Mother tongue for educational success

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Mother tongue for educational success

With India becoming a more mobile society and marriage barriers breaking down, there has been a greater tendency among parents to reject the mother tongue. When Mummy is Bengali, Daddy speaks Marathi, and the family lives in Bengaluru, why teach the child an Indian language at all? Why not speak the common language of English at home? 

It is after all the language of India’s work force and the medium of instruction at school. While this reasoning sounds logical, unfortunately, it is not pedagogically appropriate. Here’s why learning the mother (and father) tongue(s) will benefit the child educationally:

Identity

The most important benefit of maintaining the mother/father tongue is maintaining cultural identity. Research demonstrates that children having a strong identity perform better in school. Identity is derived from both heritage and personal accomplishments. While personal accomplishments will come with time and age, it is important that parents develop pride in their children’s cultural background(s).  Language is one part of culture.

Another way to develop cultural pride is to have grandparents, uncles and aunts tell stories that pass down family history. However, this opportunity will be lost if the child is robbed of the language, especially if there are relatives who speak only the native tongue. In fact, even if relatives speak English, the stories may lose details if not related in the old language. This identification with both language and stories will help build a strong sense of self in children that will translate into higher marks at school.

Ability to think

Also, learning more than one language develops exponentially greater cognitive ability in children. When children are born, their brains are like sponges. Children absorb everything around them. And every time a child learns something new, s/he forms synapses or connections in his/her brain, which enhance his/her capacity for future learning. Then, when the child learns English, whether at school or at home, the brain further develops. Now, brain development is not simple mathematics.

It is not ‘x’ connections for each language, so ‘2x’ connections if the child learns two languages. Children will also learn to create bridges in their minds across the languages. This not only increases their brainpower but also increases their ability to think flexibly, a skill highly valued in the global market. Thus, knowing one’s native language provides larger than expected benefits.

Transference

The strength of the mother tongue is a powerful predictor of how strong the child’s educational language will be. This is because of transference. While vocabulary and sentence structure may differ, there are many concepts that can be learned in one language that need not be relearned in another.

For instance, concepts such as story structure, cause and effect, emotions, telling time, addition and subtraction do not change from one language to another. All of these concepts can be developed at higher levels when children have access to their extended family. This access is usually enhanced if the child knows the native language.

The construct of transference should also ease the concern of parents who may believe that children who learn the native language first will trail classmates who are monolingual in English. While primarily English-speaking children may seem advanced in the beginning, children who begin school knowing the native language will catch up quickly if they have fully developed their native language abilities. 

In fact, the more complex a child’s thoughts are in his/her native language, the quicker the child will surpass his English-only classmates.  This is because the child with advanced skills in his native language does not need to learn the concepts the other children are learning; the child only needs to learn vocabulary and will pick this up quickly.

A resource to the world

While most of this article has been about how knowing the native language is a benefit to the child, when children know more than one language, it is also a resource to the community at large. Being able to take care of or provide joy to ageing relatives has no price tag.  Tomorrow, your child might want to serve the poorer community that is largely illiterate in English and thus, help elevate India as a whole.  Or s/he may simply want to do business with this community, and native language skills will help both him/her and the economy.

What can you do to make sure that your child gets the best language background possible? Here is a list of three, simple suggestions to help you as a parent:

Have each person who interacts with your child talk in his/her native tongue. If the mother speaks Tamil and the father speaks Telugu, mother should communicate in Tamil, and father should communicate in Telugu with the child. While many families think this will be confusing, children are capable of picking up both languages without any difficulties. And make sure that each of you talks a lot so that the child picks up on concepts such as emotions, cause and effect etc.

Do not forget to maintain the native tongue(s). While there is much discussion about how quickly children learn, people often ignore how quickly children can forget. Just as the brain is constantly forming connections during the early years, the brain is also constantly pruning itself in an effort to be more efficient. 

This pruning process means that the brain destroys anything unused. A simple proof of this is that people generally do not have memories (unless traumatic) from when they were toddlers. 

The brain typically destroys these memories because they are not actively being used. The ability to speak in any language is the same. If the brain is not using the language, it destroys all recollection of it, and if a child loses the native language, s/he will also lose the benefits we have discussed.

 Provide resources for children to build their English vocabulary. While teaching children the native language is important, once they begin school and throughout their education, make sure you keep providing students the opportunity to build their English vocabulary.  
Vocabulary knowledge is the only skill that does not transfer from Indian languages to English.

While the children are little, surround them with books. Newspapers and magazines geared towards children are also helpful.  As students grow older, more deliberate activities to build their vocabulary such as practising with flashcards and/or workbooks will help.  By building their native language abilities while not neglecting their English development, students will have the best of all worlds.

Overall, it is of paramount importance that children are given the opportunity to learn their native tongue. By denying them the opportunity to do so, parents are, without so desiring, holding back their education.  

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