Language Education Policy Studies
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Mother Tongue Education 

Mother Tongue Education (MTE) is also referred to as first language, mother tongue medium education, or mother tongue instruction. It is clearly linked to language-in-education policies because while language is the bridge between home and school, the norm is that, for example, second language students are “schooled in such a way that their own language is devalued (and) tend to reject their mother tongue that is related to prejudice and discrimination” (Tochon, 2009). Intense indoctrination occurs where young people participate in their own linguistic genocide (Bear Nicholas, 2009). (See Language Ideology and Language Discrimination). MTE is an alternative that has been known for decades.

Mother Tongue Instruction (MTI) is the first principle of Multilingual Education, that in turn supports the intergenerational language transfer, maintenance and/or revitalization of any language. Mother Tongue Instruction should occur through language immersion for the first three years of school, according to UNESCO principles, and ideally up to eight years. The dominant language is gradually introduced to produce bilingualism. Studies in psycholinguistic transfer show the dominant language is not needed at an early age to succeed in school and advance in society, and positive language transfer and interdependence across L1 to L2 exists (Cummins, 2009). This demonstrates a positive relation between bilingualism and cognitive performance or metalinguistic ability, and results in strong abilities in both languages. (Dressler & Kamil, 2006). It leads to greater overall educational achievement, demonstrating that it is not necessary to sacrifice languages through subtractive monolingual education. This also demonstrates that it is false to assume a need to introduce a lingua franca or dominant language at ever earlier ages, something that also perpetuates the myth that formal education is English and that English is good education and necessary for success. Since self-esteem is grounded in the home culture, the mother tongue does not need to be left as a heritage language.


A mother tongue policy for primary education or teacher education is often perceived as difficult when many languages are present. It is also often difficult to unite groups without a common cultural heritage or language, but a flexible language-in-education policy and pedagogical approaches that support the linguistic repertoire are best. They could empower people, and enable their participation. Mother tongue education can be used for knowledge construction that values the culturally-specific knowledge rather than the standardized often English curriculums. See Teachers as Policy Makers for how teachers can validate a mother tongue. See the example of Papua New Guinea.




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


Cummins, J. (2007). Rethinking monolingual instructional strategies in multilingual classrooms. Canadian Journal of Applied Linguistics (CJAL)/Revue canadienne de linguistique appliquée (RCLA), 10(2), 221-240.


Cummins, J. (2009). Fundamental Psycholinguistic and Sociological Principles Underlying Educational Success for Linguistic Minority Students. In T. Skutnabb-Kangas, R. Phillipson, A. K. Mohanty, & M. Panda (Eds.), Social Justice through Multilingual Education (pp. 19-35). Bristol , UK: Multilingual Matters.


Dressler C., & Kamil M. (2006). First- and second-language literacy. In: August D, Shanahan T, eds. Developing literacy in second-language learners: Report of the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth (pp. 197-238). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Khubchandani, L. M. (2003). Defining mother tongue education in plurilingual contexts. Language policy, 2(3), 239-254.


Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (2012). The stakes: Linguistic diversity, linguistic human rights and mother-tongue-based multilingual education- or linguistic genocide, crimes against humanity and an even faster destruction of biodiversity and our planet. In Forum International de Bamako sur de multilinguisme. “Un première étape vers un Sommet mondial sur le multilinguisme”.  Bamako, Mali, 19-21 janvier 2009. Actes du Forum. Bamako: African Union, ACALAN, Maaya, 65-78.


For mother-tongue based research specific to a region, see for example:


Jones, J. (2012). The effect of language attitudes on Kenyan stakeholder involvement in mother tongue policy implementation. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 33(3), 237-250.


Malone, S. & Paraide, P. (2011). Mother tongue-based bilingual education in Papua New Guinea. International Review of Education, 57, 705-720.


Mohanty, A. K. (2006). Multilingualism of the unequals and predicaments of education in India: mother tongue or other tongue? In O. García, T. Skutnabb-Kangas & M.E. Torres-Guzmán (2006). Imagining multilingual schools. Languages in Education and glocalization (pp.  262-283). Buffalo: Multilingual Matters.


Prah, K. K. (2009). 3 – Mother-Tongue Education in Africa for Emancipation and Development: towards the intellectualisation of African languages. In B. Brock-Utne & I. Skattum (eds.). Languages and Education in Africa (pp.83-104).


Simango, S. R.  (2009). 10 – Weaning Africa from Europe: toward a mother-tongue education policy in Southern Africa. In B. Brock-Utne & I. Skattum (eds.). Languages and Education in Africa (pp.201-212). New York: Symposium Books.


Tender, T. & Vihalemm, T. (2009). Two Languages in Addition to Mother Tongue- Will this Policy Preserve Linguistic Diversity in Europe? TRAMES, 13(63/58), 1, 41-63.


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

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