The Importance of Mother Tongue in Child Development

Nowadays, being bilingual or even trilingual is regarded an important skillset.  Even so, there are merits to retaining our mother tongue and it is important for parents to recognize the invaluable role mother tongue plays in child development.  

Before Pi was born, my husband and I discussed our language “strategy” and agreed that we would each be responsible for one language so as to provide a bilingual environment for Pi.  As experts have pointed out, it is important to be consistent in the language you use.  However, 18 months in, things have become a little blurry and we find ourselves interchanging between the two languages, while our native tongue is still our dominant language after all.


Expression and self-esteem

When you think your deepest, most intimate thoughts, you will find that you are probably thinking them in your native tongue.  We all spend nine months in the womb.  During this time, we pick up on all sorts of sounds, including the voice of our mother and the language she uses.  Once we are born, we find comfort in hearing our mother’s voice and finds familiarity in language she used during pregnancy.

There is good reason why they call it the “mother tongue”!  When it comes to conveying emotions, science has found that we primarily use our mother tongue to express our feelings.  Mother tongue is integral to the formation of a child’s sense of self.  A child who can express their emotions and feelings is able to build their self-esteem and confidence, leading to a higher self-awareness and emotional regulation in the long run.


Cognitive development

A child’s cognitive development goes hand in hand with their language development.  Mother tongue is the vehicle in which a child first comes to understand the world and is an important tool for a child’s cognitive processing.  When learning takes place in their mother tongue, children are not limited by language barriers and can operate at their full cognitive level.  Studies have found that children who learn in their mother tongue perform better in schools as they are able to understand and express themselves better.  This translates to a higher learning motivation and more engagement in school.


Foundation for learning a second language

In Hong Kong, it is common for children to be learning a second or even third language from a young age.  Research has found that a strong foundation in mother tongue provides a springboard for children to pick up another language.  Having a strong mother tongue foundation provides a child with an understanding of the basic rules of language and an understanding of sentence structures.  This allows them to transfer such skills when learning a second language.


Providing a rich learning environment

When you consider a child’s development, they first learn from their immediate environment through objects they find around their home and in daily life.  The best form of learning takes place in our natural environment and is conducted in real time.

Pi’s recent favorite activity is to explore the fruit basket at home.  I take this opportunity to name each fruit as she plays with each one.  As she comes to associate the word with the object in hand, she is also processing information about the texture, color, weight, and smell of the fruit.  When she tries to bite into the unpeeled banana, I explain to her that she needs to peel and show her how to do so.  During this process, she picks up a wide range of vocabulary and her learning is complimented by the experience of peeling and eating the banana.

For learning of mother tongue, remember that we never consciously learn it.  Language is often a byproduct through experience and activities in our daily life.  The use of books and flash cards therefore have limited use if a child has not been exposed to those things and events in real life.


Positive attitude

Besides, our language also conveys tone and the choice of words we use reflect our attitudes and beliefs.  As Pi now starts to speak, I am becoming more conscious that she repeats after me and picks up words we frequently use around the home.  There are times when she doesn’t get it right and whilst it’s tempting to correct her, we acknowledge it is more important to encourage her to express herself.  Instead, we try to repeat the correct word or pronunciation back to her.

For example, she would point to dog and says “woof woof” whenever we see one during our daily walks.  In response, we would say “Yes, that’s a dog!” This type of incidental learning and correcting provide opportunities for children to listen to the correct word without discouraging them to speak.  With repetition, this will allow them to strengthen the association and verbalize the correct word in time.


As we all know, language is best learnt when you are immersed in the right environment.  As parents, our ultimate responsibility is to provide an interesting environment for children and to recognize opportunities to introduce language in a relaxed and fun way.

By Jeannie Leung


If you have concerns about the development of your child’s language, you can check out these resources which provide speech therapy services around Hong Kong, listed on .

Hong Kong Developmental Paediatrics Centre (Hong Kong Centre)
Hong Kong Developmental Paediatrics Centre (Kowloon Centre)
Little Acorn Child Development Centre
Rainbow Project Learning Centre
Smiley Speech Therapy Centre