Raquel Perez

My teaching approach


Should teachers use mother tongue when teaching English?

Advantages and disadvantages of using L1




There are several methods used to teach a new language. Each teaching method is based on a particular vision of understanding the language or the learning process, often using specific techniques and materials used in a set sequence:


The Grammar Translation Method (GTM) focuses on reading and writing. Language is taught through translation methods, contrasting and comparing the native tongue to the learned language. GTM focuses on sentence structure, grammar, vocabulary and direct translations of the native language to English. The method requires few resources to teach, normally just the use of textbooks or translated passages.


The Direct Method is based on the direct involvement of the student when speaking, and listening to the foreign language in common everyday situations. Consequently, there are a lot of oral interaction, spontaneous use of the language, no translation, and little if any analysis of grammar rules and syntax. The focus of the lessons is on good pronunciation, often introducing learners to phonetic symbols before they see standard writing examples. Lessons are in the target language

There is a focus on everyday vocabulary. Visual aids are used to teach vocabulary.

Particular attention is placed on the accuracy of pronunciation and grammar. A systematic approach is developed for comprehension and oral expression. Translation is completely forbidden.


The Audio-lingual Method was widely used in the 1950s and 1960s, and the emphasis was not on the understanding of words, but rather on the acquisition of structures and patterns in common everyday dialogue. These patterns are elicited, repeated and tested until the responses given by the student in the foreign language are automatic. No translation is allowed.


The silence way; Learning is facilitated if the learner discovers or problem solves. Students work co-operatively and independently from teacher. Very structural- language is taught in ‘building blocks’, but syllabus is determined by what learners need to communicate. The teacher should be as silent as possible, modelling items just once. Language is learnt inductively. No translation is allowed in this method either.


Total Physical Response (TPR). Learners will learn better if stress to produce language is reduced. Learners, like children, learn from responding to verbal stimulus. Also structural. Mainly uses imperative, everyday conversations are highly abstract and disconnected; therefore to understand them requires a rather advanced internalisation of the target language. Teachers’ role is not so much to teach as provide opportunities for learning. The teacher is who direct, even when learners interact with each other, usually the teacher is who directs.  This is another method where translation is not allowed.


Suggestopaedia: People remember best and are most influenced by material coming from an authoritative source. Anxiety should be lowered through comfortable chairs, baroque music etc… Language is gradually acquired. No correction. The teacher starts by introducing the grammar and lexis in “a playful manner”, and then reads the text while the students follow or just relax and listen. Students then use the language in fun and/or undirected ways. Translation is allowed.




The methods that support translation from L1 to L2 are:

-the grammar translation method, and the suggestiopaedia.


The methods against translation are:

-The direct method, The Audio-lingual Method, the silence way, Total Physical Response (TPR).


Advantages & Disadvantages of using mother tongue when teaching English




Teachers who are not fluent in English (but fluent in the other language that the students primarily use) can teach English using this approach, as the emphasis is not on the spoken word but on translations. Communication between student and teacher is reduced with this method, which avoids misunderstandings and prevents language barriers that may occur in a method that focuses on teacher-student communication or verbal language learning.

Unlike a verbal approach to language learning, GTM focuses on the application of grammar and correct sentence structure. Word meanings are also easily learned through direct translation---a foreign word can be compared to the native language quickly. The method of comparing/translation of the learned language with a native language provide reference for students.

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 his/her 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 second language (L2) learning (Cook, 2001; Woodall, 2002). These are positive reasons, that teachers should bear in mind, in order to try to work with this innate tendency rather than against it. Furthermore by allowing L1 use, students would get the sense that learning another language is a positive experience because 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).  Also, being able to use the L1 with students can be more efficient and make time for more useful activities as well as avoiding frustration.




The GTM approach involves no learner participation and little teacher-student relationship. Furthermore, the method does not require students to participate in any activities or communicate with each other, so they will not learn how to use the language in a real-life conversation or situation and will only know how to translate one language to another.

Translations may also be inaccurate, as it is not always possible to simply translate one word or phrase accurately to another language. However, it is just this kind of tendency that 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 realise 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 instance, many idioms in English, have completely different meaning in Spanish, and vice versa. For example: the idiom: “it’s raining cats and dogs” it  would totally confuse a Spanish student as the literal translation, does not make any sense at all.




What about the students’ opinion?


It is also relevant to know what the point of view of the students is, regarding the use of the mother tongue:


A questionnaire was addressed to 300 Greek students at three levels, beginner, intermediate and advanced. They were asked general questions to elicit their view on whether the teacher should know and, in principle, use the students' mother tongue.

The survey revealed that, 65% of students at beginner level and about 50% of students at intermediate and advanced level believe the teacher should know the students' mother tongue.

The greatest differences arise when students are asked to approve particular uses of L1 in the classroom. Overall, the higher the level of the student, the less they agree to the use of the mother-tongue in the classroom. For example, with regard to the use of L1 to explain grammar, beginners are significantly in favour (31%) and intermediate and advanced are almost unanimously against (7% and 0%).

In conclusion, students seem sceptical 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. 


The use of the L1 when teaching L2, it is a very important matter, however, there are other theories that teachers should be aware, as the interlanguage issue: “Interlanguage is the type of language produced by second- and foreign- language learners who are in the process of learning a language. In language learning, learner’s errors are caused by several different processes. These include: 
a. borrowing patterns from the mother tongue 
b. extending patterns from the target language
c. Expressing meanings using the words and grammar which are already known”

I Spanish student, for example, will something such as: “I have the hair long”, or “I eated one apple yesterday”, or “I have 30 years old




Conclusion and personal experience:


As the majority of the spanish students, I have been taught the English language through the Grammar Translation Method. However, I learnt the language, by living in England for some years. Based on my experience, I can expose both, advantages and disadvantages of  the GTM, with some examples:


Advantage: in order to learn the irregular verbs, I had to memorise by heart, a never ending list which contained the verbs in alphabetical order, in present, past simple and past participle: awake-awoke-awaken, drink-drank-drunk, etc. This is a hard task, but, this information will remain in my head for the rest of my life.

Disadvantage: the pronunciation is unnatural and inaccurate. Every time I think of an irregular verb, I read it with Spanish pronunciation, as I’ve never been taught how to pronounce them properly, as I just had to write them in a paper.


My conclusion is, that it is positive in a way to memorise grammar, words, or verbs, because it is useful for learning the structure, but it is also negative because a student who has been taught with this method, will not be able to pronounce properly without making a big effort.


Something similar happens when students have to learn new words; I learnt words like “apple” by translating from Spanish, and because this is an usual word it was easy to memorise. However, other words not that usual, such as “brochure”, forced me to go, over and over again to the dictionary, searching for the translation, as I was incapable to remember it only by translating to the Spanish language. The conclusion is that, for some levels, it may result useful translating from L1 to L2, nevertheless, when a student learns a new word, in a context or inside of a scenario, it is much easier to retain the word in your head.


I totally agree, with the students surveys results that we have mentioned before, due to when a student is beginning to learn a new language, he/she has not enough resources to understand the meaning of many words, so the easiest way to do it, is by helping him/her, translating from L1 to L2. In spite of this, I think, that this strategy should not be used as a rule, but as a helper. As Atkinson suggested to use L1 for translation only as a teaching technique, but without abusing.




  • British Council BBC, 2009 www.teachingenglish.org.uk
  • Atkinson, D. 1987. 'The mother-tongue in the classroom : a neglected resource? (ELT Journal, 44/1 : 3-10)
    Atkinson, D. 1993. Teaching Monolingual Classes (Longman)
  • Richards, J.C. and T. S. Rogers. 1986. Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. (Cambridge University Press)
  • Ontestol, 2003 using the mother tongue in the English language classroom
  • 2012 TJ Taylor English Language Teaching Methods and Techniques
  • Richards, Jack C et al. 1992. Dictionary of Language Teaching & Applied Linguistics. Second Edition. Essex: Longman Group UK Limited. p.186 


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