Guest Column

Teach children in their mother tongue

2017-04-23 06:17

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David Harrison

Many parents find the debates about mother tongue instruction confusing.

All they want to know is, “what is best for my child”? Is it better to introduce English sooner or later?

Will my child get mixed up if he or she learns more than one language at the same time? Is it best to send them to an English-medium or mother tongue preschool?

Unfortunately, language debates tend to be dogmatised by advocates of one or other “big idea”.

Consequently, introducing a second language to children at a young age is regarded as either a “good” or a “bad” thing.

This polarised thinking is not surprising, because language is so powerful. Words reflect one’s identity and are a potent means of persuasion.

Complex issues are reduced to simplistic sound bites by smoothing over life’s contradictions.

So, how do we make sense of mother tongue debates in emotive and ideologically contested spaces?

One perspective is to focus on the dynamics of the brain, drawing on biology to demonstrate the value of mother tongue storytelling and reading.

When a parent reads to a child, different cells of the brain are stimulated at the same time.

This stimulation integrates nerve cells into virtual circuits that get stronger every time the child hears a story.

The sense of security, love and happiness they feel in their mother or father’s arms causes the brain to release happy neurotransmitters that motivate curiosity and a desire to learn.

These circuits are the basis for critical thinking, imagination and empathy.

In other words, word patterns become the blueprint of who we are and how we think.


Identity and intellect fuse together in the workings of our brain, which is most receptive to stimulation in the first few years of life.

Children therefore learn better when they are taught in the language that has shaped and primed their brains.

Of course, our identities change over the course of life as neural circuits adapt to new stimuli.

Once people achieve a high level of second-language proficiency, they may even switch to a new primary identity in which they think and talk most freely in their adopted mother tongue.

Yes, a child can learn a second or third language early on.

However, their ability to truly master it depends on the intensity of exposure and the proficiency of their parent or teacher.

It can only become their logical language of learning if they get so good at the new language that it rewires the neural circuitry that defines their very identity.

Children should first learn to swim in words spoken and written in the language of the person who cares for them most.

Arguably, sooner or later, children in South Africa will need to learn English.

But here’s the rub: sudden transitions to English as their language of instruction can be damaging, especially if it happens before they can read and speak it well.

This disruption can trigger an identity crisis – a “brain shock” from which children may never recover.

Many eventually drop out of school because they no longer know who they are and have not mastered the basic conceptual tools of learning.

If we are to inculcate in children a love of books and an intuition to learn, we must tap into the most primal connections that make them who they are: the deep bonds between mother and child, and the profound links between the emotional, sensory and cognitive domains of the brain that form in the first few years of life.

Harrison is the chief executive of the DG Murray Trust

Read more on:    education
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