mother tongue
Maintaining your mother tongue while studying abroad is not as easy as it sounds. Source: Patricia De Melo Moreira/AFP

“Mother tongue” refers to someone’s native tongue, first language, or native language. It’s the language or dialect you learn to speak with first.

For many, this is the definition of their identity and their culture. 

While it is difficult to forget your first language completely, being away from home can make you a little rusty, especially while you’re practising another foreign language.

Don’t despair, though. There are several ways to retain your mother tongue even while studying abroad. 

With International Mother Language Day around the corner, what better time than now to do this? 

This celebration began many years ago as an initiative by Bangladesh to fight for the recognition of their language. Not long after, it was approved at the UNESCO General Conference in 1999.

Since 2000, February 21 is recognised as International Mother Langauge Day to increase awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity.

This day also aims to promote multilingualism for a peaceful society. 

While abroad, that sudden lack of use of your mother tongue, often adds to our homesickness. It’s as if we’re drifting away from our culture.

By using our mother tongue we can strengthen our connections to home — while reaping a few other perks too.

More international companies are recruiting candidates who can speak more than one language.

Bilingual people are slightly faster than monolinguals in performing “novel instructions” (e.g. add one to x, divide y by two, and sum the results) too, according to a small study. 

Past studies also found that children of bilingual families do better in non-linguistic tasks.

While the benefits are clear, studying in countries like the US, UK, Canada, and Australia often presents little, if any, opportunities to speak your mother tongue.

The situation is tougher still for those from smaller populations.

So, what can you, as an international student, do to keep your mother tongue alive? 

Here are four habits you can adopt to keep up with your mother tongue alive

Joining clubs and organisations 

When studying abroad, one of the best ways to maintain your mother tongue is to find others who speak the same language as you.

Many universities have clubs for specific cultures that you can join to help you meet friends from your home country.

Most universities will have a society for students from China, India and Indonesia. Seek them out and if you can’t find one, you can start one too.

mother tongue

Reading books in your mother tongue is a great way to maintain your skills. Source: Jack Guez/AFP

Reading books

Visit your university’s library or discover the libraries and bookshops in town to find some books in your own language.

If some books are hard to find, take your search online to sites like Book Depository or Amazon.

Pro tip: Most international students don’t know they can ask your university librarians for help.

Not only are they great at sourcing hard-to-find materials, they can order books in from other unis too.

Watching movies

Watching moves is an excellent way to not lose touch with your first language skills while in a foreign country.

You can find movies in your mother tongue or even choose to watch a film and dub it into your own language.  

Again, your university librarian can help you out with this too.

Finding a pen pal

While studying in a foreign country, having a pen pal from back home is a great way to continue practising your first language. 

Though writing letters is not common anymore, doing this can help you to keep up with your writing skills in your mother tongue.

Whether you choose to stick to snail mail or want to exchange emails or text messages, pick up this habit to maintain your mother tongue. 

Universities supporting International Mother Language Day

With over six million international students worldwide, universities see the importance of helping students stay connected to their first languages. 

Many universities have joined in on this effort and organised celebrations in line with International Mother Language Day. 

Here are some examples of events held by universities around the world during this day: 


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University of Findlay

The University of Findlay in Ohio held a celebration in conjunction with International Mother Language Day last February to honour the linguistic and cultural diversity of their students. 

Organised by the Department of Langauge and Culture and Cultural Connections of Hancock County, the event was open to all students and free of charge. 

During the event, students shared stories in their own languages, such as Japanese, Serbian, Bengali, Hindi and many more.

Utah Valley University 

At Utah Valley University, the Office for Global Engagement and the Department of Language and Cultures organised an event with music and dance performances in different languages. 

“We are celebrating to show respect and the importance of diversity and inclusion at home and abroad,” shared assistant professor of computer science Sayeed Sajal.

UVU wanted to honour those who fought with their lives for the privilege of linguistic diversity.

As such, they built a replicate of the national Bangladesh monument to honour those from the Bengali Language Movement in 1952. 

“The main message for this event is that we all are different in culture and language, but we all are human beings,” Sajal said.