Losing your mother tongue

In the later years of my teaching career I was particularly involved in ESL: English as a Second Language. (See my archival ESL blog. Search there for mother tongue.)

One often repeated axiom among ESL teachers is this:

Your children will learn English much more effectively if they continue to develop their first language at the same time.

Not that it is quite that simple. See a bit of a guru, Michael Swan:

In this paper I shall consider the ways in which the mother tongue can support, fail to support or actively hinder someone who is learning or using  the vocabulary of a second language. This may happen: 1) when a learner acquires new vocabulary, 2) when he or she tries to recall and use previously-learnt vocabulary, and 3) when he or she tries to construct a complex word or expression that has not already been learnt as a unit.

“As a learning process, transfer supports the learner’s selection and remodelling of input structures as he progresses in the development of his interlanguage knowledge. As a production process, transfer is involved in the learner’s retrieval of this knowledge and in his efforts to bridge linguistically those gaps in his knowledge which cannot be side-stepped by avoidance.”  (Kohn 1986: 22)

Before looking at these three areas, it will be useful to consider briefly how languages differ in the ways they encode the world through lexis, and to settle on a definition of crosslinguistic influence…

It is a poem that has made me think of these things. Some time ago I subscribed to a rather good literary site, Narrative.

A nonprofit organization founded in 2003, Narrative is dedicated to advancing literary arts in the digital age by supporting the finest writing talent and encouraging readership across generations, in schools, and around the globe. Our online library of new literature by celebrated authors and by the best new and emerging writers is available for free…

In the latest number is a poem “Do You Speak Persian?” by Kaveh Akbar, born in Tehran, a doctoral student at Florida State University. An extract:

I have been so careless with the words I already have.

I don’t remember how to say home
in my first language, or lonely, or light.

I remember only
delam barat tang shodeh, I miss you,

and shab bekheir, goodnight.




(If like me you needed to look up Romeo Santos… Thanks, Wikipedia!)

I used always to encourage my LBOTE (language background other than English) students to maintain their mother tongues if they were fortunate enough still to have them. Multilinguals are an asset to the country, even aside from the personal and family benefits of being better than monolingual.

Irrelevant footnote

Somehow in the course of preparing this post I stumbled on this in the Auslit site. I had never seen it before.

Neil Whitfield studied at the University of Sydney before becoming an English and History teacher at Cronulla, Dapto, and Wollongong. He also taught in Sydney at Fort Street, Sydney Boys and Sydney Girls High Schools. He edited the little magazine Neos: Young Writers from 1981 to 1985. He later became a prolific blogger, often writing about education and ESL topics. His blogs, including Floating Life and Neil’s Second Decade, have been archived by the NLA’s PANDORA archive.

All that past tense! Is there something I haven’t been told yet?