Tag Archives: bilingual

“I Accuse…!”

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

Why do so many asylum seekers fail the official German courses, among them even highly qualified, highly motivated and hard-working migrants who are keen on starting a new life in Germany?

I accuse…
all those who have been teaching German as a foreign language according to a monolingual German-only approach, to the detriment of their clients. These are notably teachers and teacher trainers

  • of the Goethe-Institute
  • of universities and academic language centres
  • of various language schools offering official German courses

I also accuse various publishers of textbooks and the BAMF (Federal German Agency for Migration and Refugees). Because they all should have known better and reacted more appropriately to a difficult situation.

I claim:
The German-only approach  (or, for that matter, the English-only policies worldwide) is self-crippling. In our digital age it is a patent absurdity and a cause of unnecessary misery especially for speakers of ‘remote’ languages. Many refugees fail the monolingual German courses. Clearly defined and brain compatible bilingual teaching techniques in conjunction with monolingual activities empower the students and enrich the teachers’ repertoire.

I propose:
– Textbook publishers offer bilingual word lists of words and phrases in many languages. The lists should be arranged in three columns and ordered according to lessons – this is standard practice in German coursebooks of English. These lists can be printed separately or downloaded freely from the internet. Bilingual classroom phrases for beginners should also be available.
– Teachers allow a ‘time-out’ to help learners who speak the same language clarify comprehension problems among themselves. Learners use dictionaries and smartphones and share the information gained.
– Teachers select and present Youtube videos on special German grammar topics to groups of students who share the same language. As they watch and learn, the teacher continues working with the rest of the class. German grammar videos are provided free of charge by bilingual native speakers and have often been clicked more than a million times (see, for instance, Deiaa Abdullah for Arabic and Almani be Farsi. For students who come equipped with a good knowledge of English smarterGerman.com is a great help.)
– Teachers ask former students who have become proficient bilinguals to provide them with parallel translations of selected texts which they will use time and again with new students.
– Contrary to what the BAMF recommends, homogeneous classes where all students share a language will be formed wherever possible. For them special textbooks such as Hossein Tavakkoly’s “Deutsch für Perser” could be used alongside traditional German-only textbooks. These textbooks are written in the learners’ own language, and it is possible for them, wherever necessary, to provide word-for-word translations of unfamiliar and ‘bizarre’ German constructions. Here are four examples illustrating this technique, also called mother-tongue mirroring, for English speakers: In many languages the phrase “Do you have a passport?” is rendered literally “Is to-you passport?”. In Twi, comparisons such “Kofi is bigger than me” are expressed  by means of a verb: “Kofi big exceed me”. In Mandarin, the plural of nouns is not marked by an ending, but by inserting a special measure word: “two books” is literally “two volume book”, “two knives” is “two grip knife”, somewhat similar to ”two pieces of soap” or ” two bars of chocolate”, etc. In the Ponca-language “I have a sister” is something like “I am sistered”. – In this way, languages can become transparent for one another.
– In the long run, teachers could make themselves familiar with salient grammatical peculiarities of their students‘ languages. They may record files of recurring errors from speakers of these languages and develop strategies to deal with them. Even a little knowledge of students’ languages will go a long way.
Textbook lessons for advanced students usually deal with certain topics such as ‘trade unions’. Teachers should point out to their students that there could be Wikipedia articles on the same topic in their own languages. Reading them will certainly help them to understand the foreign language text better. Comprehension is the key to language.
– Since students come from varying school cultures, they should be taught effective learning techniques such as the read-and-look-up method.

Our digital age provides many opportunities to tailor the teaching and learning of foreign languages to the individual needs of the learners. (See  also chapter 13: “Ideas for multilingual classes“ in Butzkamm & Caldwell, 2009, pp.229ff.)

The situation is complex, and the bilingual approach is no cure-all against failures. Teaching migrants remains a difficult job. Students differ significantly according to their origins, cultures, languages, ages, talents, motivation, and previous knowledge.


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.


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.