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Mother tongue in the classroom?

October 18, 2007

Hello again,
Should EL teachers use the mother-tongue in the classroom? The rationale for not using the mother tongue was a mixture of pedagogical and pragmatic. First, use only of the target language allows learners...

... maximum exposure to English. Thus learners can accustom their ear to the new sounds, develop listening strategies and be discouraged from translating. Teachers with multi-lingual groups could not be expected to know all the native languages of their students, so English was the only practical medium for teaching. And even teachers with mono-lingual groups do not always a level of proficiency in the language of the students to be able to teach in that language.

Commercial pressures are at work too. Exam boards would have to spend a lot to translate the exam rubrics into a lot of different languages and publishers produce only English versions of coursebooks.

But if a class is monolingual the reasons for using the mother tongue for specific reasons are surely convincing. First there is the time-saving benefit of issuing complex task instructions in the mother tongue or troubleshooting when activities are not working too well. Then there are issues of comprehension. Take false friends as an example. It is often helpful to use mother tongue comparisons to help clarify such issues. If the learners are children then use of mother tongue in such situations can be helpful to keep the pace of the lesson brisk so that the children do not lose attention.

Then there is the value in making structural comparisons. Where English grammar is posing a conceptual difficulty, an illustration of a mother tongue equivalent can be helpful. Take the ways in which English uses the present tense, for example. Linking examples of each use of the present tense with the mother tongue equivalent can help learners understand how English works.

It seems to me that what is important for learners to have effective teaching and if use of the mother tongue adds to the effectiveness then it should be used when required. It is a good idea to agree a policy on its use with the group at the beginning of the course: when and why will mother tongue be used and by whom.

The following references may help schools decide a policy on this issues:

Alexander, L (1987) The use of mother tongue in class (Practical English Teaching 7/3)
Atkinson, D (1987) The mother tongue in the classroom: a neglected resource? (ELT Journal 41/4)
Deller, S & Rinvolucri, M (2002) Using the Mother Tongue: making the most of the learner's language. Delta Publishing.)
Jabr Dajani, D (2002) Using mother tongue to become a better learner. (MET 11/2)

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  1. MsNabi Says:

    I have always used the mother tongue as necessary in the classroom. In my school we do not have co-teachers, and there are always students that have a higher level of comprehension than the others. I allow these students to translate for me or give examples in Korean. It works out quite well.

  1. Steppenwolf Says:

    A rehash of very superficial and shallow justificaations for the use of mother tongue in the foreign language classroom.

    It's as though students answered the question from THEIR point of view.

  1. Ana Says:

    I totally agree with this assessment. When the class is monolingual, using the mother tongue when complex explanations are called for, or even simple explanations to kids, only makes sense.

    My former Japanese employer, however, strongly disagreed with this. Even with kids, she insisted we needed to demonstrate every instruction in English, not explain anything. This did not always work, especially with children. Some games, for example, had instructions that the kids simply couldn't get without mother-tongue explanation.

    I tried to explain that these instructions would only be in the beginning, and that playing the game in subsequent classes would be in English.

    Of course, most English teachers in Asia don't know the mother tongue, so your suggestions only apply to English teachers who know the mother tongue.

  1. Brenda Townsend Hall Says:


    Yes, for me the learners' points of view are paramount. I advocate teaching approaches that are learner friendly. I'm sorry you find this superficial.

  1. mike Says:

    I think it is ideal to reach a level where everything in the classroom is done in English, but getting there is the tough part- I found I had to use Spanish to keep order in my classroom of Chilean students, and once I had them under control and paying attention I taught in English- trying to maintain order in English was just too difficult and time consuming.

  1. Hamed hammad Says:

    I thank Brenda for her efforts in presenting such imortant and thorny topics but In my country ,Egypt,Some teachers use much Arabic and neglect the target language whereas others insist on using English so some learners as long as their guardiands complain about using English all the time ,What we should do with such discrapancies,Ithink Teachers should use only the Target language and consider simle laguage and vocab to help learners get the clue easily

  1. Samir.M.Salih Says:

    Following brenda's comment on using spanish language in classroom,I think it is an imortant topic dealt with in teaching methods of Language Teaching.Using mother tongue in classroom is damaging the language and learning process,especially in advanced stages.From my own experience in teaching English in many aArab countries,I find it all depends on the situation of the learner and lectuer-it needs to be carefully used and only when it is necessary to save time&effot,otherwise it would damage the Language process and the student'ability of understanding and speaking the target language.

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