What is Mother Tongue Education?

Mother tongue education refers to any form of schooling that makes use of the language or languages that children are most familiar with. 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.

Although there is overwhelming evidence that children learn best in and through their mother tongues, millions of children around the world receive education in a different language. This is usually the dominant language of the country they live in. In the case of former colonies, this may not be the language spoken in the community at all, but the language of the former colonial power, for example English, French, Arabic, Dutch and Spanish. Languages that children may hear for the first time when they enter school.

Bilingual children

Children who speak a different language at home than the language in which they are taught at school will by definition become bilingual or multilingual. The degree to which they become bilingual may vary considerably however and depends on the goal of the school programme.

There are bilingual education programmes that aim at teaching children a second language at no expense to their first 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 biliteracy.

The majority of schools however offer education only in and through one language. 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’. Children lose or leave behind their mother tongues and use only the language of the school.

A third option, increasingly popular, are schools which offer bilingual education and which are aimed at bilingualism, but not in any of the languages spoken by the child at home. For example a child who speaks Somali at home and is enrolled in an English/Dutch bilingual programme.

Rutu’s Mission: Making Mother Tongue Education The Norm

The mission of the Rutu Foundation is to make mother tongue education the norm, rather than the exception.

By this we do not mean that children should be offered education in their mother tongues only. We believe that in today’s globalized world, all children benefit from a multilingual education which offers them an opportunity to become fluent in their mother tongues as well as in the official language of the state, and one or more foreign languages, allowing them to pursue higher education, to communicate easily in more than one language, through different media and to contribute meaningfully to society.

Overwhelming evidence demonstrates that the best way to achieve this is by educating children in and through their mother tongues, alongside a second and/or third language.

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

Benefits of mother tongue education

There are many benefits associated with an education that takes into account children’s mother tongues:

  • 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
  • Studies have reported that when children take advantage of their multilingualism they also enjoy higher socioeconomic status, including higher earnings
  • On average, the schools perform better,reporting less repetition
  • Finally, schools report children stay in school longer

Is there a perfect model?

There is no one model that fits all contexts in which multilingual children are learning and which meets all of their learning needs. Mother tongue based multilingual education takes 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.

What about multilingual classrooms?

In classrooms where 10 or more different mother tongues are spoken, a situation that is fast becoming the norm throughout Europe, it would not be practically feasible to provide a full blown bilingual education programme for each student. The best approach here is not to ignore all languages and opt for one language only, as is frequently the case. Rather, translanguaging is a new pedagogic strategy and shows exciting results when all languages are valued, when children are offered opportunities to use their home languages in the classrooms, to make homework assignments in their mother tongue or to collaborate at school with students who speak the same language.

Through our Language Friendly School programme we want to encourage schools to develop linguistically inclusive learning environments for all learners by welcoming and valuing all languages spoken. The Language Friendly School is both a label and a global network. In 2020, the Language Friendly School was selected as one of the top ten world’s most inspiring educational innovations in Bilingual Education.