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Mother tongue helps adult learners of English

In a study with post-secondary students, I conducted paper surveys with 90 English as a Second Language (ESL) students and interviewed 19 English for Academic Purposes (EAP) students. 

My in-depth interviews were with ten Chinese students whose mother tongues are Cantonese or Mandarin, one Spanish, one Japanese, three Bengali (Bangla), one Korean, one Arabic, one Urdu and one Punjabi-speaking student. Among them there was one pediatrician, one nurse, one engineer and one university professor, all trained practitioners in their own countries but not working in their fields here in Canada at the time.

Two teachers created a space for mother tongues in their classrooms by allowing students to quickly consult with same-language peers in class and by allowing students ten minutes at the end of every class to gather in their mother tongue groups and clarify concepts among themselves in their first language. Students checked meanings and other aspects of the new lesson with their peers and dual language dictionaries. Teachers also allowed students to research essays and write drafts in their mother tongues but they had to submit their work in English. This pedagogical approach led to meaningful discussion in my interview groups regarding the actual mental processes occurring in their brains. 

Students described the frenetic activities that occur in their brains as new words and concepts constantly arrive as input, are processed in the brain and quickly translated into English for output. Several students made reference to the “superhighway” of languages in their brains. They articulated the academic perils of disallowing their mother tongues in class by asserting that if they cannot quickly clarify a concept with a same-language peer they risk losing the rest of the lesson. While the students themselves cautioned against overuse of mother tongue in class, several vehemently expressed that they pay a lot of money to come to Canada to study. They know that they are here to study English and do not need to be subjected to “English-only” rules. They indicated that there are some learning situations when “you have to speak your own language”. 

A powerful emotional piece related to identity was provided by the Bangladeshi students. As part of colonized India, Bangladeshis experienced English as the language of their colonizers associated with patterns of power between colonizer and colonized. Two Bengali students displayed a visceral reaction to this multitiered class system based on power and language as they spoke about “mother tongue day” in Bangladesh and about the people who sacrificed their lives in the struggle for independence. Both talked about their passion for preserving their mother tongues for their children with a sense of pride in that identity. 

The Japanese student who arrived in Canada via Saudi Arabia just a few months before the interview struggled with her third language, English. She said that she would “suffer” if her mother tongue is disallowed. 

One of the Chinese students was a university professor back home and his passion for Mandarin came through in his rich comments about the ways in which his mother tongue scaffolds his learning of English. 

His differentiation between the ability to express “deep ideas” in his mother tongue compared to “skin deep” conversations in English was poignant. 

He saw his mother tongue as the language of deep thought.

The data gathered supported the finding that students’ identities and academic engagement were positively impacted through the validation of their mother tongues in their classrooms.


• Dr Vicki Bismilla is a retired Superintendent of Schools and retired college Vice-President, Academic, and Chief Learning Officer.

Posted: Jul 1, 2017

June 2019

Centennial College

Immigration Peel Canada

© CanadaBound Immigrant 2016