The Mother Tongue Taboo or Taking the Dogma out of Foreign Language Methodology

posted by Wolfgang Butzkamm, Aachen University (RWTH), Germany 

In many Asian countries pressures are rising on English teachers to teach through English only. In Europe, the issue is still being debated, with peaks in the early 1900s when a group of Parisian radicals officially enforced the direct method for more than a decade, and again in the 1970s, when foreign-language-only audiovisual coursebooks were made available. Whether the foreign language should be the sole medium of instruction is thus more than an academic dispute. Millions of learners and their teachers are affected. Official target-language-only policies, though inspired by the best of motives, are irresponsible because the baby is thrown out with the bathwater. So:

Should we conduct lessons through the foreign language? My answer is an unequivocal yes. Does this mean the exclusion of the mother tongue from the classroom? The answer is an equally unequivocal no. The solution to this paradox is the sandwich-technique:

  • French teacher of English: “What’s the matter? Qu’y a-t-il? What’s the matter?”
  • German teacher of English: “You’ve skipped a line. Du hast eine Zeile übersprungen. You’ve skipped a line. Or: “I mean the second last word. Das vorletzte Wort. The second last word.”

This technique of sandwiching the translation of an unknown expression can be carried out very discreetly in the tone of an aside or sometimes even whispering. It should be a central technique of any foreign language teacher as it is the quickest way to make authentic classroom communication possible: statement in L2, restatement in L1, and again in L2. The supportive use of the mother tongue is indispensable because of the improvisational nature of much of classroom talk where participants come up with unforeseen problems and teachers are caught unawares and unprepared and must react in an unrehearsed, yet natural manner. The language required is often more complex and beyond the language taught concurrently in the coursebook. That’s why mother tongue aids make it easier to conduct whole lessons in the foreign language and can promote more authentic, message-oriented communication than might be found in lessons where they are avoided. Pupils gain confidence and, paradoxically, become less dependent on their L1.

Foreign language teaching theory needs to make a complete turnabout and accept that the mother tongue is the greatest asset a talking child brings to the classroom. It is also the single most important teaching aid.


5 responses to “The Mother Tongue Taboo or Taking the Dogma out of Foreign Language Methodology

  1. I try to stick to English as much as possible when I’m teaching German kids…occationally I have to say one or two sentences in their mother tongue, but I only do that if they obviously haven’t the slightest clue what I’m trying to convey to them, even though I’ve patiently explained it in English several times.
    I don’t find it difficult to switch back to English afterwards as it’s my mother tonuge and I’m well trained in hopping from one to the other. I know that some people who are German find it difficult to speak English to children who are also German…the desire to use the joint mother tongue is very strong, because they know it will get the point across ‘much faster’ and patience can wear very thin ;)

  2. “Occasionally I have to say one or two sentences in their mother tongue, but I only do that if they obviously haven’t the slightest clue what I’m trying to convey to them, even though I’ve patiently explained it in English several times”

    Of course you can do that if, but only if your students are equally patient and keep listening to your explanations, which, by the way, will often lead away from the text. This is what a student of anglistics wrote in her restrospective self-report:
    In the middle of a piece of prose, she insisted on explaining the new expression in English. First she asked if one of us could explain the meaning. No one volunteered, and she tried to give an explanation. After three minutes, most of us had lost interest. Verena

    Poring over the meaning is likely to be less effective than putting the new expression to use right away. It’s the frequency and the intensity of personal use which allow the new expressions to take root, rather than an initial guessing around. Mother tongue meaning conveyance means more time for using new expressions and varying them according to one’s own needs. This is precisely the key factor for success in learning: what the learners do with what they have correctly comprehended.

    See also my article “We only learn language once. The role of the mother tongue in FL classrooms: death of a dogma” available at Here I’ve shown, among other things, that monolingual techniques of meaning-conveyance generally function less well than the MT, so that limited, incomplete understanding and blank incomprehension are a frequent source of frustration in FL classes.

  3. Natasha Bershadski

    My name is Natasha Bershadski and I am the author of the “Michel Thomas Method Russian Courses” published recently by Hodder Education. I also teach Russian at King’s College London Modern Language Centre and London School of Economics.

    It was very reassuring to read the articles regarding the use of the mother tongue in foreign language teaching. As a teacher with thirty years experience (I taught English in Russia, and for the past 15 years – Russian in London), I am quite sceptical about the rigid use of the ‘communicative approach’ and have always chosen to do things my own way in the classroom. In fact, I find there is no ‘communication’ at all when a nervous teacher tries in vain to explain the meaning of a word in the target language to equally nervous students, thus adding stress to what should be an enjoyable experience. Just the other day I was present at a German class where the teacher tried to explain the meaning of the adjective ‘magerer’, without resorting to English. Failing to do so, she tried to draw a thin man on the blackboard. After staring at the drawing for some time the students (they were all adults!) assumed it was ‘a broom’. (The situation reminded me of a joke about an Englishman who wanted to order mushrooms in a French restaurant and not knowing the word, draw a mushroom on the napkin. The waiter brought him … an umbrella.) Wishing to end the suffering of the student sitting next to me, I whispered into her ear: ‘Skinny!’ I was afraid the teacher would be annoyed with me, but to my surprise she was relieved that the student now understood the meaning of the adjective and it was not she who said the forbidden word. What a waste of valuable teaching time!

    I find it even more ridiculous when in a textbook for beginners all the grammar explanations are in the target language.

    The use of the mother tongue not only eliminates confusion when teaching new grammatical structures and vocabulary; by showing the similarities and differences between the native and the target languages the teacher makes the students more aware of their native tongue, which in its turn helps them in learning new foreign languages.

    On the recording of the “Michel Thomas Method Russian Foundation Course” in the introduction I say: “Let us turn your native tongue – English – into our friend rather than our enemy, as it often happens with traditional methods”. I am now happy to know that I have likeminded people in the academic world.

    The two students on the recording are asked to construct sentences in Russian after I introduce a new concept (and this is what learners at home have to do). Learners do not regard this as ‘translating’ but rather expressing their thoughts in Russian, which they find very exciting.

    You can read the reviews of the “MTM Russian Courses” on It would be interesting for me to know the opinion of teachers and scientists, as I am now working on the third part of the series.

    • Jeremy Berryman

      I am just starting Natasha Bershadski’s MTM programme. I plan on teaching English to students in Russia. Although the schools are ‘English Only’ schools, I want to be able to express myself in thier Mother Tongue when needed. I also would like to ask Natasha if she plans on releasing a English to Russian course? I would love to send it to my Russian friends who have difficulty communicating verbally, although many of them have a good written understanding.

  4. I learned German in high school, where some of the teachers (Germans) spoke German only to us. You learn the language fast, but understanding how it functions is another matter. I teach Latin and Greek, so I wonder how this method would work there. Explaining the etymology of each grammar term, for instance, helps a lot, but it takes place in some sort of interlanguage.

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