Solid reasons why you need to nurture your child’s mother tongue

The world has now become one big global village where our interconnectedness is growing because of a rise in regional and international migrations as well as a greater ease by which we now connect and communicate (thanks to technology!). In light of this growing ‘global-ness’, it almost goes without saying that: In order for one’s child to become a competent player on the global map, they need to be well-versed in at least one or two of the major/international languages like English, French, Spanish and the list goes on, plus of late, Mandarin-Chinese. One might, therefore, go on to wonder whether there is still need for a child of African origin –or any other race whose mother tongue is not a major language –to know their own mother tongue? Is there still a real, tangible, justifiable benefit to knowing one’s mother tongue? In present-day former British-colonised African countries where communicating in the Queen’s language is the order of the day, a parent might wonder whether nurturing their child’s mother tongue is even worth the try? If you are presently in need of a solid buy-in on this matter, please read on…

Reasons for nurturing the mother tongue in your child

  1. It makes learning in the early grade years easier for children.

It has been widely proved that children learn English (or any major language) more quickly and effectively when they maintain and develop proficiency in their mother tongue. According to Angelina Kioko (a professor of English and Linguistics at United States International University, Nairobi, Kenya), the reason is: the skills and concepts taught in the child’s home language do not have to be re-taught when they transfer to a second language. A child who knows how to speak, read or write in one language will develop the same skills in a new language faster. This child already knows that letters represent sounds and the only new learning he or she needs is how the new language ‘sounds’ its letters; they automatically transfer knowledge acquired in one language to another language as soon as they have learned sufficient vocabulary in the new language.

For example, she says, if you teach your child in their mother tongue, that seeds need soil, moisture and warmth to germinate, you do not have to re-teach this in English. When they have developed adequate vocabulary in English, they will translate the information.

Thus, it is an advantage for your child to be nurtured in their mother tongue because the knowledge and skills for language acquisition are easier transferable from one language to another.

  1. It helps children with matters of identity as they grow older.

When children are younger they hardly have issues with identity. But as they grow older, and are exposed to more people of different cultures and race, the need to define themselves and find their own place of belonging becomes apparent. Although there are a number of ways through which an African child can affirm their identity, their knowledge of mother tongue remains a key factor.

  1. It helps children to connect at a deeper and more meaningful level with key family members and the mother-tongue oriented community. The inability to speak one’s mother tongue is an area that is sadly widening the chasm between today’s child and key family members like grandparents. Because many a child in many an African household is now speaking English from a tender age, the intimacy and richness that they would otherwise have shared with extended loved ones (and their ability to effectively interact in circles that are mother-tongue oriented) is compromised because of the language barrier

Concerns usually associated with raising a bilingual child

  1. Will it not be too strenuous for my child to develop in two languages at the same time?
  • Innatists say: learning to speak is more similar to learning to walk than it is to learn a school subject. It comes naturally to a normal child because it is genetically programmed. American linguist, Noam Chomsky says a child does not come to the language learning task with a blank mind but has an innate disposition to learn the language and this applies to any language.
  • Studies have also revealed that whilst different natural languages (ie. isiZulu, ChiShona, KiSwahili, English, Chinese) have different rules or grammars, they also have many qualities in common which are known as linguistic universals. These similarities, therefore, mean that the process of learning any natural language is quite similar.
  • Chromsky refers to the child’s innate general language learning ability as the Language Acquisition Device (LAD). He claims that children have a blueprint in the brain that allows them to recognize the structure-dependence of language and to manipulate these structures. If a child has a properly functioning LAD then language will develop, regardless of the kinds of language experience the child is exposed to, as long as they are raised in an otherwise nurturing environment

From these three reasons alone (and believe me there are plenty!), it becomes quite apparent that children are well able to cope with learning more than one language at the same time

  1. Are there any other benefits (apart from cultural identity) that come from nurturing bilingualism in my child?

There are social, linguistic and cognitive advantages to raising a child who is bilingual

  • Social skills. Bilingual children are able to interact with speakers of (at least) two languages and thus have direct access to two different cultures. This ability also increases their respect for different languages and cultures, resulting in individuals who are more embracing and tolerant of others. Being bilingual also has the advantage of increasing one’s marketability in the professional world.
  • Linguistic skills. Bilingual children have been found to have a superior awareness of language properties and a greater capacity for inventiveness and creativity with oral/written language. It has also been proved that they have a raised awareness for grammatical functions, how language “works”. For example, bilinguals are better than monolinguals of the same age at pinpointing that the sentence “apples grown on trees” is bad, and “apples grow on noses” is fine, but doesn’t make sense.
  • Cognitive skills. Research has shown that bilinguals have a higher performance rate than monolinguals on tests of intelligence, fluency and flexibility. Bilingualism is also known to be a key contributor to the development of executive function (a set of cognitive skills that help a person to manage and organise themselves successfully). This is probably due to the practice of switching languages which makes bilinguals better able to take different perspectives, deal with conflicting cues and ignore irrelevant information.
  1. Is nurturing the mother tongue in my child really achievable when they are growing up in an environment and society where they are taught in and constantly exposed to a major language (i.e.English)?

Nurturing your child’ mother tongue is very attainable but it is not a walk in the park. A parent needs to be resolute about their child acquiring their mother language and they also need to be clear about the extent to which they want the child to be proficient. According to Adam Beck, founder of the Bilingual Monkeys Blog and author of the book, Maximize Your Child’s Bilingual Ability:

The challenge of raising a bilingual child is a marathon, not a sprint, and reaching the farther goal requires all the desire and determination, all the energy and endurance, demanded of long-distance running. And, like running, where getting from start to finish involves putting one foot after the other, over and over again, supporting the long-term language development of a bilingual child is a process that can only be addressed in small, persistent steps, day after day. When it comes to raising bilingual children, make no mistake: As important as suitable strategies and techniques are to this quest, they’re ultimately secondary to your desire and determination, your energy and endurance.

Nurturing your child’s mother tongue in the 21st century is therefore still absolutely needful and beneficial! It does, however, require the parent to have a solid buy-in on the matter because it is not an overnight job. If nurturing your child’s mother tongue is something you value, or something you’d seriously like to embark on, you will find helpful tips in our next article, 7 Practical Ways to Effectively Nurture Your Child’s Mother Tongue


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