Created and adapted from research by Heather Vlach for International School Bangkok families and teachers

Welcome! Together we will explore the importance of Mother Tongue development in the early years and the research that supports it.


What is Mother Tongue?

Mother tongue refers to the language that a human learns from birth. Throughout this site, you will notice the words "mother tongue", "first language", and "native language" are often intermixed. These terms are all related to this same idea, and refer to the language a child is first exposed to, particularly from birth to 9 months. Children growing up in bilingual homes can have more than one mother tongue, provided that two languages were introduced at birth and equally developed through childhood.

ISB & Mother Tongue

Teachers and parents marvel at how quickly our young children seem to absorb conversational English in their initial schooling years. However, parents and teachers need to be aware of the fragility of the mother tongue. The early years (Before Pre-Kindergarten - 2nd Grade) are also when children are extremely susceptible to both losing the ability to use their mother tongue, even in the home context . ISB strongly recommends that families only speak in their mother tongue to their children, particularly throughout these early years of learning. The children are exposed to English throughout their school day at ISB, and are provided ample time and positive nourishment to engage in, explore, and flourish in the English language. When the children return home, they should also return to their home language, and without the interference of English tutoring. ISB strongly encourages families to use the mother tongue extensively in their homes, the community, and other outside school experiences. Parents have the power to eliminate the risk of their children losing mother tongue language and skills by providing opportunities for conversations that entail rich language use in the mother tongue. This will not only support maintaining the mother tongue, but enhance English language learning in addition to other languages they may choose to later learn.

Mother Tongue and Second Language

The level of development of children's mother tongue is a strong predictor of their second language development.
Children who come to school with a solid foundation in their mother tongue develop stronger literacy abilities in the school language. When parents and other caregivers create time to spend time with their children and tell stories or discuss issues with them in a way that develops their mother tongue vocabulary and concepts, children come to school well-prepared to learn the school language and succeed educationally. Children's knowledge and skills transfer across languages from the mother tongue they have learned in the home to the school language. From the point of view of children's development of concepts and thinking skills, the two languages are interdependent. Transfer across languages can be two-way: when the mother tongue is accepted at school and promoted at home, the concepts, language, and literacy skills that children are learning in the majority language can transfer to the home language. In short, both languages nurture each other when the educational and home environment permits children access to both languages.

Family Language Plans

Most of our families attending ISB are not native English speakers, or have families made up of mixed cultures and languages. When you have more than one language spoken in your house, or if your child attends a school (Such as ISB) where he or she is learning another language, it is important to have a Family Language Plan in place. By implementing, and remaining consistent with a chosen Family Language Plan, you are guiding your child (Or children) in a positive language learning direction.
Family Language Plan Strategies

Language Action Plan

It is evident that ISB parents are actively involved and want what is best for their children. After the first time presenting the Mother Tongue works shop , several parents asked for an "action plan " regarding what specifically to do linguistically. Use these questions and steps to reflect upon and begin the journey toward a happy, healthy, and educationally sound path in language learning and success.

Research Points

What does the research say?
  • The key to literacy engagement for English Language Learners (ELL) is connecting what they know in their first language to English.
  • Conscious control and depth of one's mother tongue language facilitates the learning of a second language in the formal school setting.
  • English Language Learners draw on their knowledge of other languages (Specifically their mother tongue) as they discover the complexities of the new language they are learning
  • Current views of second language development emphasize the interaction between the first language, cognitive processes, and the samples of the target language that learners encounter in the input
  • A child who sounds like a native speaker of English (Lacking accent from mother tongue) and may appear to have solid skills in English (Specifically on a social level), yet may not be able to function cognitively at the same level. Teachers and ELL specialists need to take caution in this area, as the child's abilities may mask the reality
  • Early second language learning needs to be approached cautiously. Young children can lose their native language in their early years, as their native tongue is still developing. This can result in subtractive bilingualism, or semilingualism, both of which can have lasting negative consequences on academic development, emotional development, and on family dynamics. Again, children who begin their schooling in a language they are grounded in will have more success, more self-confidence, and will be able to learn a second language more effectively in the early school years

Benefits of Bilingualism

It is often questioned, particularly in the United States, whether bilingualism is an advantage or a disadvantage. Internationally, we must look at the level of bilingualism that we’re talking about. Students who are "Limited Bilinguals" are those who are not fully fluent or literate in both their mother tongue and in the second language. This is obviously a disadvantage, and an issue that ISB educators and parents are looking to avoid. ISB and international families must work hand in hand to promote age-appropriate competency in both the mother tongue and the English language. By fully developing both languages, our students will become "Balanced Bilinguals". Balanced Bilinguals are those who have age-appropriate competency in both languages. Balanced bilingualism brings many positive cognitive benefits:
  • Strong level of creativity
  • Solid problem-solving ability
  • Superior awareness of language properties
  • Monolingual people only use 20% of their brain! When another language is learned, a different area of the brain is activated and engaged, utilizing a greater percentage of the brain
  • Greater capacity for inventiveness and creativity with oral and written language
  • Greater sensitivity to grammatical functions
  • Heightened respect for different languages and cultures, creating learners with a more global approach to life
  • Higher performance rate than monolinguals on tests of intelligence and tests of fluency, flexibility, and originality
  • Greater marketability in the professional world

Language Learning Tips

Here are some tips for your family that can support the development and strengthening of the Mother Tongue, which will ultimately also enhance additional languages that are learned.
  • Make a Plan and Set a Goal: Decide which Family Language Plan suits your family situation and your child. Think about your mother tongue and the research that supports preserving and enhancing this language. Determine the level of language ability you want your child to development in both the mother tongue and language learned at school.
  • Your Commitment: After you have chosen Family Language Plan strategy, please be consistent with it! Changes will not occur overnight, and you may even find that your child will rebel from the linguistic plan. Be persistent, perseverant, and patient!
  • Speak Your Language Properly: When talking to your child, speak your language articulately, using rich vocabulary, and without the use of "baby talk". Use the appropriate names and create whole, articulate sentences. Children can handle this, and develop stronger language skills (In multiple languages) as a result. You can develop Mother Tongue skills by reading, talking and writing in your native language.
  • Different Topics: Talk about everything (In your mother tongue, of course)! Speak with your child about what is happening around you, encourage your child to ask questions, and take the time to answer them too. Remember, knowledge, skills and concepts that are learned in the native language can easily be transferred into another language. However, if no concepts are learned in the mother tongue, the vocabulary and literacy of the child will be very limited - in all the languages that he/she is studying.
  • Different Means: Follow up your Family Language Plan with music, books, stories, tapes and computer software in your mother tongue language. You can also create native language games according to your child's development, and make your own collection of rhymes and riddles that can be used over and over again.
  • Broad Range of Conversation Partners: Show your child that other people speak your language too. Your child needs to hear the language from many different speakers (Old, young, male and female voices, various accents and dialects, and in different media such as the telephone or radio). Enlist the help of family members to help support this. Also, mix with other people from the community who speak your language to expose your child to different situations and environments. This allows the child to learn how adults communicate, as he/she has the opportunity to listen to communication between same language speakers.
  • Take Your Language To School: Let teachers, other parents and children at ISB know, what language(s) your family speaks. It is important to know that teachers support your mother tongue, and often encourage parents to participate in creating a multicultural climate with global students through projects and information about your culture and language. Children feel a deeper sense of cultural pride and self-awareness when they know that their mother tongue is valued both at home and school.
  • Praise Your Child and Have Fun!: Continue to positively nurture and praise your child's growth and development both at home and school. Support your child at his/her own pace. Focus on the fun involved and avoid stress. Enjoy and praise every little progress and focus on small success.

Fact or Fiction?

More than one language confuses the child and it mixes the languages: FICTION
No, research shows that having more than one language only provides advantages to a child. Bilingual children often go through a state when they mix languages. This is normal, and a stage that typically passes.

A language is just a language, and the diminishing of the mother tongue is not that big of a deal: FICTION
Language is not only the means of communication, but it is also deeply connected with culture. If children lose their mother tongue in the early years, they are also losing a part of their culture, resulting of the stripping of identity. Language is not just a language, it also means learning and understanding the culture that the language belongs to.

Speaking more the second language without accent means that you are bilingual: FICTION
It is not unusual for younger language learning children to speak their second language without a foreign accent. The lack of accent is a physical issue and has nothing to do with the amount or level of language that the child has achieved.

Questions & Answers

The questions below are real questions that ISB parents have asked. Please ask questions! We are partners in educating our children, and clear understanding and communication can only enhance and benefit our children's learning journey and success.

Question: When my child has friends come to the house to play, I am confused about what language to speak if the friend does not speak our mother tongue.
Answer: Our ISB children interact in English every school day. It is the common language that links them together, and the language that was used to form their friendship. When your child has a friend of another language over, address the children in English. However, when directly speaking to your child about something not related to the play date, revert to your mother tongue. You become a language model for both your child, and the child he/she is playing with, sending the message that mother tongue is valued and used.

Question: My child's English is better than mine. It is helpful if I can use him as a translator in the community. Is it OK to do this?
Answer: As parents, we have determined that it is important for our child to learn an additional language for a variety of reasons. Your child has worked hard to obtain English. Show your child that you respect his hard work of obtaining the language. Challenge yourself to to take classes to learn English, and allow your child to see that you too struggle in the language learning process. Your child can connect to these experiences of frustration, and will understand and respect why he/she has been educated to learn more than one language. Using your child as an interpretor is not encouraged.

Question: When my child was born, I always spoke Thai, my mother tongue, to her. But by the time she was 2 or 3, I started to worry that she would need English to succeed at ISB. She is five years old now, and I am not sure anymore about what is right. What should I do?
Answer: Having a Family Language Plan is vital, but parents and even teachers, don't always know or fully understand this. If you started speaking Thai to your child from birth to age 2, then Thai is her mother tongue, and it still remains a part of her brain. It is important to determine what linguistic goals you have for your child. Do you want your child to be able to communicate with grandparents and other family members proficiently in her mother tongue? Do you want your child to feel a sense of pride about being Thai? Do you want your child to reap the benefits of being bilingual? It is not too late to revert back to speaking only Thai to her. However, once you commit to this, it is vital that you remain firm and consistent in doing this, and avoid language mixing. When she speaks to you in English, always answer her question in Thai. Do not force the language on her. The transition of returning to the mother tongue will not happen overnight, or even in a few weeks. It takes time, dedication and, most important, modeling and consistency by you. It is also important to notify the teacher about how language has been handled at home and find out if the child is struggling in English learning. Often times, when children are not grounded in their mother tongue, their second language suffers as well because they cannot make linguistic connections.

Question: My child's first language is Dutch, but his first reading experiences are in English. We've always spoken Dutch at home, but is it OK that English is the language where he is getting his first literacy skills? And when should I have him learn to read and write in Dutch?
Answer: When children learn a second language in the early years, it is common that they may also have their first reading and writing experience in this second language. This is OK. Knowing exactly when to introduce the child to mother tongue literacy skills is more difficult to respond to. This is always a "case by case" situation. Some parents wait until the English reading and writing skills are solid, and other parents have the child taking mother tongue reading/writing classes simultaneously. There is no specific "right" time to go about this. If you decide that your child will learn mother tongue literacy skills while he is learning English literacy skills, is important to keep an eye on your child's progress, remaining closely connected with all teachers involved to ensure that forward progress is continuing. If you decide to wait until your child is a little older and fluent in English literacy skills, this is OK too, as your child will have a connection to make that will transfer. It is a good idea to talk with both the classroom teacher and the ESL teacher that works in the mainstream classroom.

Question: When my child goes to the ISB library, she picks so many books that she always wants me to read at home. We are supposed to encourage our kids to practice reading, and to read to them, but I feel like I am getting mixed messages. Do I reject these English books? Should I translate them in to my mother tongue?
Answer: ISB does promote and foster the love of literature and we do encourage our parents to help support this by reading to the children at home. The library is a time of individual book choice. The children enjoy this freedom and often choose many books that they are excited about. Reading the children a bedtime story in English is perfectly acceptable. However, if you have limited time with your child to enhance the mother tongue, you may want to create a schedule for book reading that can work towards benefiting both the mother tongue and your child's enthusiasm for his/her English books. For example, perhaps on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, you can read your child's English library books, and on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, you can read books from that are in your mother tongue. Explain to your child why such a schedule and maintaining the mother tongue is important. By setting a routine and remaining consistent, your child will come to accept the schedule and comply with it. Another option, if you are limited in mother tongue literature, is to take the library books that are in English, and summarize each page in your mother tongue, essentially telling the story in your native language.

Recommended Reading

  1. Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among World
  2. Bilingual Children's Tongue: Why is it important for Education?
  3. Raising Multilingual Children