In an earlier post, “Education for Chinese Christian Families—Another Way,” I talked about how more and more parents in China are looking for an alternative education for their younger children and how international schools in neighboring countries are becoming an option for some of them. I also mentioned my concern for children not being able to read or write Chinese characters. It is in fact a big concern for me. Let me share a little bit more of the basis of my thoughts.
For those of you, like myself, who are non-native English speakers, you know how essential it is to speak and to function in English. If you were to be in the secular world, it would open up opportunities. If you, like myself, serve the Lord full time for decade after decade in Asia, you will know that as cross culture workers, leaders, or member care providers, almost everything we do is done in English. English is a necessity. As a third-culture kid consultant, I regularly meet children with very limited English, and yes, it can be a challenge. Still, they are less of a concern to me than the parents who so eagerly want their child or children to learn English that they actually sacrifice their own native language. Is learning English coming at the cost of being able to proudly read, write, and speak our own mother tongue?
Why Is a Mother Tongue so Important?
When a baby is born the very first language that baby hears is the mother tongue or the birth language. We can even go back a few months, because we know that even the unborn baby in the womb can hear and recognize voices. Around six to seven months into the pregnancy, the baby can recognize his or her mother’s voice.1 Finally, being born hearing that voice even more clearly creates a healthy and sound attachment. With a healthy attachment you have a better chance in life and a better chance to create a healthy relationship to self and others.2 The mother tongue, being the language that a child gets to hear after birth, is an important part of helping a child to define and shape their feelings and thoughts. Studies have shown that cognitive development and intellectual development are comparatively faster in children who are fluent in their mother tongue.3 The mother tongue has a tremendous positive impact on an individual’s personality, as personality is linked to culture.
Language Is Culture
Any language learner would know that this is true. You can memorize all the right words and remember the grammar structure, but if you don’t know how and when to use it in a culturally appropriate way, it is still just some words separate from the world of flesh and blood.
Language is culture. Our mother tongue keeps our cultural heritage alive.4 The mother tongue helps us stay connected to our traditional, cultural values and our roots.
Knowing your mother language well also gives you better self-esteem. I see this very often in the TCKs I am working with. It enriches one’s confidence and creates awareness in one’s mind while also connecting with his cultural identity.
Back in the days in the 1990s where we lived in the northwest corner of the country there were minority schools and many of our language teachers, neighbors, and friends sent their children there. Not only did they learn their language well, but the walls, the ground, the teachers, and students also carried with them the history and culture of that language. The food, the songs, and the way of interaction was all colored by that culture.
Knowing your history and your culture gives you roots and they create belonging. A sense of belonging is important for your emotional wellbeing. By knowing where you are from—your roots—you can grow your wings; wings will carry you to new places as a healthy person.5 Your mother tongue enables a profound connection with your culture and community.
Just as in the story in my previous blog post, where the little girl did not know how to read or write Chinese could not read what her grandmother wrote, the same goes for any language. Knowing how to read and write in your mother tongue is a critical tool to relate to loved ones and to keep the family connections fully alive.
Mother Tongue Fluency Fuels Second Language Proficiency
When a person knows their mother language well, it is easier for them to learn a new language. If a child can read and write in their mother tongue, research shows that they will have more substantial reading and writing skills in other languages.
Learning in the mother tongue is also crucial for improving other critical thinking skills. Research points to how incomplete or inadequate skills in the first language make learning another language difficult for the child.
Educational success achieved in one’s mother tongue is higher than that of someone taught in a language other than their mother tongue. Research indicates that education in the mother tongue is a key factor for inclusion and quality learning, leading to improved learning outcomes and academic performance. This is crucial, especially in primary school, to prevent knowledge gaps. Research is very clear on how children with a solid foundation in their mother tongue have better educational success.
The Waterlily Children
When I underwent my teacher’s training back in the late 1980s, I remember hearing about the concept of “waterlily children” from the Finnish linguist Tove Skutnabb-Kangas.6 These were children who had immigrated to Europe, possessing knowledge of several languages, but not proficient in any. Their mother tongue lacked grounding and roots, leading to the addition of new languages as fragile, thin roots, much like a waterlily. The waterlily, a flower that may appear pretty at first glance, reveals its lack of attachment upon closer inspection, merely floating around.7 When moving to China with our own children later on, I often had the image of waterlilies in my mind, and I tried to remind myself not to create such a situation.
As Tove puts it: “the waterlily symbolizes linguistic development, specifically the development of the mother tongue and its relationship with the acquisition of additional languages. Waterlily flowers on the surface represent languages. A single primary root grounds multiple flowers, which all depend upon that same root to thrive. In the same way, all additional languages depend on their primary root—the mother tongue language—to remain healthy. Spoken language is what floats above the surface of the water, like the waterlily’s leaf and flower. The roots of the language lie unseen beneath the surface, like the waterlily’s stem and root. The strength of all the flowers depends on the strength of the primary stem leading to the root.”
Many parents are so excited about the prospect of their child being fluent in English that they neglect the most important foundation in learning English: fluency in their mother tongue. Far too often, I heard parents speaking English to their children using their very limited English and adding in local vocabulary. Unfortunately, this approach does not benefit the child; instead, this creates confusion in the child’s brain, and often ends up with children speaking neither proficient English nor their mother tongue effectively.
- Colleen de Bellefonds, “When Your Baby Can Hear in the Womb,” What to Expect, June 23, 2021, accessed September 8, 2023, https://www.whattoexpect.com/pregnancy/fetal-development/fetal-hearing/.
- “Attachment: A Connection for Life,” Caring for Kids.cps.ca, last updated May 2018, accessed September 8, 2023, https://caringforkids.cps.ca/handouts/pregnancy-and-babies/attachment#:~:text=Why%20is%20attachment%20important%3F,them%20with%20care%20and%20comfort.
- “The Importance of the Mother Language!,” Western Union.gr Blog, accessed September 8, 2023, https://www.westernunion.gr/en/the-importance-of-the-mother-language/.
- “The Importance of Roots and Wings for TCKs,” Workshop by TCK Consultant Lisette G.
- “Tove Skutnabb-Kangas,” Wikimedia Foundation, last modified June 29, 2023, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tove_Skutnabb-Kangas.
- Dawn Link, “Language, Culture, and Land: Lenses of Lilies,” Terralingua: Langscape Magazine, September 19, 2022, accessed September 8, 2023, https://terralingua.org/langscape_articles/language-culture-and-land-lenses-of-lilies/.
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