their speakers. As a result, they introduce their kids to foreign languages, mainly English and French, right from childhood.

    These parents enforce their kids not to speak their mother tongues at all, and they even boast to their friends and relatives that their kids do not speak ‘vernacular’ (a language that is not formally recognised and that is used in informal contexts only), they speak English!

    Some have even gone to the extent of paying heavily for their kids to be taught British accent! It has developed to become a sign of ‘class’.

    Note that English, French, and other dominant languages should be learned by all, for they present vast opportunities for those who are proficient in them. However, they should not be learnt at the expense of the mother tongues.

    Related article: Eight techniques to facilitate learning new languages

    Language, beyond a means of communication, is also a repertoire of culture, a tool that gives one a different perspective of the world. Thus, to deny a child, its mother tongue is to rob the child of a richer view of the world.

    This is what ParentCircle, an online portal that provides quality content on topics such as child health, behaviour, discipline and career that help parents raise happy, successful children, says about mother tongue in an article titled “Teach Kids Importance Of Mother Tongue”:

    Learning to speak in the mother tongue is very important for a child’s overall development. Being fluent in the mother tongue, which is also known as the native language, benefits the child in many ways. It connects him to his culture, ensures better cognitive development, and aids in the learning of other languages.

    Being proficient in one’s mother tongue aids learning in all ramifications, and interestingly, it comes with little or no effort. In fact, research has proven that learning in one’s mother tongue is the key to success at school.

    For instance, Carol Benson, Ph.D., in a study titled "The importance of mother tongue-based schooling for educational quality" called for a bilingual approach to learning which includes a combination of mother tongue and another (foreign) language.

    According to Benson: “Mother tongue-based bilingual education not only increases access to skills but also raises the quality of basic education by facilitating classroom interaction and integration of prior knowledge and experiences with new learning.”

    Angelina Kioko, a professor of English and Linguistics at United States International University, Nairobi, Kenya, said in an article titled "Why schools should teach young learners in home language" that research findings consistently show that learners benefit from using their home language in education in early grade years (ahead of a late primary transition stage).

    Kioko stated: The use of learners’ home language in the classroom promotes a smooth transition between home and school. It means learners get more involved in the learning process and speeds up the development of basic literacy skills. It also enables more flexibility, innovation and creativity in teacher preparation. Using learners’ home language is also more likely to get the support of the general community in the teaching/learning process and creates an emotional stability which translates to cognitive stability. In short, it leads to a better educational outcome.

    This is why some countries, Nigeria for instance, have made provisions in their primary education curriculums, that children be taught in their mother tongues during their beginner years in the primary school.

    Section 2 (c), i & iii stipulate:

    (c) ensure that the medium of instruction is principally the mother-tongue or the language of the immediate community; and to this end will:

    (i)' develop the orthography of many more Nigerian languages, and

    (ii) produce textbooks in Nigerian languages;

    Nevertheless, the ‘elite’ parents who are not comfortable with the educational policy have found a way around it. They no longer enrol their children in schools using the local education curriculums. They send their kids to schools that proudly advertise ‘British curriculum’ in their signposts.

    Parents should understand that introducing their kids to their mother tongues does not in any way stand against acquiring other languages, in fact, it aids it.

    Children have the capacity to learn as many languages as possible. According to Emem Opashi, an early childhood education specialist and director of the Sage School, Nigeria, children can understand about 11 languages due to the dynamics of their brain. So, while you make provisions to ensure they acquire other languages, do not rob them of their mother tongue.

    While it is true that children have more to gain when they speak English and other powerful languages proficiently, they also have a lot to lose if they cannot grasp their mother tongue.

    A child who is proficient in its mother tongue and other languages is well positioned for global opportunities and has a richer perspective of the world.

    You may also want to check out the imperative of parental participation in education.

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