The importance of the mother tongue in the classroom

2nd November 2017
How does ABC International School use the Learning Village? 1
How does ABC International School use the Learning Village?
6th November 2017
Show all

The importance of the mother tongue in the classroom

In my experience, teachers often have quite strong feelings about the use of a pupil’s L1 (first language) in the classroom – it is either encouraged or forbidden. Garcia and Sylvan (2011) describe monolingual education as outdated in our current ‘globalized’ world and discourage the practise of imposing only one language. In fact, they suggest that teachers should support students in developing their awareness of their first language as well as the language of instruction. This may not feel entirely practical, as in order to do this, the teacher often feels the need to be competent in all of the languages being used in the classroom. However, it is certainly possible to support L1. Have a look at some strategies recommended by Scott (2016):

  1. Translators (Google Translate, translation pens, dictionaries). These days, all you have to do is use an app and glide the camera of an iPhone or iPad over text to get an instant translation to the language of your choice or, even simpler, speak into the app and your translation appears. If iPhones or iPads aren’t an option, translation pens or just Google translate on laptops does the same.
  2. Set homework for learners to discuss curriculum topics at home with parents so learners get a fuller understanding of the topic and develop the vocabulary in their home language. The role of parents must not be under-estimated. Parents need to try and promote academic development of their child’s mother tongue at home.
  3. Pair pupils by home language so they can discuss the topic in their home language before asking for responses in English.
  4. Teach learners’ home language – lessons can be offered to those speaking majority languages or, at the very least, suggestions could be provided on where to continue to learn their home language.
  5. Ask learners to use a remember book that shows vocabulary in English and mother tongue. Teach the learners how to use it by looking, covering, saying and checking.
  6. Encourage students to translate new vocabulary and language structures in class and write in their home language in their books to help them remember.
  7. For fast vocabulary learning, provide learners with flashcards (and useful ways to use them), populated by themselves in English and their home language.
  8. Learners can share work completed in their home language with other learners, with parents or with the class in both languages.
  9. Pre-teach language structures and vocabulary with significant emphasis on translation from mother tongue.
  10. Ask learners to compare specific language structures to their mother tongue and identify the differences. These differences help them to be more aware of how both languages are formed and to use both more accurately.

The importance of developing the mother tongue is now widely accepted among researchers. Cummins is at the forefront of this discussion, as he contends that knowledge in one language helps learners understand information in another language (2000). Other researchers such as Atkinson (1987) and Kim (2011) advocate the importance of the mother tongue in the classroom and suggest that the L1 is an invaluable tool. In Kim’s 2011 study, it was clear that the use of the mother tongue, specifically translation, helped the learners to recognise the importance of accuracy and led them to be more objective about their writing.

The accompanying EAL resources aim to facilitate vocabulary building through translation. It is considered good practice to provide students with vocabulary lists, and these often come with a definition. However, the definition is often too abstract for the pupils to fully comprehend and they would benefit far more from seeing the word in context. The material therefore combines translation with example sentences.



Atkinson, D. (1987) The mother tongue in the classroom: a neglected resource? ELT Journal, Volume 41, Issue 4, 1 October 1987, Pages 241–247, //

Cummins, J. (2000) Language, Power and Pedgogy: Bilingual Children in the Crossfire. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters

GARC´IA, O. & SYLVAN, C. (2011) Pedagogies and Practices in Multilingual Classrooms: Singularities in Pluralities, The Modern Language Journal, 95/3

Kim, E. (2011) Using translation exercises in the communicative EFL writing classroom, ELT Journal, Volume 65, Issue 2, 1 April 2011, Pages 154–160

Scott, C (2016) How you can support students’ mother tongue development International School Magazine, Volume 18, Issue 3


Author: Emma Mijailovic, EAL Teacher

Across Cultures

Enter your details below to access the free download.