Language Education Policy Studies
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Mother Tongue

The concept of mother tongue has been deconstructed by some scholars who claim that since many languages are often present in one’s linguistic repertoire, it is useless or impossible to define which is the mother tongue; and that mother tongue perpetuates notions of sanitized, reified languages and even monolingualism. These views are even embedded in language-in-education policy ideology as they are extended as justifications for language shift, usually to a dominant language. However, there is no support to the idea that mother tongues would not exist, since they are valid social representations with which people identify themselves.


Mother tongues certainly do exist, and in many cases have been forcibly taken away from people. When people are forced to migrate, work, and study in a language other than that with which they identify, these cases do not mean there is no mother tongue, even in the many cases when people have little competence or proficiency in the language. Some people may identify with a language that they do not master, and might have a mother tongue in which they are not fully competent. See the website of Tove Skutnabb-Kangas (2013) for more details.


Language-in-education policies in general do not ensure multilingualism or mother tongue instruction. English is often privileged. Schools usually teach subtractively- in the dominant language at the expense of the mother tongue. Mother tongue instruction (MTI) for the first eight years has been shown to increase educational achievement overall (Skutnabb-Kangas, 2012). Literacy in other than the first language is not efficient. Children’s knowledge, experiences, and self-esteem are grounded in their first language. Pedagogy can be relevant to kids and transformative without privileging a language. Mother tongue is a bridge between home and school, language and culture, and works in complex multilingual societies (Skutnabb-Kangas, 2009).


Please see World View, How Language Situations affect schools, Linguistic Human Rights, Multilingual Education, Endangered Languages, Language Discrimination and Language deficit and Linguicide


Alba, R., Logan, J., Lutz, A., & Stults, B. (2002). Only English by the third generation? Loss and preservation of the mother tongue among the grandchildren of contemporary immigrants. Demography, 39(3), 467-484.


Cummins, J. (2001). Bilingual children’s mother tongue: Why is it important for education. Sprogforum, 19, 15-20.


Cummins, J. (1978). Educational Implications of Mother Tongue Maintenance in Minority Language Groups. Canadian Modern Language Review, 34(3), 395-416.


Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (2012). The role of mother tongues: educational goals and models, linguistic diversity, and language rights. In K. Gya, A. Snavely & E. Sperling (Eds). Minority Language in Today’s Global Society. New York: Trace Foundation, 127-161.

Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (2013, November). Short definitions-mother tongue. Copyright Tove Skutnabb-Kangas; downloaded from on Nov. 27, 2013.

Skutnabb-Kangas, T., & Phillipson, R., (1989). 'Mother Tongue': The Theoretical and Sociopolitical Construction of a Concept. In U. Ammon (Ed.), Status and Function of Languages and Language Varieties. Berlin, New York: Walter de Gruyter.


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This information was originally published on the website of the International Network for Language Education Policy Studies ( as

Harrison, K.  M., & Tochon, F. V. (2013). Mother Tongue. In F. V. Tochon (Ed.), Language Education Policy Studies (online). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin—Madison. Retrieved from: (access date). 

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