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Why it is important that a child learns how to read in their mother tongue

by | Feb 27, 2023 | Road to Literacy

Children love stories. In fact, adults do too. When you tell someone about something that happened to you, you are telling them a story – one of your stories.

We think in stories and enjoy stories that excite our imaginations and help us explore the world. If we think in the language we are most comfortable speaking, then we create stories in our mother tongue. This is only one of the reasons why children should develop their literacy skills (the ability to read and write) in their mother tongue.

Research has shown that a child’s mother tongue is the optimal language for literacy and learning throughout primary school (UNESCO, 2008a). Children who learn how to read in their mother tongue are more likely to stay and succeed in school (Kosonen, 2005); a parent is more likely to communicate with their child’s teacher because these conversations occur in their mother tongue (Benson, 2002); a child’s thinking skills will develop more quickly and be stronger if they are first taught in the language they speak at home (Nishanthi, 2020); and a child will develop a stronger personal and cultural identity and have a stronger connection to their culture (Nishanthi, 2020).

Knowing how a child learns to read will help explain why it is so important that they learn to read in their mother tongue.

A child first comprehends what is around them through the language they hear their mother communicating in from before they are born and throughout their lives.”

Babies are born able to hear any sound from any language. As soon as they can, they make sounds to communicate their needs. As parents talk to their baby in their mother tongue, the baby starts to forget the sounds they don’t hear because they aren’t necessary for communication. Soon, they start to copy the sounds they hear and by the age of one, children start to put meaning to words they can understand and start to say words. Children start with the words they hear the most often, so a child goes to school with an oral vocabulary in their mother tongue.

At school, children will be taught that the words we say and hear are made up of sounds that need to be written. For example, the word dog is made up of the letters “d”, “o” and “g” and the sounds that belong to those letters. This mapping of letters to sounds is what we do when we read. We see the letters and put sounds to them. We then put these sounds together to make a word, and then put all the words together to make a sentence. It makes sense then that:

  • a child will learn these sounds more easily if they match the ones in the language they already speak
  • a child will read with meaning if the words they read (vocabulary) match the vocabulary they already have in their spoken language.

If a child speaks one of our African languages at home, then it is even more important that they learn to read in their mother tongue. In all our country’s African languages, the letter-sound correspondence is always 100% the same. This means that the letter “p” for example always has the same sound. This is not true for English. English has a complicated system of letter-sound correspondence that can be confusing for a second language speaker. For example, look at the letter “c”. In the word “cat”, the letter “c” has a /k/ sound. But in the word “cell phone”, the letter “c” has an /s/ sound. Now look at the words “cough” and “tough”. “Cough” and “tough” both end in the letters “ough”, but they are pronounced very differently. For example: My meat was so tough I started to cough. I got through it though when I drank water.

If a child who speaks an African language starts school learning in English, their schooling is set back approximately six years as they struggle to learn the English letter-sound correspondence and vocabulary (Cummins, 1981). This would mean that a Grade 6 learner being taught in their second language (English) will be at the level of a Grade 1 learner who is being taught in their mother tongue.

Research has shown that children acquire literacy skills more quickly and effectively if they are taught in their mother tongue. Many researchers have also proven that the literacy and comprehension skills a child learns in their mother tongue are 100% transferable to any other language they learn later. This is why the CAPS curriculum asks that schools follow an additive bilingualism approach. Additive bilingualism is when the additional language is added to a child’s first language (mother tongue) rather than replacing their home language. If a child is taught in the additional language (usually English) from Grade 1, they don’t develop literacy skills in either language and slowly English becomes more powerful than the mother tongue. This is called subtractive bilingualism and the result is that the child can’t read and write effectively in either language.

Reading with meaning is the gateway to all learning. So to give a child the best start to their education they must learn how to read and write with meaning in their mother tongue. Developing English as an additional language will happen more easily if the child has their mother tongue literacy skills in place.

Children deserve to love stories that they can read, including stories from their culture and environment so that they can see themselves and their world in the stories and grow their imagination. This is the greatest gift you can give a child – the ability to read for meaning, a love for their culture and language, and a strong start to their education.

Benson, C., & Kosonen, K. (Eds.) 2013. Language issues in comparative education: Inclusive teaching and learning in non-dominant languages and cultures. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers

Benson, C. 2002. Real and potential benefits of bilingual progammes in developing countries. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 5 (6): 303–317.

Nishanthi, R. 2020. “Understanding of the Importance of Mother Tongue Learning” Published in International Journal of Trend in Scientific Research and Development (IJTSRD). ISSN: 2456–6470, Volume 5, Issue 1, December 2020: 77–80,

The Common Underlying Proficiency model (Cummins, 1980a, 1981a, as cited in Baker, 2011)

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