What is mother tongue?
I speak three languages, Mandarin, Zhuang Language and English. Zhuang language is a local dialect which sounds totally different from Mandarin but more similar to Thai. My roommates in the university found it so funny when I spoke to my parents on the phone. Zhuang language is my mother tongue because it was my most spoken language when I was brought up, until school age. I use it to speak to my parents, sister, and my close families.
For the children of migrant families, their mother tongue can be referred to as their first language or native language. English is their second language that they speak in their social interactions such as play groups, preschool etc…
Why is mother tongue important for children?
The mother tongue for a child means more than just language, but involves her or his personal, social and cultural identity. It is important that parents speak their own mother tongue to their children. These are the main benefits for the children who are learning their first language at a young age:
Promote positive ethnic or cultural identities
If children have a strong foundation in their native language, they tend to have positive attitudes towards their own cultural identities. Their self-confidence and pride towards family are strengthened and this leads to greater acceptance and appreciation for diversity.
For me, speaking my mother tongue gives me a sense of where I belong. It is not until now, living in another country, that I have strong feelings abnout my cultural identity. Knowing who I am, where I come from allows me feeling comfortable in my own skin and also being open-minded to different cultures. I have seen children who have a strong sense of cultural identity, proud of being part of their culture and community, and generally are more confident in themselves.
Foster language skills
Some parents might have some concerns that raising children in a bilingual environment puts them at risk for language delay or confusion. However, research has shown that children are capable of learning two languages at the same pace as other children who are learning only one language. When children develop their mother tongue, they are able to transfer their understanding of the structure of language to the learning of the second language. Studies uncovered that children with a strong first language found it easier to pick up an additional language and develop their literacy skills.
Boost the cognitive development
Research has shown that children who are exposed to more than one language is an excellent approach to flex those brain muscles—and building them up, too! Think about the child has to switch between two languages according to the context and the moment in time. It helps improve critical thinking skills as well as cognitive flexibility because the child are exploring how to phrase and use the language of choice in different situations.
“Learning another language is not only learning different words for the same things, but learning another way to think about things.”