The issue of whether or not to use the mother tongue (L1) in the English (L2) classroom is a complicated one. Somewhere along the line (probably in the late 70s or early 80s) the idea came into fashion that using the mother tongue in the language teaching classroom was a bad thing. Everything should be done in the target language, giving the learners maximum exposure to that language (in this case English). This probably coincided with a time when ELT publishers realized that it would be cheaper to mass produce text books in which all the instructions were in English, and then ship these off to every country in the world.
In Teaching Monolingual Classes (1993), Atkinson offers 'a careful, limited use of L1' to help students get the maximum benefit from activities which in other respects will be carried out in the target language. The mother tongue might be useful in the procedural stages of classes, for example:-
• setting up pair and group work • sorting out an activity which is clearly not working • checking comprehension
Beyond these administrative functions for the L1, Atkinson also suggests using the L1 for translation as a specific teaching technique. This is fine in principle but, as ever, the reality turns out to be somewhat different. While it is perfectly possible to use only English in class, this approach fails to take account of a number of influencing factors. First of all, general recommendations of this type tend to originate in the world of the multi-ethnic language class in an English-speaking environment dominated by the needs of publishers. In this situation it is not only desirable to use English at all times, it is, for the most part, essential, given the mixed linguistic background of the learners.
This situation does not, however, apply to the vast majority of EFL classes around the world, most of which will typically be taught by a non-native teacher of English and will consist in most cases of learners from a single linguistic background and culture. Many teachers in this second teaching situation try to use English as much as possible in the classroom; giving instructions in English, teaching basic classroom metalanguage, requiring learners to use English when they ask questions, insisting that they use English in group and pair work, etc. This is all extremely positive and undoubtedly leads to positive results.
However, where the non-native teacher of English enjoys an advantage over their native-speaker colleague who is ignorant of the mother tongue of the learners is in the ability to use the L1 as and when required. The mother tongue can be used to provide a quick and accurate translation of an English word that might take several minutes for the native teacher to explain and even then there would be no guarantee that the explanation had been understood correctly.
The mother tongue is also particularly effective with younger learners and adult learners at beginner level to check instructions, to ensure that concepts have been correctly understood and for general classroom management. In the case of concept checking, for example, if the teacher has just been showing the difference in concept between, for example, present perfect and past simple as in "John has gone to Paris" and "John went to Paris", asking the class to give a quick translation into the mother tongue could enable the teacher to be absolutely sure that the concepts have been understood.
Using the mother tongue can also be very useful in establishing the general "rules" for the class at the beginning of the course, one of which may of course be "English will be used at all times"! Probably the biggest potential advantage of having a knowledge of the mother tongue of the learners is that it enables the teacher to contrast the language with English and to know which structures are difficult and, possibly even more importantly, which structures are easy and need very little attention. The teacher with knowledge of the mother tongue is also in a position to know potential problems with vocabulary items – false friends, words easily-confused and words with no equivalents.
Finally, some learners need the security of the mother tongue. They may be the type of learner that needs to relate concepts in English to equivalents in their L1. This may be their most effective way of learning vocabulary. They may also feel that having a mother tongue equivalent is a far more efficient way of arriving at meaning than a constant process of working things out.
Some suggestions for activities which use L1 in some way:
A questionnaire can open up the debate concerning the use of L1 and so may help deal with some of the students' skepticism.
Contrasting L1 and L2
Useful areas for study in this way are collocations, proverbs and idioms. Comparing verb-noun collocations across the two languages helps students understand how L1 interference can often give them problems. Comparing proverbs gives an insight into cultural as well as linguistic differences.
Research in L1, Presentation in L2
For example, following textbook work on famous English writers, the students research famous people from their country (using L1 and L2) and make a presentation in a later class, in L2. An alternative is a local history project, in which grandparents are interviewed in the L1, and a report is made in L2. In these examples, the foreign language is a medium through which the students explore their own culture, using the mother-tongue as a bridge towards English. The English language can help you learn things about your own community.
In general, students seem skeptical about the use of L1 in the classroom, particularly at higher levels. However, the bilingual / bicultural teachers are in a position to enrich the process of learning by using the mother tongue as a resource, and then, by using the L1 culture, they can facilitate the progress of their students towards the other tongue, the other culture.