For Learners, the Mother Tongue is the Mother of all Languages

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

The mother tongue (MT) taboo – still the didactical correctness in many countries of the world –  is a patent absurdity.  There are practices bordering on the bizarre, which have been repeatedly reported in the literature. Personally, I have heaps of anecdotal evidence to support my claim. Here are just a few episodes taken from retrospective self-reports collected over many years from German university students of English who wrote about themselves as pupils and language learners:


  •  I really hated the fact that the teacher we had in grades 7-9 refused to explain English words we didn’t know in German. She just wrote the word up on the board, but only a few pupils understood her English explanations. Even when we asked her nicely if she could give us the German equivalent she became angry. But I’d better stop talking about her, as it makes me angry. Sonja
  • He very often demanded silence with the word (as I grasped it): [pikwait]. To me this was one word and I was absolutely proud when some day I recognized the words “be” and „quiet”, although I had already sensed before what he meant. Only then could I correct the pronunciation in my mind because I had identified the isolated words. Vanessa 
  • Mrs. […] tried to explain the meaning of “tall” and “small” to us, by having a little girl standing next to a huge boy. We all had no clue what she wanted from us. She repeated “Henrik is taller than Carina. And Carina is smaller than Henrik.” In addition to this she waved about with her hands. These actions confused us even more. Corinna 
  • When someone dared to ask for an equivalent, he/she was reprimanded for not paying attention. He strictly rejected the use of the mother tongue, we were forbidden to use it; if we did, we had to do some extra homework. There  never was a relaxed atmosphere in his classroom. Nicole 
  • He tried to teach us by means of the direct method. I say he only “tried to” because it did not work. This became obvious whenever he tried to explain new words, especially adjectives which described emotions or someone’s character. As certain emotions are difficult to describe, we often had only a slight hint of what he could mean and still could not grasp the real meaning of the word. Bettina
  • He practised the direct method in an orthodox form. That meant from the very beginning our mother tongue was excluded […]. We did not have the possibility of talking about real interests, but about those things we had learned before. We did not ask real questions to get real answers, we just imitated the phrases we learnt from the teacher or from the textbook. Dagmar

This is madness. And it’s scandalous. Robert L. Allen once wrote: “I discovered that even though dragging an elephant into the classroom would undoubtedly make the lesson more lively, the students would still associate the word elephant with their own name for the animal.” 


But the use of the mother tongue doesn’t stop here. All too often its role is restricted to meaning-conveyance. It should also be used to make foreign language constructions transparent. The technique of “mirroring” (as I prefer to call it) is a great way of making grammar learning fast and simple. See


We must be ready to fight a war on two fronts: against the teacher who conveniently lapses into the MT, which he shares with his pupils, simply because he is not fluent and flexible enough in the language he teaches; and against the native speaker with little or no command of his pupils’ MT.  Both groups of teachers are unlikely to know effective well-crafted bilingual techniques.


If we set things right here, millions of language learners will be positively affected.



6 responses to “For Learners, the Mother Tongue is the Mother of all Languages

  1. Pingback: The mother of all languages? « Adventures in the Tulgey Wood

  2. I’ve just been reading through M.A.K. Halliday’s (1978) _Language as Social Semiotic_ and was struck by the insinuation he makes that the “mother tongue” is actually a *second* language of sorts for all of us, since we first develop a functional “child language” that accomplishes many of our initial purposes; it’s only later that we have to ‘subject’ ourselves to the “mother tongue” as a language with broader social currency. How sad that we should then be blamed for using our second language to help us learn our third or fourth?

  3. M.A.K. Halliday’s “Language as Social Semiotic – The social interpretation of language and meaning” (London: Arnold, 1978) has deeply influenced my way of thinking about learning and teaching foreign / second languages. A great book which – published 30 years ago – has paved the way not only for the fundamental re-orientation of language instruction towards language(s) in use in the last quarter of the twentieth century, but also for the current theoretical shift away from computational to ecological views of learning and teaching.

  4. I am writing my thesis on the role of the mother tongue, and I have a question. Is code switching a technique?

  5. Pingback: 23 Things » Thing 7a

  6. Differences between a native language and English in pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary and stylistic usage should not be ignored by foreign learners living and learning English in non-English speaking countries to master English thoroughly. When learning and using English foreign learners cannot but notice those differences between English and their native language. Knowledge of those differences by foreign learners of English is essential for understanding correct forms, meaning and use of English grammar and for vocabulary usage to reduce making mistakes in English as much as possible, especially in fine tricky points of English grammar, vocabulary and stylistic usage. Native language interference when learning and using English by foreign learners is a natural thing equally as translation is a natural language activity in human communication. Therefore native language interference when learning and using English cannot be prevented or eliminated until English has been mastered by foreign learners as good as their native language. Knowledge of phonetic, grammatical, lexical and stylistic differences between English and one’s native language weakens natural native language interference when learning and using English.

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