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Harnessing the power of mother language: why education in a language you understand is vital

A big divide

Most of us are fortunate enough to start school and be taught in a language we have already learned to speak at home. More often than not, worrying if we’re going to be able to communicate with our fellow pupils and new teachers isn’t high on our list of first day woes. Going to school and learning in a language we know is, we assume, just a matter of course.

Sadly, the same can’t be said for many millions of children around the globe.

According to UNESCO over 40% of the world’s population doesn’t receive an education in a language they know or speak. It’s an astonishing figure and one that is now giving cause for concern worldwide.

Why is mother language so often ignored in school?

The reasons behind the startling statistic are varied. In some countries governments have favoured the use of designated official national languages in schools in the belief that acquiring these will give pupils an easier pathway to succeed in a world where English and a handful of other languages call the shots. In Kenya for example, pupils are taught in Swahili and English only, despite the country having 66 other local languages.

Indigenous languages are often ignored in state education. Although attitudes are beginning to change, languages spoken by Indigenous peoples have in the past been seen as lacking prestige and a wider usefulness. The preferred emphasis has been on cultural homogeneity, meaning that indigenous languages get left behind.

Migration and displacement cause many children to grow up speaking a different language with their family to the one spoken in the mainstream education system where they live. In the US the percentage of the population that speaks Spanish at home is 13.3 and people of Hispanic origin are predicted to make up  27.5% of the population there by 2060. Although bilingual education programs are now growing in the US, historically English has always been the language of instruction.

The proof is in the research

Our mother language is precious. Neuroscience research has shown that when we use our native tongue, it takes less brain power than when we use languages we’ve learned later on in life. It’s not a big leap to therefore conclude that if our mother language comes more easily, we can tap into that extra mental energy to focus on learning other things in other areas.

Studies have consistently shown that teaching children in non-native languages has detrimental effects on their learning, particularly in the primary years. Cognitive skills in numeracy and problem-solving are better nurtured when taught in a child’s mother tongue and writing ability suffers if teaching isn’t received in a child’s first language.

Beyond the classroom

A lack of mother language education not only hinders academic progress. The secondary effects can be harmful and are known to contribute to the perpetuation of poverty, especially in more isolated communities. Illiteracy rates are often higher for speakers of indigenous and minority languages when little mother tongue teaching is available and access to higher education and improved professional prospects is therefore more limited.

Emotional wellbeing can also be harmed. Imagine being in a classroom and not understanding what is being said. Feelings of frustration and inadequacy would be natural and self-confidence would take a hit. These are issues which can have consequences throughout a person’s life.

The benefits of mother language education

When children are taught in their mother language in the early years of their education, they learn more quickly and research shows they are more likely to successfully finish their schooling. Acquiring their foundation learning in their own language gives them a solid platform from which to later learn a second language and then access the advantages that this second language can bring.

When the home language and the language of instruction correspond, parents can take a more active role in their child’s education and engage in supporting them with homework and reading. Using a mother language outside the home also boosts pride in the culture represented by home life and in turn reinforces a person’s cultural identity and self-esteem.

All languages matter

Providing education in multiple languages is now seen as the best way of nurturing children’s learning whilst at the same time safeguarding the value of their mother tongue. In primary years education bilingual or multilingual teaching is proven to enhance pupils’ academic progress and is actively promoted through UNESCO’s campaigns.

Speaking languages is a superpower only humans possess. Not caring for and supporting this precious ability is a mistake. It’s only by ensuring everyone in the world is able to use and access services in their mother language that we can fully preserve and nourish the amazing resource that is our linguistic diversity.


Read our blog on native speaker competence and learn about why the translation industry puts such a high professional value on working in a mother language.

International Mother Language Day