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Using the Mother Tongue in the English Language Classroom

On the topic of language learning, there are many stories of students going abroad for a period of time and returning home fluent in a foreign language. The reason for this dramatic change is often attributed to the fact that the students are completely immersed in the culture and the language (“nobody spoke my language so I had to learn theirs”).

Because of the seemingly huge success of language immersion learning, many language schools and teachers all over the world choose to adopt and enforce an English-only policy to recreate that full immersion experience for their students. But does it really make a difference?  And what are the benefits and repercussions? This TESOL article explores the advantages and disadvantages of L1 use in the English-language classroom and offers suggestions on how to capitalize mother tongue use in an effective and judicious manner.

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Advantages of Using L1 in the ESL Classroom

Advocates of this view would argue that, when learning another language, translation is a natural phenomenon.  Even the student who went abroad to learn another language began the first few months translating everything into their mother tongue, using a bilingual dictionary to acquire a knowledge base of vocabulary.

In fact, research has shown that switching between languages and translation happens instinctively to all language learners, and the L1 is actually an important resource in the second language (L2) learning (Cook, 2001; Woodall, 2002).  For these reasons, teachers should try to work with this innate tendency rather than against it. Furthermore, in situations where the students’ L1 was not even allowed in private spaces and there were punishments for using the mother tongue, Goldstein (2003) found that students simply did not speak, used their L1 quietly, and felt a sense of shame when they were punished for using their own language.

Learning another language should add richness to students’ lives; it should not devalue their own language and culture.  By allowing L1 use, students would get the sense that learning another language is a positive experience. They can have access to a valuable resource that supports them and they do not have to feel guilty for doing what comes naturally.

From the teacher’s perspective, communicating with students in their mother tongue seems to improve teacher-student rapport (Harbord, 1992). Just saying, “Hello, how are you?” in the students’ language can cause a fit of giggles and often draws students to the teacher to find out what else (s)he can say in their language(s). Also, being able to use the L1 with students can be more efficient and make time for more useful activities.  For example, if instructions to activity are complicated and students do not seem to comprehend the English explanation, asking a student who does understand to translate for the entire class would create more time for the activity and prevent a lot of frustration for both teachers and students.

Disadvantages of Using the Mother Tongue in the ESL Classroom

Translation could lead to the development of an excessive dependency on the students’ mother tongue (Harbord, 1992) by both teachers and students.  Consequently, students lose confidence in their ability to communicate in English: They may feel that the only way they would understand anything the teacher says is when it has been translated. Or they use their mother tongue even when they are perfectly capable of expressing the same idea in English.

This can significantly reduce students’ opportunities to practice English, and students fail to realize that using English in classroom activities is essential to improve their language skills. Translation also regularly creates the problem of oversimplification. Because many cultural and linguistic nuances cannot be directly translated (Harbord, 1992).  For example, the sentence, “That’s so cool!” in English means that something is amazing or incredible. This phrase is the product of the continual evolution of the English language that was affected by the specific culture at a certain time. A direct translation of this sentence into Chinese, for example, would not have the same meaning; in fact, it would not make sense at all.

While the argument from both sides is equally compelling, it is clear, that despite the numerous advantages of students using their L1 in English-language learning, they do not outweigh the disadvantages. Is it possible to maximize the benefits and minimize the repercussions?

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4 Suggestions for ESL Teachers to Use L1

Harbord (1992) recommends that an English-language strategy should replace L1 strategies whenever possible. Using the L1 to save time, such as giving instructions for an activity, classroom administration, or chatting with students, is never a good reason. This is because using the L1 during these situations actually results in the loss of valuable opportunities for using English. It also sends a message to students that English is only a subject for learning, and they are not proficient enough to use it as a means of communication.

So how can teachers demonstrate to students that they are capable of using English to communicate when it would be much easier and faster to use the mother tongue?

1. Giving Instructions vs Teaching English with L1

In a situation in which the instructions to an activity are very complicated, the teacher can turn the comprehension of the instructions into an English-language activity.  For example, if the activity involves a complex sequence of steps, the teacher could first pre-teach some of the vocabulary and then ask students to work in pairs or groups to put the jumbled instructions into the correct order.

2. Comprehension Check

One of the best suggestions for L1 usage in TESOL is in the instance of translation. Students are allowed to use their mother tongue as a comprehension check with the teacher or other students, but only after the teacher has exhausted all other strategies, such as visual prompts, miming, eliciting, paraphrasing, defining, and providing multiple examples.

While this does take more time than a straight translation, the teacher is also equipping students with a wide variety of tools to make themselves understood in English in real-life communication with English-speakers.

3. Build Rapport

Teachers can enhance their rapport with students using the English language by telling simple jokes, chatting, and revealing personal information about themselves.

Students, young or old, always want to know more about their teachers’ personal lives – it makes them seem more human and approachable.  Divulging appropriate pieces of information is an excellent motivation for students to practice communicating in English.

4. Context vs Teaching English with L1

When students do translate words or phrases that are in a specific context, point out that there are often problems with single-word translations.  For example, the phrasal verb “to make out” could have a variety of meanings depending on the context.

Compare, “He can make out an island in the distance,” (which means “to see”) and “He likes to make out with her,” (which means “to kiss”).  Just translating “to make out” by itself would not necessarily result in either definition. Therefore, the phrasal verb can be more easily understood and would make more sense, if students try to figure it out using the context and their comprehension of the words around the unfamiliar vocabulary.

What OnTESOL Graduates Say About Using L1 Abroad

One of the biggest fears of teaching English abroad is not knowing the local language. This is because most ESL teachers who go abroad don’t speak a single word of the mother tongue in the country they want live in for 1-2 years. Is it recommended to learn the local language? Our Student Advisors asked OnTESOL Graduates living and teaching English all over the world what their experience was with L1.

Erica said that learning Japanese was crucial to overcome culture shock and really take advantage of a one-in-a-lifetime experience that is living in Japan. Greg’s blog on L1 and the Communicative Approach is highly recommended for those planning to teach in the United Arab Emirates or other Middle Eastern countries where Arabic is the mother tongue.

Take an accredited TESOL certification course with OnTESOL. Get certified to go abroad, teach English in USA / Canada or become an online ESL teacher. Recognized by TESL Canada since 2003!


  • Cook, V.  (2001).  Using the First Language in the Classroom.  Canadian Modern Language Review, 57(3), 404-423.
  • Goldstein, T.  (2003).  Teaching and Learning in a Multilingual School.  New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
  • Harbord, J.  (1992).  The Use of the Mother Tongue in the Classroom.  ELT Journal, 46, 350-55.
  • Woodall, B. R.  (2002).  Language-Switching: Using the First Language While Writing in a Second Language.  Journal of Second Language Writing, 11, 7-28.

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