An article discussing the benefits of using the learners' first language in class.

Somewhere along the line (probably in the late 1970s or early 1980s) the idea seemed to get around 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 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 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. 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 will endeavour to use English as much as possible in the classroom, giving instructions in English, teaching basic English classroom metalanguage, requiring learners to use English when asking questions, insisting that they use English in group and pair work and so on. This is all extremely positive and probably produces good results. However, where the non-native teacher of English enjoys a particular advantage over his or her native-speaker colleague who is ignorant of the mother tongue of the learners is in the ability to use the mother tongue as and when it is 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 teacher to explain and even then there would be no guarantee that the explanation had been understood correctly. (To avoid over-dependence on translation, some teachers have a policy of not giving a verbal translation of a particular word when asked but of writing the translation on the board when absolutely necessary in order to limit excessive and automatic use of the mother tongue in class).

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 presenting the difference in concept between 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 will 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"! Perhaps the greatest potential advantage of a knowledge of the mother tongue of the learners, however, 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 a knowledge of the mother tongue is also in a position to know potential problems with vocabulary items – false friends, words easily confused, words with no equivalents and so on.

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.