In Our Words

Talking to one's heart - the case for Mother Tongue Programs
Talking to one's heart - the case for Mother Tongue Programs

Talking to one's heart - the case for Mother Tongue Programs

by Constanze Holze and Frank Zaal, Mother Tongue Language teachers

Language. One of the very few ways of communication that seems entirely human. With all due respect to our fellow creatures in the living world, language as we know and understand it, is a unique feature of our human existence. Its importance can hardly be overstated.

With 54 nationalities and 34% of students having dual nationality at YIS, there are about 40 official languages present on campus, with English and Japanese being the most widely spoken. For a school of our size, that is a lot. So what are the other 38 languages actually good for? Don't they make life just more complicated? Are they not hindering our communication rather than promoting it?

In our international community, for us to communicate successfully, we all need a common language. We have a well-integrated English as an Additional Language Department that extends from elementary school up to high school, with resources dedicated to achieving fluency or high proficiency. Is achieving this level of English the main and only way to attain international mindedness, one of the school's main goals? What could a Mother Tongue (MT) program possibly have to do with this goal? Is there an added value to the YIS community in offering Chinese, Dutch, Korean, French, German and Spanish in a MT program?

There is sound evidence for the fact that a profound base in one's mother tongue is an indicator of future academic success. Children who are not safely grounded in their first language often struggle later with conceptual thinking. Or they encounter added difficulty when they attempt to learn a second or third language. So, from a purely scientific point of view, the case for MT programs seems reinforced.

In addition to the many cognitive benefits, there is the question of one's identity. Cultural identity is so much more than simply a sociological label attached to someone. Imagine if no language is your home. One is much more likely to lose connection to one's origins and heritage. In the long run, it can be very difficult to develop a clear sense of oneself. Language clearly helps to keep that sense of belonging.

Looking back at the Food Fair and other cultural highlights in our community, one sees how much closer we grow when not just accepting difference but enjoying each other's culture. One could go as far as to say that true international mindedness is promoted by actively engaging in mother tongue languages. Our goal is therefore not the subtractive bilingualism where one language, like English, is the cornerstone and is learned at the expense of another. Additive bilingualism, or multilingualism, based on a sound foundation of one's mother tongue is what keeps us talking in different voices, not only different words, enriches our mutual understanding and quite definitely enhances all of our lives.

According to Nelson Mandela, only one of the languages a person speaks is the most direct way to their heart and mind. At a superficial look, a MT programme may not represent international mindedness because it seems exclusively important only to the speakers of that language. On deeper examination, however, it allows one to develop cultural and cognitive understandings that may not be present in other cultures, thus allowing one to become more internationally minded.

Have a look at the wide range of offerings in our Mother Tongue program.