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.