The Importance of Mother Tongue Education

The 21st of February is the International Mother Language Day, first announced by UNESCO in 1999, which promotes linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism.

What is a “mother language”? A more used term would be “mother tongue”, meaning the first language we learn in life (the term used by linguists). If you have several mother tongues, you would be a simultaneous bilingual/multilingual person. If you learn more languages later in life, you would be a sequentially bilingual/multilingual person. The term mostly used for a personal is bilingual, although the term multilingual is becoming more and more common and used by linguists.

My personal example: my mother tongue is Swedish. I learned English in kindergarten, and Spanish and German in school. I use my four languages on a daily basis: I speak Swedish with my children, German because I live in Germany and Spanish because my husband is Spanish. English I use at work.

Another term is “home language” or “heritage language” – I prefer to use “home language”. In our family Spanish and Swedish are our home languages.

The question is: why is education in the home language/mother tongue so important? Research[i] shows the importance of developing a person’s different languages at the same time. This is a financial challenge: who should pay for it? This has led to not many countries offering mother tongue instruction; Sweden being one of the few countries that do.

Being literate increasingly important
In today’s digitalized society, it is increasingly important to be literate in a language. Speaking is the main source of communication, but in order to fully participate in a society, you need to at least be able to read as well, writing is also often required. Just think of all formal papers you have to read nowadays, starting with e.g. insurance papers. Parents also might want the home language to be extended to more than oral knowledge.These are some of the main reasons for the need for mother tongue education.

If no mother tongue instruction is offered in the country where you live, you might consider homeschooling for your child in the mother tongue. This is something that might work quite well when the children are younger: you can play different games in your language and talk to them in a scaffolding manner (giving them the missing words). An example: talk about what you do, add words to your actions instead of just doing things. However, when the children grow up, it might become more difficult, since it is more of a “must”. Try to find what motivates YOUR child, and maybe consider some kind of “reward” for it (more mobile time etc.)


For resources, have a look on the internet. There are plenty of good homepages offering educational materials online – find a good one for your language. Remember though, that teaching your child can be hard sometimes, since they do not see you as a teacher, but “just” as a parent. The children might not see the need for the whole thing, and you have to give them the reasons for it. When the children are young, short term arguments will work better (“you can talk to grandma and grandpa, write to them on WhatsApp”) than long term arguments “(you will have more job opportunities”).

Also remember the importance of reading. Start reading aloud for your toddler in your mother tongue. If you don’t have books in your language, translate a book in another language as you read. At the beginning, the children won’t notice the difference. Reading aloud will give your child basic speech skills as well as future needed basic skills for school. Do not stop reading to the child when it can read itself, it will still enjoy the reading moments with you.

School alternatives or e-learning?
Also think about other alternatives. Maybe there is a private school nearby giving classes in your language (“Saturday schools” and “Voluntary schools”)? Or there might be an e-learning alternative? For Swedish as mother tongue abroad there are classes for children aged 6-12 as e-learning, offered by Svenska distans ( There might be one for your language as well!

[i] Hyltenstam, K., Axelsson, M. and Lindberg, I. (Eds.) (2012), Flerspråkighet – en forskningsöversikt, 5:2012, Vetenskapsrådet and  Baker, C. (2007), A parents’ and teachers’ guide to bilingualism, Parents’ and teachers’ guides, Vol. 9, 3rd ed., Multilingual Matters, Clevedon, Buffalo.


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