If you’ve ever tried to learn a language, you’re probably familiar with the delicious relief that comes when, after hours of communicating in your target language, you finally find yourself once again surrounded by speakers of your native tongue. No more having to carefully plot out your choice of words or worry that you’re being misunderstood; you slip back into your first language effortlessly, the only possible downside being the pang of guilt you might feel about abandoning your practice in favour of the familiar.
But when it comes to integrating into a new language and culture, tossing the books aside after class and leaving your language studies at the door may actually be the best thing you can do.
English language education strategists in Calgary recently presented a workshop on the benefits of speaking native languages for young ESL students. The workshop cited research that has identified an increase in self-confidence and ties to one’s cultural identity among students who speak their parents’ language at home. For the Calgary students, that confidence translated into improved literacy—in English.
Ignoring your language practice after hours—especially when you’re working towards fluency and integration—gets a bad rap in the world of language studies, with many teachers propping up thinking, feeling and exclusively communicating in one’s target language as the best means of achieving fluency. But self-esteem is a crucial part a learner’s success, and that requires letting go of any embarrassment over speaking with an accent or saying the wrong thing. For kids especially, that often means feeling comfortable communicating in and identifying with their home language.
At The British School in the Netherlands (BSN), a model of translanguaging has been adopted to give multilingual students the best possible learning experience. Translanguaging involves utilizing students’ various languages and at BSN, that means allowing students to communicate in their home languages in the classroom in order to encourage expression regardless of the school’s language of instruction. Once again, self-esteem was identified as a major benefit of this approach.
Whatever your approach is, it’s important to treat your native language as an additional skill rather than an obstacle standing in the way of your language studies. Whether you’re learning for a hobby or your goal is integration, taking pride in your mother tongue is only going to help you in the end. After all, no one has ever looked back and regretted being too bilingual!