There is a growing body of research (look up Cummins, Cook, Butzkamm, Macaro, Turnbull, O’Cain) that shows that mother tongues scaffold the learning of English and create more robust learning experiences for both public school students and post-secondary.
In schools and in post secondary, academic engagement is very important. Students need to be fully engaged in order to learn.
Learning, regardless of age, cannot just be a teacher pouring information into a student’s brain; it has to be a robust interchange of thoughts, ideas and knowledge between and among students and teachers within and outside of the classroom where students are as much teachers as they are learners and teachers are as much learners as they are teachers.
Many schools believe in the drill method of teaching English and hence prohibit students from speaking their mother tongues and that is just wrong.
Vivian Cook, a prominent researcher in this field sees the multilingual brain as a super system that processes incoming information and outgoing words at a rapid rate and this brain exercise is excellent for students.
He suggests that the mother tongue and English or any new languages are interwoven in the learner’s brain.
It is neither smart nor ethical to shut out the mother tongue from a student’s repertoire.
While a teacher cannot allow a reckless use of mother tongue in class as a crutch, a good teacher knows how to plan for the effective use of mother tongue for concept clarification.
Using brain imaging technology called functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy (fnirs), a team of neuroscientists from the University of Toronto, Scarborough, conducted neurological research on pre-teen participants to arrive at the same conclusion as Vivian Cook.
The team found that the brain of a child is able to learn multiple languages without disadvantaging any one language.
My own studies with school age and post-secondary students found that mother tongues are valued by students as scaffolds to their learning of English.
The creation of space for students’ mother tongues in classrooms is an ethical imperative since their mother tongues are integral components of their identities (see Freire, Cummins, Allahar, Benesch).
All prior learning and life experiences are encoded in mother tongues and rather than truncating that rich learning, let’s embrace it in the academic journeys of children and adults.
– Vicki Bismilla
• Dr Vicki Bismilla is a retired Superintendent of Schools and retired college Vice-President, Academic, and Chief Learning Officer.
Posted: Apr 2, 2017