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You are here: Family Issues > Raising Bilingual children

Mother Tongue Studies

by Marti Ahlquist1, PNG

In 1993 an interesting program was added to the curriculum of Ukarumpa International School, Primary Campus at Ukarumpa in Papua New Guinea. This program, Mother Tongue Studies (MTS), began in order to meet the felt needs of school parents whose first language was other than English.

The previous year two parents had given a presentation to the school staff explaining their perceived need for instruction within the school day in mother tongues other than English and giving suggestions for a proposed program to meet this need. At a subsequent meeting, the staff thoroughly discussed the proposal.

Lists were generated giving the positives of the proposed program, the concerns teachers had at this point, and the ramifications to the school program. The areas of concern included such things as logistics, teachers, materials, the classroom time these students miss, and the content of the courses. The remainder of the 1992 school year was spent refining the program to get it to a workable course for the school. In January 1993, at the beginning of the new school year, MTS began its first year. [The school year used to start in January — it now starts in July.]


The program runs two hours a week throughout the school year. Students go in a group of similar ages, grades 1-3 together and grades 4-6 together. MTS classes have been in seven languages: Japanese, Korean, Finnish, Mandarin, Swedish, German, and Dutch [and now Latvian]. Most language groups have been able to recruit a teacher from their home country to come teach; otherwise, a parent from that language group in the community of Ukarumpa will teach. In 1999 the Finnish and Koreans began meeting each morning from 8 am until 10:10 am with an emphasis on language and mathematics. Other groups may use this time slot if they wish more MTS time.

The goal of MTS is to help students from non-English-speaking countries be able to maintain their mother tongue and fit into the appropriate level in school when returning to their passport country. Content of the course has varied depending on what the teacher felt was the greatest need in their mother tongue. Possible areas of study are language (oral and written), culture, and history of the home country.

The program has also been included at the Secondary Campus for grades 7-12. Students take MTS classes during their free periods. This often means that the MTS teachers work both campuses, which makes for interesting schedule planning.

The program is optional for mother tongue speakers of the languages offered. Students are not required to make up lessons missed in the regular classroom while in MTS.


When the program began, we weren’t sure if it would reach our goals. However, parents of students who have returned to their home country after some time in the MTS program report that their students fit better into the school system in the passport country.

Another benefit is that students in the school, both in and out of the program, have developed a greater appreciation for the diversity of languages within the student body. It is not looked down upon to leave the classroom for MTS classes—some not in the program wish they could be involved! Although there are still some difficulties being worked out, the staff and parents believe the program has helped meet the need expressed by the parents.

Permission to copy, but not for commercial use.

1 Marti Ahlquist has MEd in Educational Administration. She has served with SIL for over 35 years, first as a teacher in Ecuador, then as a teacher, curriculum coordinator and school administrator in Papua New Guinea, and now as a part of Global TCK Care and Education.