Mother Tongue First!
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Mother Tongue First!

Developing your mother tongue alongside learning a new language is very important. In fact, it is much more important than bombarding your child with English at home. That is how Tommas Houterman starts his information session about English Language Acquisition in the IB Middle Years Programme.

By Ingrid Schmoutziguer, communications advisor

I am attending the session, because I am very interested in the topic and eager to find out Houterman’s views on language learning. Raising two bilingual children myself, I am also keen to pick up some tips.

‘The stronger foundations they have in their Mother Tongue, the better the students can transfer their skills to a new language’, says Houterman. That’s interesting, because many years ago, when first moving abroad with my children I did use to read them lots of English books, make them watch BBC and generally drummed as much English into them as I could. It wasn’t until much later, that I realised their Dutch wasn’t getting anywhere this way and they needed to be fluent in their mother tongue too to become truly bilingual.

Google translate

‘Reading to your children, watching English television togehter, or listening to English radio’, is really good’, says Houterman. ‘As long as you do this for short amounts of time and also keep up with your mother tongue.’ So, should I start with after school lessons for my son in Russian?, one of the parents is keen to find out. ‘You could’, says Houterman, ‘but may be not straight away as your children have a lot to cope with their first year at an international school. They need to learn English, Dutch and Spanish and familiarise themselves with the Middle Years Programma.’

‘But is is ok to find materials for my son in French and use google translate for his homework’, a French mother would like to know. ‘At the moment we are struggling with some pages he needs to read for biology’, she adds. ‘Yes, of course’, Houterman says. ‘It is perfectly allright to find him some French information on the topics studied in class. That way he can access the curriculum.’

Acquiring vs learning

Houterman then goes on to explain that English Language Acquisition is just that. ‘Students acquire a new language, they don’t learn it. This means we do not teach them stand alone grammar’, states Houterman. ‘I might teach them some rules in a specific context, but the students will pick up most of the grammar and language rules naturally, as they are fully immersed in English at school.’

‘So what should we do at home to support our children?’, asks an Italian mum. ‘You could start and may be learn, or improve your English yourself’, says Houterman. ‘This is a great way to create a positive attitude towards learning and speaking a new language. It is also really important to show your kids, that it is ok to ‘have a go’ and make mistakes.’


‘Playing in English is also a fun way to reinforce your child’s English.  ‘You can for example bake a cake and use English instructions, play board games with English rules, or have a game of badminton or table tennis using playful rules about only being able to use the English language (and losing a point every time a player reverts to the mother tongue).’

Houterman also reminds parents to ‘relax’, as research shows it can take between 3 and 5 years for students to become proficient in a new language. ‘Quite often at international schools this happens much quicker, but it is no easy feat to learning a new language’, says Houterman. ‘Most of your children are in grade 6, or 7, so they are young enough to get proficient in English before they get to the upper Middle Years Programme grades.  When beginner English students want to come to an international school in grade 9, or 10 we usually recommend that the family hires a private English tutor. Houterman is quick to reassure the Portuguese mother whose daughter just started in grade 8. ‘She picks up English really fast, so I am not worried about her at all.’


Besides learning yourself and playing in English, it is also important to have your children read at home, watch English programmes on TV, or YouTube and listen to English radio, or podcasts’, says Houterman, a self-confessed fan of the BBC.  ‘ I recommend watching BBC documentaries like Planet Earth or Human Planet, or listen to BBC radio, where you can listen to another language spoken by lots of different speakers with lots of different accents’.

For other tips and tricks, please view Houterman’s presentation.