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The Importance of Mother Tongue Languages

Author: Brynna Larsen, English as an Additional Language (EnLA) Teacher

Common Underlying Proficiency, also known as CUP, is a theory from Jim Cummins that first came out in the 1980s. CUP plays an important role in the design of many English as an Additional Language programmes in international schools.

This theory argues that the knowledge and cognitive skills we establish in one language transfer to other languages. It suggests that students who have strong literacy skills in their mother tongue can acquire additional languages more easily, AND that students can transfer their general academic knowledge and skills from their mother tongue into the language they’re learning.  

Some CUP implications for our teaching and programme at BIS are:

  • Students should be encouraged to continue developing their mother tongue - in mother tongue classes and with their parents, but also when studying our course content.
  • In real-world settings, we rely on our multilingualism as a tool to help us access ideas, switching from one language to another and back again. Students should be encouraged to do so in our classes as well.
  • When students use self-talk to explain how to solve problems, encouraging them to do so in their mother tongue first could make it more impactful, and make the learning stick.
  • Parents and students both worry about students losing their first language when being in a largely English environment at school. In addition to promoting our mother tongue programmes, we can encourage students to continue reading, listening to podcasts, watching movies, etc. in their mother tongue. 

It is a real privilege to teach in a multilingual environment like ours (80 nationalities amongst 710 students), but this can also add to the complications of teaching during COVID restrictions.

Earlier this month, I was happy to lead one of our regular lunch time discussion groups on CUP. It was helpful to reflect as a group on how we can best support our students learning English during lockdown by applying CUP theory to our everyday practice.