School boy Chinese

A student’s mother tongue is an essential link for learning English effectively


Guest post by Anthony Vaughan

Did you know that students have a mother tongue?  It seems like a funny question, yet all too often, students learning English are discouraged from using their native language in the classroom.  Is it possible that sweeping it to the periphery of a monolingual class may be wasting a valuable educational tool?


Local teachers’ insight

Teachers in a non-English speaking country are in an enviable training position.  Sharing a common tongue with their students, they have a greater insight into the linguistic ‘behind the scenes’ of their students’ minds.  Despite this insight, they may be told that the only way to teach English is by maintaining a strict “English only” policy and excluding local languages from the classroom.  I often wonder how realistic that is.


Why do students use their mother tongue?

The mother tongue then becomes a whispered phenomenon in the classroom.  It may be uttered when students come out of a temporary ‘lesson coma’.  They realise they haven’t been following the lesson for the last few minutes and seek to reconnect.  Or in mid-sentence, a new word has come up and the students want to know immediately what it means.  Sometimes students also resort to the mother tongue when they do not understand an instruction.  It is whispered because students think it is not allowed.  The teacher may have explicitly told students off for using it or imposed some sanction on the class to restore the English ‘order’.


Linguistic emotions

I think students seek mother tongue clarification simply to reduce anxiety and to be able to learn.  As such, it is a natural emotional response and arguably a useful learning tool.  Instead of denying this means of clarification, teachers can incorporate this kind of linguistic assistance at strategic times during a lesson.


Mother tongue planning

If the teacher does not provide boundaries and guidance, like any classroom management issue, the use of mother tongue could be to the detriment of contact with the target language.  However, rather than ignoring students’ linguistic anxiety, teachers can reduce it through planned educational techniques.  As a result, students have the opportunity to make conscious comparisons between their mother tongue and English.


Benefits of mother tongue

Use of the mother tongue can help students to understand English more thoroughly and make a linguistic connection between their native language and English.  It is also beneficial for them to become quicker at ‘code-shifting’, particularly if they are living or working in a multilingual context.  On another level, it also ensures that students maintain pride in their own language.


The interpreter

At the conclusion of a lesson, a perfect opportunity arises for teachers to reinforce target language from the lesson using mother tongue activities.  In pairs or small groups, students are allocated the role of speaker or interpreter.  If students have been discussing their daily habits, the speaker can explain them again, but this time, their interpreter will translate into mother tongue for others in the group.  This gives students an opportunity to peer correct any errors in either English or mother tongue.  Furthermore, students receive further reinforcement by hearing English and the mother tongue in sequence and noticing how they differ.  And … it’s pretty amazing to hear two languages bouncing around the room in an organised fashion, as if the students were interpreters at the UN.



Anthony Vaughn

About the writer

Anthony currently works as English Teacher Trainer at Mediterranean Bali in Bali Indonesia. Mediterranean Bali is a cruise-ship training centre assisting rural Balinese students to gain employment on cruise-ships.  He previously worked for three years as an English Language Trainer at International House Kuala Lumpur. You can check out Anthony’s blog Expat English Teacher here.



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