Published 19th June 2018

Using the mother tongue in the EFL classroom

Whether or not to use your students’ mother tongue in the EFL classroom is a long-debated topic. We are teaching English, after all. It would seem that immersion is the best way to accomplish fluency as quickly as possible. However, there are a number of valid arguments for bringing in the students’ first language. There is no doubt that it can be useful at times, but we need to be careful not to overuse it.

In effect, we should only be using our students’ mother tongue when the advantages outweigh the drawbacks. If we use it too much, our students will lose out on the benefits of extended exposure to English. Our students might also learn to rely on translation to learn English, which means they will miss out on a number of learning opportunities. However, using the mother tongue can be a very useful tool for comprehension, to avoid overly long, complex language explanations.

How to use the mother tongue in the EFL classroom

  • Use it when it’s necessary. Equip your students with the language they need to ask for a translation. For example, How do you say ___________ in English? Or Does that mean the same as __________? In this way you are making use of translation in the least intrusive way.
  • Use the mother tongue to support English. Explain in English but if you see that the concept warrants further explanation, explain again in the mother tongue.
  • Compare the mother tongue with English to show similarities and comparisons.
  • Use the mother tongue to quickly and accurately provide a translation for an English word which is the not the focus of an activity. In other words, if the incomprehension of a word is standing in the way of a student performing an activity, translate it.
  • With Young Learners. With younger learners it may be necessary to switch to the mother tongue in certain situations which warrants clear communication. This can be the case with discipline or health and safety issues.

When you shouldn’t use the mother tongue in the EFL classroom

  • All the time. Use it sparingly or your students will become accustomed to speaking their language in the classroom.
  • In response to your students’ questions. If they learn that you will respond to their questions in their own language, they will continue to ask in their language.
  • When you chat on topics unrelated to the lesson. Just because you are not focusing on the lesson material doesn’t mean that you should stop speaking English. Situations like these present wonderful opportunities for students to use their English in real contexts.
  • To deal with admin. Many teachers feel they need to utilise the mother tongue when dealing with announcements or notices. This may cause students not to relate the use of English to their everyday lives.

To be sure, there are opportunities for using the mother tongue in the EFL classroom. At the same time, though, you need to bear in mind a few guidelines when doing so. Remember, only make use of the mother tongue if you are fluent in it yourself, or else your translation can cause more problems than it solves!