Whether mother tongue should be allowed or not in the EFL/ESL classrooms has been a debatable issue for many years, especially after the Grammar Translation (GT) method was considered ineffective in teaching English in non-native contexts (Paker & Karaağaç, 2015). Krashen (1981) claims that the use of the mother tongue (L1) deprives the learning of the English language (L2) in a natural setting, while the monolingual approach would maximize the effectiveness of learning the target language. Turnbul (2001) and (McDonald, 1993) are among other scholars who join Krashen in arguing that the use of the mother tongue hampers the learning of English and the best way to teach English is through English only.
However, the English-only approach – or the notion of teaching English through English (Richards, 2017) – is gradually being challenged as an impediment to teaching and learning English (Butzkamm & Caldwell, 2009; Pan & Pan 2010; Savage, 2019). The use of L1 not only creates the foundation for a better understanding of the L2 curriculum but also develops a positive attitude among children towards the schools that teach L2 (Savage, 2019). The use of L1 will be particularly relevant to the students from introductory to lower-intermediate levels (Pan & Pan 2010). According to Cook (2001), L1 creates a mental link between L1 and L2 and, thus, equips learners with the language competence they need to learn the second language.
Languages are linguistically interdependent, argues Cummins (2007), who, in the 1970s, developed the Linguistic Interdependence Hypothesis. Here,, the use of the mother tongue in the classroom reinforces the interdependence and enables the students to learn the second language through language transfer. Monolingual policies or prescriptions are actually contrary to and inconsistent with current understandings of how people learn (Cummins, 2007). In the same vein, Cook (2001) demonstrates that English-only policies and assumptions are wrong and urges instead to treat L1 as a classroom resource both for teachers and students to convey meaning, explain grammar and promote collaborative learning. Urging to use English where possible and mother tongue where necessary, Weschler, R. (1997) goes on to suggest developing a hybrid method drawing on the best of both schools of thought; English only approach and judicious use of mother tongue while teaching English.
At the beginning of my teaching career, 15 years ago, I was also influenced, like many beginner teachers, by the monolingual approach. I also used to think that English-only was the right approach, even aware that I was teaching on a public campus in which most of the students were from public schools with poor English competency. My preference for the conventional style of teaching English was to be an ideal teacher who could speak English fluently in the classrooms forbidding students from using their native languages.
Later, I realized that my approach was wrong particularly after my students started shifting to another class where the teacher used students’ mother tongue (Nepali in my context) as a medium (for instruction, teaching grammar, warming up, explaining homework and also the meaning of some technical words). Realizing the students’inclination towards their mother tongue went bilingual and saw the impact of it on the retention of students and their interactive participation in teaching-learning.
In the subsequent sections, I am sharing my own latest classroom practices in which I have used LI as a resource to teach writing skills and vocabulary. It was practised among 40 students of Bachelor of English Education at a Public Campus in Kathmandu. almost all the students were from Govt schools, with limited English proficiency. Most of them were from the ethnic communities that would speak Nepali as a lingua franca.
Practice 1: Each student was assigned to write a paragraph (8 lines) describing their own culture in English within 20 minutes. Out of 40 students, only 2 students (5%) completed the assignment. Eight students (20%) wrote some four lines of a paragraph. Twelve students (30%) wrote hardly two lines and 18 students (45%) wrote nothing (sat passive biting a pen throughout the 20 minutes). The body language of almost all students would tell that the practice was dull and dispirited.
Practice 2: Students were divided along with their cultural/linguistic background and were asked to write a half-page about their culture in LI, Nepali in this case, within 20 minutes. Almost all the students completed the assignment in time. Unlike the first assignment, students were happy, engaged and motivated to complete the exercise to the best of their ability.
Practice 3: Each group was, then, asked to translate the text into English and present it to peers. In case of difficulty finding an English term, they were allowed to retain Nepali term/s. Each group tried their best to translate what they had written, and presented among their peers highlighting the words/phrases they could not translate. I jotted down the highlighted words or phrases on the whiteboard. After the presentation, each group was asked to seek help from the other groups (using LI) to help find English words/expressions in their writing. After listening to the students, I stepped in to help them, explaining that certain cultural words might be difficult to translate, such as the name of community-specific food: Yomari (Newari food), Ghongi (Tharu Food), Sargemba (a food item of pig blood), Thekuwa (sweet cookie of terai people) and so on.
It worked well. Students were cheerful and fully engaged. No one seemed hesitant to share and express. On the contrary, everyone had something to offer and help a fellow student in need. It was truly collaborative. The mix of L1 and L2 would create a new environment of learning.
The use of LI is very helpful in EFL classrooms in a multicultural setting, like ours in Nepal. Foremost of all, it firms up the bond/connection between a teacher and students and helps create an inclusive environment in which students learn from each other (e.g., culture-specific vocabulary, writing skills, interpersonal communication) on an equal footing. It enhances inter-cultural respect among students and promotes collaborative learning.
The use of LI creates an environment in which everyone becomes an active learner. No one sees English as a burden. Instead, learning English becomes fun. As Pan and Pan (2010) rightly put it, “if L1 is utilized well and presented communicatively, it can be a facilitative tool that will improve the language proficiency of students” ( p.8 ) by motivating them to engage in learning exercises. L1 helps to develop students’ intercultural competence by providing learning content that is familiar to them (Chinh 2013). It is easy to build on familiar content, which also creates a level playing field for all to engage equally in learning without any sense of superiority or inferiority.
As argued by Weschler (1997), L1 opens the door to many possibilities for L2 while creating a natural learning environment. Learning cannot be imposed. It should not be a burden. Learning should instead be fun, which is possible through the use of the mother tongue.
The L1 versus L2 debate is not limited to educationists and teachers alone. Even our parents are drawn into it. Many of them want to see their children trained in the English-only fashion, unaware of perhaps the contribution of L1 to L2. Our teachers should also bridge the gap between the parental expectation (of L2) and the need of the students (of L1) by making the parents aware of the importance of L1 in getting their children where they want them to reach.
Butzkamm, W., & Caldwell, J. A. (2009). The bilingual reform: A paradigm shift in foreign language teaching. Narr Francke Attempto Verlag.
Chinh, N. D. (2013). Cultural Diversity in English Language Teaching: Learners’ Voices. English Language Teaching, 6 (4), 1-7.
Cook, V. (2001). Using the first language in the classroom. Canadian modern language review, 57(3), 402-423.
Cummins, J. (2007). Rethinking monolingual instructional strategies in multilingual classrooms. Canadian Journal of applied linguistics, 10(2), 221-240.
Krashen, S. D. (1981). Second language acquisition and second language learning. The University of Southern California.
McDonald, C. (1993). Using the target language. Cheltenham, UK: Mary Glasgow.
Paker, T., & Karaağaç, Ö. (2015). The use and functions of mother tongue in EFL classes. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, 199, 111-119.
Pan, Y. C., & Pan, Y. C. (2010). The Use of L1 in the Foreign Language Classroom. Colombian Applied Linguistics Journal, 12(2), 87-96.
Richards, J. C. (2017). Teaching English through English: Proficiency, pedagogy and performance. RELC Journal, 48(1), 7-30.
Savage, C. (2019). The importance of mother tongue in education. Independent Education Today. Available at: https://ie-today.co.uk/comment/the-importance-of-mother-tongue-in-education/ (downloaded on 30 March 2022)
Turnbull, M. (2001). There is a role for the L1 in second and foreign language teaching, but…. Canadian modern language review, 57(4), 531-540.
Weschler, R. (1997). Uses of Japanese in the English Classroom: Introducing the Functional-Translation Method. Kyoritsu Women’s University Department of International Studies Journal, 12, 87-110.
Author’s Bio: Ms Ganga Laxmi Bhandari is a lecturer of English education at Mahendra Ratna Campus Tahachal (T.U.), Kathmandu. She has over 15 years of teaching and training experience in ELT. She has also been working as a Central Committee Member of NELTA. Currently, she is pursuing a PhD degree from Tribhuvan University. Her area of research interest is teacher professional development. She can be reached at gbgangakattel@