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Author: Mary Langford, EAL Specialist (Mother Tongue & International Education)

A growing number of international schools are demonstrating the importance and value of their students’ and teachers’ ‘first languages’ by celebrating International Mother Language Day. This annual event (held on 21st February each year) was celebrated at the start of this century by the UN Declaration. Simply put, the purpose of International Mother Language Day is to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism.

Celebrations in international schools

While international schools cannot compete with UNESCO’s claim that there are over 6000 spoken languages worldwide, international schools can often be a fascinating microcosm of this polyglot world with as many as 20 to 40 languages represented in their student, staff and parent bodies. International schools are always keen to showcase their diversity through activities such as ‘international days’ and international language days. This is where families and teachers share dishes from their home countries and cultures, wear native dress, and feature music and dance from different home cultures as entertainment, all centred in a hall draped with flags from dozens of countries represented in the school community. However, seasoned international school educationalists often discuss the superficiality that can characterise such events, sometimes cynically referred to as the ‘Five Fs: Food, Flags, Festivals, Fashion and Fun’.

While International Mother Language Day is a wonderful opportunity for schools to showcase the linguistic heritage of our communities, it could and should go a lot further. UNESCO clearly set this out, by stating: ‘UNESCO believes everyone has the right to learn in their own language and that it is an important means to improving learning, learning outcomes and socio-emotional development.’ In English-medium international schools, the focus is understandably on English, and where there are EAL learners, the teachers and parents particularly are concerned with the pace of English language acquisition. This is because academic success is likely to be determined by assessment tools including examinations, which are set in English.

The Mother Tongue Question

Teachers who want nothing more than for their students to fully benefit from the classes they are offering, and the English language resources that support that learning, band together to do all they can to facilitate the shared goal of achieving full English language proficiency, often to the detriment of any consideration of the student’s mother tongue (which is often seen as a distraction and a detriment to English language improvement). This is alongside aspirational parents who are anxious about their children’s ability to access the curriculum in order for them to be successful, academically and socially. Studies indicate that full CALP (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency) can take 5-7 years, which is a very long time to allow the student to disengage and set aside mother tongue proficiency.

Why is it that the Mother Tongue question is often overlooked in schools? The obvious answer is that managing numerous mother tongue languages is not within the bandwidth of the school. What are the chances of having teachers capable of teaching mother tongue languages to students aged 3-18? Even if teachers can be found, how to manage them is another challenge; timetabling and paying teachers, alongside identifying and procuring appropriate resources can be difficult. Teachers may feel that the mother tongue is just not their responsibility. Parents, especially those who feel they are making a considerable investment in the English-medium school, will implore that they want their children to learn English and that they are not concerned about the mother tongue. “We speak it at home” is the classic answer. Therefore, the mother tongue conundrum is parked, and unveiled once a year for International Mother Language Day.

At this stage, it is probably useful to point out that there are various terms that are being used in addition to ‘mother language’. These include mother tongue, home language, first language and heritage language, but they essentially all refer to the primary language used in the home and family environment. It is also worth noting that in an increasingly multicultural and globalised world (and with the growth of ‘blended’ and ‘extended families’), some children are raised in homes where two or more languages may be used.

Why teaching children their mother tongue is important

How does one even determine what the ‘mother language’ is and why should we encourage children to develop full literary proficiency in that/those language/s? To clarify, I mean not just ‘we speak it at home’, but also learning to read and write in that language, ideally to an age-appropriate level. When English-speaking colleagues, or international school parents (who typically, though not always, have been fully educated in their first language) ask this question, I raise the following points:

  • What if you had grown up and gone through school only ever hearing your language on the radio? You were never taught how to read, how to recognise the symbols known in English as ‘letters’, what the funny marks that punctuate the text are, and that you read and write from left to right (instead of right to left, or from top to bottom)?
  • What if you never learnt to read the script (regardless of whether it was print script, joint-up or cursive)?
  • What if you never learnt how to write? Everything you know about your language was learnt from listening to the BBC World Service!? There would be such gaping deficiencies.

It is critical to note that it is through language we learn about culture, whether it is someone else’s language or our own. To deprive a student of mother language literacy is to deprive a student of understanding his or her cultural identity, and for children growing up in an international school environment, understanding one’s cultural identity can become compromised or changed inevitably. Children who become balanced bilinguals and develop mother language proficiency (ideally from an early age), in addition to acquired languages such as English, are equipped to become global citizens. This, according to UNESCO, advances inclusion and Sustainable Development Goals, which builds sustainable societies and promoted world peace. No pressure!


In conclusion, and again citing UNESCO, preserve traditional knowledge and cultures in a sustainable way. Languages, with their complex implications for identity, communication, social integration, education and development, are of strategic importance for both people and the planet. Yet, due to globalisation processes, they are increasingly under threat, or disappearing altogether. When languages fade, so does the world’s rich tapestry of cultural diversity. Opportunities, traditions, memory, unique modes of thinking and expression (which are valuable resources for ensuring a better future) are also lost.’

So, by all means, celebrate International Mother Language Day, but consider whether some of these activities and strategies could be used throughout the year!

Mary Langford has worked for over 40 years as an international educator working in several international schools and for four years as Deputy Executive Director of ECIS.  She currently works as a consultant with Across Cultures and also manages the International Language and Literature Teacher’s Cooperative – an organisation that provides experienced IB Mother Tongue Language teachers who support IBDP SSST Literature A students in IB Schools Worldwide, and also pre-IBDP students who seek to maintain their mother tongue proficiency. You can find out more about her work here.

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