Speaking in mother tongues shows heritage is a class act

Embracing diverse languages inside the classroom gives all pupils a great advantage

Roll call sounds different in fourth class at Mother of Divine Grace National School in Finglas. Here, students are more likely to respond to their name with a variety of languages such as "thi ni" (Thai) or "tutaj" (Polish) than the traditional "anseo". Encouraging students to use their heritage language during roll call is just one way teacher Phil McCarthy promotes linguistic diversity in his classroom.

“The Thai answer is really popular because you have to hold the sound at the end. They’re all screaming that every morning,” says McCarthy.

“This is a school with diverse student population. I think there’s about 13 languages spoken in my class this year; it’s a very language-rich environment.”

McCarthy says his initial teacher training did not prepare him for teaching in a multilingual classroom.


“I had some students who had no English, and I really couldn’t support them,” he says. “What I did with them was not really suitable to their age or their ability... I didn’t know really what else to do other than give them very basic work.”

He went on to complete a master's in intercultural education following his first year of teaching, which connected him with Mother Tongues, a social enterprise founded in 2017 that promotes multilingualism and intercultural dialogue in Ireland.

If you have a solid foundation in your home language, it really benefits the learning of English as a second language

"Initially, the goal was to support parents who were raising bilingual children in Ireland," says Francesca La Morgia, director of Mother Tongues.

“They were coming to me to say that they’ve been told not to speak their language and wanted to know whether this was the best thing to do,” she says. “Parents felt a bit lost.”

However, research indicates that supporting and encouraging the use of a child’s mother tongue benefits, rather than hinders, their second language acquisition.

“If you have a solid foundation in your home language, it really benefits the learning of English as a second language,”says Soraya Sobrevía, education projects co-ordinator with Mother Tongues.

A report published by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment – Towards an Integrated Language Curriculum in Early Childhood and Primary Education – also emphasises that "learning efficiencies can be achieved if teachers explicitly draw children's attention to similarities and differences between their languages".

McCarthy believes the negative impact of not supporting a student’s mother tongue in the classroom can filter into a child’s wider development.

“It’s almost like you’re silencing them in the classroom,” says McCarthy. “It would completely knock their confidence or their ability to engage in any sort of activity in the classroom. I couldn’t imagine how scary it must be to be in a school where you can’t speak.”

To counteract this, he integrates a variety of informal language activities into his daily classroom routine to promote the many languages represented among the pupils.

Instead of playing “Simon says” he plays “Teacher says”. “Whatever I say, it could be in any of the different languages that we speak in the classroom, the kids have to do the action,” says McCarthy.

“In the language games that I play, the children who speak different languages, they’re the experts. They are the ones teaching the other children and the interest level changes, the inquisitive nature of children comes out and it makes it fun.”

He believes creating a classroom that supports a variety of languages and cultures has long-term benefits beyond the classroom.

“An interest in other cultures and other languages definitely breaks down barriers between people and I think, over a longer term, it can be really beneficial,” he says.

The focus on children’s mother tongues comes at a time when foreign languages are poised to play a bigger role in primary classrooms.

Under a pilot project overseen by the Post Primary Language Initiative (PPLI), it provides hundreds of primary schools with a six-week block of language instruction for third to sixth class students.

Schools can choose any language that they feel will best suit their school community. Irish Sign Language has been the most popular option so far, along with French, Spanish and Polish.

You see children grow a few inches when you tell a story in their home language... Every child benefits from diversity

While there are hopes the project will result in a greater uptake of foreign languages at second level, Kenia Puig, an education officer with PPLI who is overseeing the initiative, says the benefits go much further.

“I think the beauty of these primary sampler modules is that they support inclusion and diversity, while also encouraging all pupils to engage with foreign language learning.”

She also hopes class teachers will continue to embed language learning in their teaching and encourage the speaking of heritage languages at school.

“We should be fostering that instead of asking pupils to leave it outside the door.”

Including mother tongues isn't just an emerging feature at primary. Ann Halligan, owner of Curious Minds preschool in Castlebar, Co Mayo, says her service has been supporting heritage languages among younger children.

This is crucial, she says, as the first steps children take on their developmental journey.

“If we don’t have the knowledge or the skills to support children’s home languages and culture, if we don’t have the skills to ensure that children can see themselves positively reflected in our settings, then we can damage their self-identity,” says Halligan.

Staff at Curious Minds say they achieve this through simple activities such as reading a story in a child’s home language.

“You see children grow a few inches when you tell a story in their home language,” says Halligan. “Every child benefits from diversity. This is the work that needs to be at the core of every service, so every child will leave feeling good about who they are and where they come from, regardless of background, colour or language.”

She says taking the time to learn how to pronounce each child and parent’s name plays a key role in promoting linguistic diversity and inclusion.

“It is one of the first ways that we show respect to the families,” says Halligan.

While some teachers may be concerned about their command of other languages, Sobrevía insists teachers do not need to be proficient in them.

“You don’t need to be multilingual. It’s just a mindset of welcoming or being curious.”

I definitely think the small things are really appreciated by parents. It makes them feel like they're closer to the school, that the school is aware of them

McCarthy agrees and says teachers should not be afraid to get something wrong and encourage the children to help. “They love it if I get something wrong and then they teach me,” he jokes.

He also says that learning how to say something small like “hello” or “goodbye” to parents in their heritage language can play a huge part in helping them feel part of the community.

“I definitely think the small things are really appreciated by parents. It makes them feel like they’re closer to the school, that the school is aware of them and appreciates their values and their language. I think it creates a good feeling,” he says.

Six steps to make your class more linguistically inclusive

1. Start small: You don't have to dedicate an entire lesson to teaching diverse languages in your class. Begin by using different languages in the transitions during the day: roll call, tidy up, lining up for PE or yard and during playground games.

2. Let the kids do the talking: Work with the languages in your room and allow the children teach you and the other children.

3. Parent power: Inviting parents to read or tell a story is a powerful way to bring a language to life in a classroom. It can also have a positive effect on how a student views their language when they see their parents talking in class.

4. Send it home: Giving children the option to complete homework or projects at home in their heritage language not only helps with academic skills but helps parents feel valued by the school community.

5. Found in translation: Some parents may be new to English so it can be helpful to use translation tools when sending written notes or emails home.

6. The sound of music: Song singing can be a great way to teach new vocabulary. If you are unsure of suitable songs, ask parents or grandparents for suggestions of action songs or rhymes in their language.