Respecting Mother Tongues

In my experience, I have only once heard a teacher raving about a pupil’s bilingual abilities. This was some years ago now, in a school in East Yorkshire, when I was gaining work experience, and the class teacher introduced me to a 6 year old boy with a French father and an English mother. The boy could speak both French and English at an average level for a 6 year old. His bilingualism was really noteworthy.

It is funny how, since I have become a teacher, working in a school in which considerably over 90% of pupils speak English as an additional language, this bilingualism isn’t noteworthy. Nor the many who are trilingual in fact, and some are working on their fourth language. The picture is now commonplace across London and many other parts of the UK.



There is a monumental imbalance of prestige when it comes to language, and in terms of which languages are deemed to be worthy of exaltation. Many of my pupils are fluent in Bengali and English, in Gujarati and English, in Urdu and English. Quite how much of an achievement this is is so seldom considered by schools, ‘EAL’ being often substituted quite offensively as a proxy for disadvantage, and its merits taken for granted.

To be fluent or to be developing fluency in any two languages is an achievement, but when one considers the similarities – in terms of grammatical structure, similar etymological roots, cognate vocabulary – between French, German, Spanish, Italian and English, it is fair (I think) to say that it requires a greater level of skill to acquire fluency in a European and an Indic language.

We have this strange situation in many pockets of the country whereby teachers perceive themselves to be gifting a second language to primary aged pupils who are already at a refined level of bilingual fluency. Rather than being overlooked, this ought to be actively celebrated.

Whilst I am using the language here of celebrating ‘mother tongue’ languages, there is a danger that in doing so, I am trivialising the point, so let me be clear. I perceive the lack of recognition given to the attainment of bilingualism, particularly among speakers of non-European languages (especially Western European), to be symptomatic of an endemic racial and cultural privileging that suffuses our national curriculum.

Myanmar Desperate to Learn
Credit: AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe

Language exists in symbiosis with culture. The privileging of or the discrimination against a language is closely related to the privileging of or the discrimination against a culture. Worldwide, power struggles, conflicts and genocides entail a conflict of language as well as of culture.

The physical persecution of the Rohingya is coupled with the Myanmar government’s refusal to acknowledge the existence of the Rohingya and the refusal to say their name. Even the name given to the state tells of the physical, cultural and thus linguistic conflict that has brought it to where it is now.


This is one example, but there are many more one could choose from. One particularly timely example could be the Language Marytrs of Bangladesh, whose defence of the use of Bengali over the directives to operate in Urdu across West and East Pakistan led to a cultural resistance that seeded national identity and the protection of the Bangla language. This Tuesday commemorates 65 years since the protests on 21st February 1952 which claimed four students’ lives.

Whilst these are huge political events, they are manifestations of the same struggle that pupils in our classroom experience with regards their own language – a struggle that ties together literacy, power, legitimacy, belonging and identity.

What we could do

So much necessary work is overlooked in school because we simply do not have enough time to fit in all that we feel we need to fit in. Whilst this is perfectly logical and understandable, this sense of urgency allows for us to sideline those things that are less immediate and less measurable and which, therefore, are less able to demonstrate their purpose and impact.

We have a curriculum to follow, targets to attain, managers to please, directives to adhere to. We have spreadsheets to fill, exercise books to be filled and plans to be written. This maelstrom of necessities leaves little room for reflection, and when reflection does not take place, we can find ourselves sleepwalking into automaticity. It is dangerous; doing, just for the sake of doing. If we have trainee teachers working with us, we might show them the shortcuts as an act of goodwill. Dangerous.

In a system of high-stakes accountability, it makes functional sense for teachers and leaders to elevate efficiency above reflection because so long as nobody second guesses the motivations behind things being as they are, we can all get out by 6pm.

This isn’t solely a work-life balance rant though. The point I am making runs deeper. What I am suggesting is that our working conditions reward us for not asking uncomfortable questions such as ‘Is our practice discriminatory?’, ‘Is our curriculum racist?’ and ‘Are we doing enough?’

So, in most cases, we don’t ask and we don’t think. We just ‘do’.

As schools, we can make it our business to work with our pupils and their families to support and to celebrate bilingual achievements, and not just those children who can confidently order une verre de l’eau minérale in a theoretical cafe role play.

Why not?


The existence of a bilingual Gujarati-English version of ‘Frog is a Hero’ is not going to threaten the fibre of British society, seeing our rich English language reduced into some political-correctness gone mad linguistic free-for-all. Our book corners should contain stories in the languages represented in the class so that our young pupils develop a text-image link in both languages.

Multimodal literacy projects that draw on rich, evocative storybooks can enable the pupils to engage in the kinds of reflection we are discussing here. Of particular relevance to Muslim pupils, the picturebook Mirror, by Jeannie Baker, is one which tells the stories of two families, one in Australia and one in Morocco; through the scheme of work that Jane Bednall developed, children in our school have been able to reflect, often for the first time, on how their family lives contains a combination of both the Australian and the Moroccan lifestyles.

Drawing heavily upon the images in the book, and utilising dramatic role play as a prompt for reflection and writing, the project is very inclusive of pupils at all stages of language development (in whatever language).

In this photo, we are re-enacting a domestic scene from the life of one of my pupils. After having explored the lives in ‘Mirror’, pupils interviewed their parents and then talked with classmates about what happens in their homes. We then acted out different scenes – some from their home lives, and some from the memories their parents shared of their own childhoods – and photographed them.  We then used these photos in montage artwork which accompanied the biographical poems they went on to write. PS – I didn’t mean to blur our my own face.

We can bring these languages into the classroom in ways that demonstrate loud and clear to our pupils that we know their languages have a worth, even if in school we do not focus on them all of the time. When we know a new pupil is arriving from another country, we can work with pupils to produce bilingual flashcards for them. If pupils speak the same home language as a new arrival, then active bilingual interactions are possible to help the child feel comfortable.

Most pupils who join our school can speak English, as well as Urdu/Bengali/Punjabi/Gujarati. On the occasion when a child speaks neither English nor a common second language, we can find ourselves quite stumped as individual class teachers. I had a pupil join directly from Portugal, without any other Portuguese speakers in our school, and for the first week or so, I improvised with a bilingual copy of Horrid Henry (Henrique o Terivel). The pupil learned English very quickly but we both recalled my ineffective Portuguese reading fondly, and I sort of remember the first words now

Nao e justa reclamou Henrique o Terivel. 

I am not suggesting every pupil (or teacher) needs to become fluent in Malayalam and Igbo; I am suggesting that every pupil who can speak some Malayalam and Igbo should be proud of what they know, or at the very least, that they should not feel ashamed of it.

I have a friend who teaches in a girls’ secondary school and her experience mirrors my own here in primary: children can be ashamed of their home languages and, tied to this, ashamed of their own parents if they can only speak these languages. Pupils would rather intentionally hide letters from school rather than come in to parents evening for the inevitable awkwardness of mutual miscomprehension. I suspect that schools shoulder some of the blame for this situation, by our silence about additional languages.

As schools, we can support parents to acquire English by bringing them into our learning community, either explicitly through providing language classes or implicitly through providing social spaces to bring people together. Fundamentally, in Britain, it is disadvantageous not to be able to speak English, but perhaps schools don’t fully recognise the position that they are in to support parents in this way? It is for the  pupils’ benefit as well as the parents’, and as such, it is for the schools’ benefit.

One final reason comes from conversations I have had with pupils and also with colleagues. It is outside of my experience, as someone who only speaks English, but is something that runs through so much writing that people produce about their diasporic experience: the loss of your mother tongue creates and deepens a social divide within families. Children who do not know their home language end up feeling distant from family when they visit their relatives. Parents feel guilty for not equipping their children with the ability to speak in their home language, worrying that they are doing them a disservice.


For most schools, even those schools with very high proportion of EAL pupils, making strong efforts to support and celebrate the use and development of community languages is taking the plunge into the unknown. It is for our school too, despite our diverse and representative leadership.

This week, we are trialling out a new way of working to coincide with the celebration of Language Martyrs Day -which is since 2000 celebrated also by UNESCO as International Mother Languages Day. Over the half term, all children in the school have been invited to do a homework project with their families whereby they are producing storybooks or artwork that tells a story in two languages. Given that almost all of our pupils are (at least) bilingual, the hope is that this project will allow for pupils to see their mother tongue involved in a school project. It is very much a trial, but previous parent/child projects have been very well received.

Hopefully, I shall be able to report back on the project to see what we come up with.

*Note, I recognise that in the writing of this piece, I have focused of Indic languages and have not mentioned other diasporic languages that are spoken, such as Eastern European and African languages. This is because I am writing in reference to, and through reflection about, my own school community is mostly South Asian.


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