Photo by Kane Reinholdtsen on Unsplash

Unesco’s International Mother Language Day has been celebrated since 2000. The purpose is to celebrate that each language brings to the multicultural world we live in. In its website it is stated:

UNESCO believes in the importance of cultural and linguistic diversity for sustainable societies. It is within its mandate for peace that it works to preserve the differences in cultures and languages that foster tolerance and respect for others.  

Multilingual and multicultural societies exist through their languages which transmit and preserve traditional knowledge and cultures in a sustainable way.”

As an English teacher who has spent most of my career teaching in a monolingual context (in Brazil), where I was told – from a very early point – that Portuguese (our mother tongue) was not to be spoken – by either me or the students – in class, at any time, a day to celebrate our mother tongues may seem wrong. It was believed that we had to “isolate” students from any interference / influence from their mother tongue in order for them to fully learn the new language being taught.

Having said that, throughout the years I have come to understand that I can never, however hard I try, “clean” my English (or any other additional language I speak) from my L1 (or any other language I speak). And after 30+ years in the field, I don’t want to. The concept of keeping your mother tongue separate is unrealistic, because language (as we know) is not simply a code. Culture, history, habits permeate it, and you can`t dissociate them.  Everything that is embedded in a mother language influences meaning. Therefore, it seems silly to try to separate the learning of an additional language from one`s mother language. Yes, there are aspects that may interfere in what would be (still) considered “fluency” in an additional language – phonetic familiarity, grammatical structure, idioms that do not transfer, etc – use of language in general, really. But at the same time, it can be used to have a positive impact on learning.

When we factor in and acknowledge the mother language we have greater insights into common mistakes, why they happen and therefore we are able to more effectively address them and “correct the route”. It also allows teachers to bridge cultural gaps. But more importantly, bringing one’s mother tongue into the language learning journey allows teachers and students to recognise and explore differences, developing the students’ critical thinking skills, cultural awareness and understanding. These are essential elements for effective – and affective – communication. 

This year´s theme for Unesco´s Mother Language Day is Multilingual education is a pillar of intergenerational learning”.  It is a day not only to observe and appreciate the linguistic diversity we are lucky to live in, but especially to remind us that ALL languages are equally important. The fact that we are able to use languages (other than our mother language) to communicate with people from other countries and cultures does not mean that one language is more important or valuable than the other. Many languages are disappearing from the world, and with them goes a lot more: history, heritage, the possibility for younger generations to communicate and learn from older ones. Learning an additional language should also help us see more clearly the beauty and uniqueness of our own. 

We have to acknowledge that mother tongue education supports learning, literacy and the acquisition of additional languages. By fostering the presence of the students’ mother tongue(s) in the language classroom, not only do we better scaffold our students’ learning journey, but we celebrate their history and heritage. We broaden their awareness of the world and multiculturalism, and encourage their curiosity of other cultures and languages. If we live in a world where multiculturalism and multicultural interaction is an inescapable reality, this is one of the most important skills we have to develop in our students – to respect and celebrate diversity in all shapes and sizes.

So, here is my call for teachers to celebrate mother languages in language classrooms!

– Cecilia Lemos Harmer, TDSIG Co-Coordinator.