Supporting Mother Tongue

The IBO recommends that from at least the age of 7, all students in the International Baccalaureate (IB) Primary Years Programme (PYP) have the opportunity to learn more than one language. At Magic Years International School, we nurture the development of complex language from the early years. We recognize the importance of bilingualism and strengthening our students’ home languages while at the same time learning the school’s medium of instruction in English.

Research shows that children who have a strong foundation in their home language are more successful at school than monolinguals and enjoy a greater feeling of self-worth and identity.UNESCO

Supporting additional language learning happens in various ways, depending on the context of the school.

For example, students might be learning in:

  • a programme with one dominant language of instruction, which may be the student’s mother tongue or a second language
  • a bilingual programme where, most often, one of the languages of instruction is the student’s mother tongue
  • a programme that offers support for students who are new to the language(s) of instruction, as well as additional mother-tongue support.
The IB acknowledges that the development of the mother-tongue language is crucial for both cognitive development and maintaining cultural identity.

Supporting The Mother Tongue

Supporting Mother TongueEmbracing the home culture is a necessity to support the child’s mother tongue language. The identity of a child and his/her cultural needs to be given due attention so that the child is both intrinsically and extrinsically motivated to learn their mother tongue.

Research on second language acquisition and bilingualism has pointed to a link between proficiency in the first language and academic achievement in the second.

Cummins (1979) suggested that children need to attain a critical level of mother tongue proficiency in order to avoid negative cognitive consequences and as a result have increased success in second language acquisition.

Threshold Theory
The Threshold Theory explains that there may be certain levels of linguistic competence which bilingual children must attain both in order to avoid cognitive deficits and to allow the potentially beneficial aspects of becoming bilingual to take shape.
Interdependence Theory
The Interdependence Theory suggests that concepts and skills acquired in the first language are transferable to the second language (Cummins, 1984, 1991) and affect the rate and level of development in the second language. The idea is that the greater the first language abilities and the more underlying linguistic knowledge available to support the development of the second language, the more rapid and complete the acquisition. These functions develop alongside thinking skills.

Learning LanguageRelated to this is the notion that there is a “Common Underlying Proficiency” where concepts and skills acquired in the first language are transferable to or are accessible through the second language (Cummins, 2000).

This widely accepted theory explains that if the Common Underlying Proficiency is weak, this will affect the development of the second language. In order for children to have successful language acquisition attention needs to be given in schools to the value of both the Threshold and Interdependence Theory. Bernhardt (2000) reinforces this thought that instruction needs to accommodate the array of first languages that come into play among learners of second languages.

Benefits of Mother Tongue Program

Research tells us that children who maintain and develop their mother tongue receive the following benefits:

  • They avoid language loss and the resultant negative effects, for example, subtractive bilingualism (where the development of a second language is detrimental to the first language). They perform at least as well (often better) in mainstream subjects (science, humanities, etc) as monolingual students.
  • They perform at least as well (often better) as second-language students who don’t maintain their mother tongue and are schooled wholly in the second language.
They retain a positive attitude toward their mother tongue and cultural background when the school shows acceptance of the mother-tongue language, accounting for increased self-esteem and its resultant benefits.

How To Strengthen Mother Tongue

Learning Mother Tongue
An article titled “Supporting Children’s Mother Tongue in Our Schools” in the InTouch magazine published by the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation highlights several ways we can strengthen the mother tongue in our classrooms:

  • Children could be encouraged to do projects on similar themes in their own languages.
  • Read books and engage in some oral work within same language circles or read dual language books on their own.
  • Utilize parents to help setting up foreign language shared reading groups during reading time.
  • Paired reading between different grade levels within same language groups.
  • When new vocabulary and elements of grammar is introduced in English, links between it and other languages should be explored.
  • Encourage a tolerance for allowing children to speak their own language during informal class time or in the yard.
  • Allow children an opportunity to teach other classmates simple greetings and frequently used expressions.

Online Resources to Support the Mother Tongue

Here are some useful online resources that support the mother tongue including a range of audio stories for children to listen to at school, and at home:


  1. UNESCO. (2011) Mother Tongue-Based Bilingual or Multilingual Education in the Early Years., Enhancing Learning of Children From Diverse Language Backgrounds.
  2. Cummins, J. (1979). Cognitive/academic language proficiency, linguistic interdependence, the optimum age question and some other matters. Working Papers on Bilingualism, No. 19, 121-129.
  3. Cummins, J. (1984). Bilingualism and special education: Issues in assessment and pedagogy. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters.
  4. Cummins, J. (2000). Language, power and pedagogy: Bilingual children in the crossfire. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters.
  5. O’Connell, Julie. “Supporting Children’s Mother Tongue in Our Schools.InTouch Dec. 2012: 62-63. Online.
  6. Bernhardt, EB (2000). Second language reading as a case study of reading scholarship in the twentieth century. In M Kamil, P Mosenthal, PD Pearson., & R Barr, (Eds), Handbook of reading research, Volume III (pp 793–811). Hillsdale, NJ, Erlbau

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