Learn more about Mother Tongue & Multilingual Education

What is Mother Tongue Education?

Mother tongue education refers to any form of schooling which uses the language or languages that children are most familiar with, in order to help them learn. This is usually the language that children speak at home with their family. The ‘mother tongue’ does not have to be the language spoken by the mother. Children can and often do speak more than one or even two languages at home. For example, they may speak one language with their mother, another with their father and a third with their grandparents. Other terms used are home language, first language or heritage language.

Monolingual schools

Although there is overwhelming evidence that children learn best in and through a language they understand well, millions of children around the world are educated in a different language. In fact, the majority of schools offer instruction only in one language. Frequently this is the dominant language of the country. This may not be the majority language spoken in the community at all. In the case of former colonies, it is usually the language of the former colonial power, for example English, French, Arabic, Dutch and Spanish. These are all languages that young children may hear for the first time when they enter school.

Children who are not fluent speakers of the school language may be offered some form of language support or no support at all. The latter is also known as ‘sink or swim’. In these schools, children are expected to and often do leave behind their mother tongues. 

Bilingual education

Education programmes that are aiming at children to become bilingual and biliterate (the ability to read and write in two languages) are increasingly popular in Europe and have existed for many years in other parts of the worlds. In these schools, instruction is typically provided in languages that enjoy a high societal status in that country or region. Examples are French/English programmes in the United States or English/Arabic in the Middle East. But here also, home languages are often excluded. Think of a child living in the Netherlands who speaks Somali at home and who is enrolled in an English/Dutch bilingual programme.  

A human rights violation

The practice of punishing children for speaking a language other than the school language in the school hall ways or at the school playing fields, has deep historical roots. Children have been beaten, placed outside the classroom, or forced to wash out their mouths and copy lines when they were ‘caught’ speaking their home languages.  These practices continue today in many countries. Often, policy makers, school leaders, teachers and also parents believe it is best for a child to stop using their mother tongue in order to do well at school. Research shows that the opposite is true – children learn better and faster when they are able to build on their home languages, see below – but also that restricting and punishing children is harmful.

In 2021, the United Nations Committee on Racial Discrimination (CERD), which supervises the United Nations Convention on the Eliminations of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, expressed its concerns that children with a migrant or minority background were restricted or prohibited from using their home language in Dutch schools. The Committee called on the Dutch government to ensure that these practices no longer take place and that multilingual education is included in teacher training programmes. 

Multilingual education programmes

Fortunately, there are schools offering multilingual education programmes that aim at teaching children another language at no expense to their home language. In such programmes, equal importance is given to learning in and through both languages and children learn how to take full advantage of their multilingualism and multiliteracy. 

What about schools with many different languages?

Because of migration and globalization it is not rare to find classrooms where ten or more different languages are spoken by the students. In these situations, it would be practically difficult (although not impossible) to provide a full blown bilingual education programme for each student. But rather than ignoring all the languages and opt for one language only, teachers can still create a welcoming environment where all languages are valued. Students can be provided opportunities to use their home languages in the classrooms, for example by allowing them to make homework assignments in their mother tongue (and providing translation) or by collaborating with peer students who speak the same language. This practice is also called translanguaging and is offered in many Language Friendly Schools (see below).

Is there a perfect model?

There is not one model that fits all contexts in which multilingual children are learning and which meets all of their learning needs. Mother tongue and multilingual education take many forms and each school and each community should determine what works best for them. In general, however, the longer a child is able to learn in and through his or her mother tongue(s), the greater the educational benefits that can be expected.

Benefits of mother tongue and multilingual education

The benefits associated with an education that takes into account children’s mother tongues include:

  • Children learn better and faster in a language they can understand (preventing delays in learning)
  • They enjoy school more, they feel more at home
  • Pupils tend to show increased self-esteem
  • Parents participation is increased. Parents can help with homework and can participate in school activities
  • When children take advantage of their multilingualism they may enjoy higher socioeconomic status, including higher earnings
  • On average, the schools perform better, reporting less repetition and less drop-out.

Rutu’s mission: making linguistic and cultural diversity the norm in education

The mission of the Rutu Foundation is to make linguistic and cultural diversity the norm in education, rather than the exception.

We believe that in today’s globalized world, where diversity is the reality, all children benefit from a multilingual education which offers them an opportunity to become fluent in their mother tongues, in the official language(s) of the state, as well as in other languages. This will allow them to continue communicating with their families, to pursue higher education and to contribute meaningfully to society.

Ultimately, mother tongue and multilingual education are about creating a level playing field. It is about creating equal opportunities for all, regardless of economic status, ethnic background or geographic location.

Through our Language Friendly School programme we encourage schools to develop ‘language friendly’ learning environments for all students by welcoming and valuing all languages spoken. In 2020, the Language Friendly School was selected as one of the top ten world’s most inspiring educational innovations in Bilingual Education.


Hurwitz, D & ER Kambel (2020). ‘Redressing language-based exclusion and punishment in education and the
Language Friendly School initiative’ (2020) 4 Global Campus Human Rights Journal 5-24.