MotherTongues: Wear Words, Celebrate Cultures

about words, languages, cultures, travel

Celebrate our language diversity February 16, 2016

February 21 is International Mother Language Day. UNESCO started this celebration day “to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples of the world”. With roughly 6500 languages spoken around the word, we have a lot to preserve, protect and celebrate.


The theme of Mother Language Day 2016 is “Quality education, language(s) of instruction and learning outcomes”. Mmm. That is a mouthful. Basically, UNESCO wants to stress the importance of appropriate languages of instruction in early years of schooling. Sadly, it is still not the norm everywhere to be able to go to school in your mother language.

I got schooled in my mother tongue (Afrikaans) when growing up in Apartheid South Africa, and I’ve written how awful things were done in the name of my mother tongue. The history of Mother Language Day is a similar story than the South African narrative where students were forced to learn in Afrikaans, the language of the oppressor. On February 21, 1952, students demonstrating for recognition of their language, Bangla, were shot and killed by police in Dhaka, which is now the capital of Bangladesh. We remember these horrible events, honor the people who died in the process of standing up for their language, and then we try to promote language diversity in our sphere of influence.

I believe mother language instruction for young kids gives kids access to education. My daughter was in a two-way bilingual immersion program where half the class where Spanish speaking, some exclusively so. The Spanish speaking kids learned from the English speaking kids, and vice versa. Everyone is a learner and a teacher.

But since we chose to live in another country, where our mother tongue is not being spoken, I know mother language instruction is not possible for our girls. Instead, we made a choice to foster a love of language learning in our kids. They are proud to be (almost) trilingual, they enjoy showing off their language skills when meeting people who can speak Afrikaans or Spanish, and I know they will continue their multilingual journeys throughout their lives. Let us encourage each other to continue our language journeys, and let us encourage others to be proud of their mother language, whatever one of the 6500 languages it may be.

“A Senegalese poet said ‘In the end we will conserve only what we love. We love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.’ We must learn about other cultures (and I would add, languages) in order to understand, in order to love, and in order to preserve our common world heritage.”
– Yo Yo Ma



September Blogging Carnival: Raising Multilingual Children September 29, 2013


Welcome to the September installment of the Multilingual Blogging Carnival! I’m glad to be hosting this month, after Perogies & Gyoza did a wonderful job last month putting our stories together.

For more information about the Multilingual Blogging Carnival, or to sign up as a host or participant, please check out the wonderful organizer of it all, Piri-Piri Lexicon!

I picked for a theme this month “Music and Language” – how do you use music in your kids’ language journey? We always have music going in our house, and it is so fun to hear the kids sing in Afrikaans, English, Spanish! I got some fun responses, I hope you’ll enjoy reading them as much as I did!

From Bilingual Monkeys we hear how the power of music nurtures bilingual ability, with some great tips on making suitable choices for music around the house.

Bringing Up Baby Bilingual reminds us that music is a great way to learn languages, for children and adults!  She also lists 7 great reasons why you should sing to learn a new language: this is definitely new inspiration for me in my language journey!


Piri-Piri Lexicon did an amazing job to tell us about the research findings why music is good for language learning. Definitely a good reminder of why it is good for us to listen to lots of music!

The Creative World of Varya shares a song from a friend, that she then translated into Russian: how neat! She also tells us how powerful music can be, and how it can be relaxing for children.

The Head of the Heard tells us about the music in their family: maybe more Wheels on the Bus than their musical heritage from Brazil and Britain right now, but it sounds like they are off to a good start with bed time songs.

language and music Stevie Wonder

From Babelkid we have an example of singing a French song to learn grammar: have you made up some songs to teach your kids a language?

Open Hearts, Open Minds writes about the fun of singing with her son in Spanish: at concerts, with CDs, but also made up silly songs.

Taco de Lenguas gives us nice resources of finger games and rhymes in Spanish. This is especially nice to know if you are trying to teach your child a language that you are not that familiar with!

Bilingüeabies tells us about the calming effect of music, and how it can be used in class to help with language learning.

Lastly, I share my tips to use music to help your kids’ language learning, as we sing our way to 3 languages!

Enjoy reading, listening, and singing along, and post some comments on each other’s blogs so that we can build our community!


The words you speak become the house you live in September 16, 2013

Filed under: Languages — Michelle @ 3:51 pm
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The words you speak become the house you live in ~ Hafiz


Reflections on being a bilingual household April 15, 2013


In our house, you can hear a mixture of languages. We speak Afrikaans to each other. We live in the USA so English and Spanish surround us. And sometimes we mix all 3 together. Our girls (ages 9 and 10) seem to be taking this in their strides.

It has not always been an easy journey to stay a bilingual family, or more recently, to try to become a trilingual family. When the girls started preschool, they didn’t understand a lot of English because we only spoke Afrikaans to them at home. It would have been easy to give up. When family commented that sending our youngest to a Spanish Immersion school will just make her confused, it would have been easy to give up. When we moved and there wasn’t a Spanish Immersion school in the area, it would have been easy to give up.

But I know that the earlier in life we work on our language skills, the easier it will become for us later on to expand our language capabilities. When I started learning Spanish at age 40, I could definitely see the difference between learning a language earlier or later in life! The girls picked it up much faster than me, probably because they were not afraid of making mistakes when speaking Spanish.

I remind myself constantly that it is all a process, with no road map for us to follow. Sometimes we work more on one language than the others. Sometimes we only read in one language (usually English) for weeks, because we don’t always make the effort to read books in other languages too.

But, I love the advantages of trying to raise our girls trilingual. I love that our girls can talk to their extended family in South Africa in Afrikaans. I love that they can speak Spanish whenever they find out that a person is Spanish speaking. And I love that we understand a little bit of multiple languages when traveling.

My advice: don’t listen to others who may tell you that you should only speak one language to your kids. Don’t give up. Give your family the gift of languages, and in doing so, give them the gift of opening up the world to them.


Endangered cultures, endangered languages March 19, 2013

Do you know that of the approximately 7000 languages in the world (according to SIL International’s Ethnologue database), about 2500 are considered endangered languages by UNESCO?

Wade Davis is a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, and he has been described as “a rare combination of scientist, scholar, poet and passionate defender of all of life’s diversity.” In a 2003 TED talk, he talks about the endangered cultures that he has had the privilege to spend time with. He says that “only the rhythm of our dances are different”, that we have so much in common even though our way of living looks so much different. One of my favorite quotes from this TED talk is: A language is not just a body of vocabulary or a set of grammatical rules. … Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind.

Wade Davis laments the fact that languages are dying; that a lot of endangered languages are not taught to babies anymore.

“What could be more lonely than to be enveloped in silence, to be the last of your people to speak your native tongue, to have no way to pass on the wisdom of the elders, to anticipate the promise of the children. This tragic fate is indeed the plight of someone somewhere roughly every two weeks.”

About cultures, and what we do to each other in the name of “development”, he says: “Genocide, the physical extinction of a people, is universally condemned, but ethnocide, the destruction of people’s way of life, is not only not condemned, it’s universally celebrated as part of a development strategy.”

As I research words for MotherTongues products, I come across many words from endangered languages. Maybe preserving it on a t-shirt or in an app, the words and their unique meanings will be with us a little longer.

Watch this Wade David TED talk and let me know what you think!



Happy International Mother Language Day! February 21, 2013

Reading time at home means books in a mix of three languages

Reading time at home

February 21 is promoted by UNESCO as International Mother Language Day. The day was first proclaimed in 1952 as “Language Movement Day” by Dhaka University students in Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) who were protesting suppression of their Bengali language. Police and military forces opened fire, killing many young people in attendance. Let’s not forget that it is still very difficult for lots of people in the world to get an education in their mother tongue.

The theme for 2013 is “The Book”, with the idea to read books, poems, etc. in your local language or a lesser resourced language “somewhere in public”, if possible, to make people aware of the status of many lesser resourced languages or local languages in the world.

If you don’t want to read in public, you can also do it at home. Read a book today in your mother language, listen to a podcast, write a letter, or dance to some music. And remember to share your love of language with your kids.


Get support in learning a (new) language March 10, 2012

Language Challenge 180

Are you trying to learn a new language, helping your kids to learn a new language, or brushing up on some forgotten language skills? It can be daunting to know where to start, where to find resources, and what online programs to try. But don’t despair, help is here!

Multilingual Living, one of my favorite websites, is hosting Language Challenge 180! It is a free, (yes free!) 180 day challenge, to help you turn your language learning around 180 degrees. More than 600 families have signed up already. We’re getting step-by-step guides to get on track with our language(s), tips and articles to help us along, and best of all for me so far: a place where others, trying to learn the same language(s) as you, post what resources they already found helpful. I find this camaraderie so supportive and helpful.

Just knowing that other families are struggling with the same problems as us, is already helping me along. I struggle with finding time and fun ways to engage our kids in language learning after a full day at school. Language Challenge 180 breaks it into small steps – 15 minutes a day! – and makes it feel much more achievable.

If you have more than one language in your house, and you are trying to grow your language skills, sign up today! I’ll see you over on the forum pages!


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