Mother Tongue Day, 21st Feb

By Dina Mehmedbegovic-Smith

Parental struggles to maintain their language at home: How can teachers and schools help?

Main picture: Bosnian Mother Tongue School South Ockendon, 1997/98. 

Parents are natural ‘policy makers’ within the family context. Their awareness and determination is a crucial factor deciding

whether their children will grow up as monolinguals or bilinguals. However, the other crucial factor is their environment. Even in the privacy of their own homes and the intimacy of family interactions, parents will be encountering either support or negativity towards bilingualism filtering in through interactions of their children with their peers, teachers and the media (including social media). The decision taken by the parents, as well as the support or criticism they will get from their relatives, friends and professionals, will critically depend on their knowledge of the possible advantages and disadvantages of bilingualism.

In my cycle of studies on attitudes to bilingualism, as listed on my bio page – I have interviewed many parents from different linguistic backgrounds. An example of one of my interviewees in Wales illustrates the importance of informed decision making. Many years ago, she decided to send her son to a monolingual (English) rather than bilingual (Welsh/English) school, but later regreted this decision:

If I had my time again I would send him (my son) to a Welsh medium school. I wasn’t a Welsh speaker, my husband wasn’t and I envisaged difficulties supporting my son if he was in Welsh medium education. Now I think the benefit of having bilingual education would outweigh that.’

What changed for her as a mother, was the knowledge about the benefits of bilingualism. As expressed by another interviewee:

They (parents) don’t quite understand why it (bilingual education) is an advantage.

The situation has changed through the Twf (Growth) initiative, launched in 2002 by the Welsh Assembly, providing health visitors and midwives visiting mothers and newborn babies with basic information on benefits of bilingualism, free packs with further information and free relevant toys for children. Mixed Welsh-English speaking families were targeted during a pilot, but the guidance and resources soon became available to all families. Moreover, specialist advice on the developmental, social and economic benefits of bilingualism has become a compulsory and integral part of the training for midwives and health workers in Wales. In the words of one of my interviewees:

A lot of parents opt for bilingual education (in Wales). It seems very positive. Not only middle class parents, but most parents want their children to be bilingual.’

In contrast to these developments in Wales, information on bringing up children bilingually is not available in any of the health, social or educational institutions that parents with young children are likely to visit in England. Once children start schooling, parents will be making contact with teachers, but teachers themselves are not given any guidance on what to say to parents about this issue. Often nothing is said.

Even if the children are taught the languages of their parents, currently, many do not develop literacy in them.

The development of literacy skills in first languages is mainly dependent on complementary, mother tongue schools or community schools. Held usually after school hours and on weekends, their timing inevitably clashes with more attractive activities like sports clubs. Children on the whole receive little recognition for the extra time and effort involved and mainstream teachers are often not aware of this additional schooling. Teaching standards or styles are not always satisfactory or appealing to children, often due to the lack of teaching materials and financial support. However, these schools remain the most valuable partners to bilingual parents in the process of first language maintenance.

Mainstream schools and teachers can also support bilingual families by giving bilingual children and their parents clear, affirmative, consistent messages, as advocated by our Healthy Linguistic Diet approach and promoted by websites cited below. It should become a part of the Healthy Schools Initiative, currently implemented in schools focusing on healthy eating and lifestyle. As well as using every opportunity to say: ‘It is good for you to eat fruit and vegetables every day’ we could also say: ‘It is good for you to speak, read and write in other languages’.

This basic principle became clear to me in a discussion with Bangladeshi boys in Pimlico School. One of the boys blamed bilingualism for his underachievement, but another countered: ‘I don’t think having two languages is a problem. I read in a scientific journal that it develops your brain!’ It is heartening to see that some 14 year old pupils take their own initiative to find out whether bilingualism is good for them or not. However, such information should be available to all pupils, parents, teachers and other professionals in schools, nurseries and health centres. Health and Education institutions should work in partnership to develop a joint approach based on evidence of multiple benefits of bilingualism across the life span!

The HLD website, together with other initiatives mentioned below, aims to facilitate a shift in thinking about learning languages as a key skill and a key ingredient in our cognitive development and well-being.

We advocate an approach focusing on the development of life-long habits of learning and using at least two, ideally three or more, languages, based on awareness that these type of activities will help us equip our brains for enhanced cognitive functioning from early years to advanced age. These habits will result in better focus during early childhood, superior educational attainment and improved quality of intellectual life in adulthood and advanced age.

An important part of our mission is to reach out to children, parents and communities with accessible knowledge on cognitive benefits of bilingualism. Our goal is to make benefits of using two languages as widely known as the health guidance: two litres of water a day!

Today HLD website celebrates one year!

It would be great to hear from our readers – comments and suggestions welcome.

Further useful information about bi/multilingualism can be found on the websites:

About the author

Dina is an associate professor of Education and Applied Linguistics at University College London, Institute of Education. Dina teaches on a range of programmes at PGCE, MA and doctoral level. She was on the core IOE team developing the National English as an Additional Language (EAL) Workforce Strategy; a key staff member in the development of the new programmes addressing the needs of bilingual children: MA in Bilingual Learners in Urban Settings, PGCE EAL Pathway and MA TESOL pre-service, which she currently leads. Her previous roles also include: Deputy Director of the London Education Research Unit (2009-11) and the editor of the IOE publication the London Digest, with the brief of generating and sharing knowledge on key education issues in London and global cities. Her research focuses on attitudes to bilingualism/multilingualism, minority languages and positioning of languages in relation to domination, political power and language disappearance. She is currently developing interdisciplinary work with colleagues from neuroscience aimed at providing a broader evidence base for advocating cognitive benefits of bilingualism in education and life-long learning. Her concept Healthy Linguistic Diet is an innovative approach to language learning and has been endorsed by the EU Commission in their report: Rethinking Language Education, as a part of the EU Language policy review.


Dina’s work on using autobiographical multimedia classroom approaches to develop intercultural competencies has been published and recognised as good practice by the Department of Education, NALDIC (National Association for Language Development in the Curriculum) and the British Council.

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