The Use of Native Language in ELT Classrooms

The Use of Native Language in ELT Classrooms

Parlindungan Pardede

Universitas Kristen Indonesia



The use of mother tongue in learning second/foreign language classrooms has long been a controversy in the field of language teaching. To understand the background of the controversy, this paper tries to review the treatment of a first language by leading language teaching methods. After that, the review is focused on the results of current research on whether the use of the first language hinders or assists second/foreign language acquisition. The discussion shows that the ideas and results of existing research have not been able to end the controversy. However, it is obvious that the use of a native language is dynamic and includes a variety of complex things. Taking into account the various factors involved, teachers can wisely determine to permit or prohibit the use of mother tongue in second/foreign language classrooms.

Key words: native language, learning strategy, language teaching method



The use of students’ native language in a second or foreign language classes is “one of the most long-standing controversies in the history of language pedagogy” (Stern, 1992, p. 279). Some experts see it to be facilitative but some think that it is counterproductive (Brown, 2000). Although that topic of cross-linguistic influence has been widely discussed for many decades, linguistic researchers have not reached consensus on whether the transfer of native language knowledge has constructive or destructive influences in the acquisition of second/foreign language. Different existing theories and researches results revealed controversial opinions or findings about the role of native language influences on second/foreign language learning.

This paper intends to present and discuss current theories and recent researches findings related to the use of native language in a second or foreign language. The presentation and evaluation of the ideas and findings will hopefully provide an objective understanding of the nature of the native language transfer and supply new pedagogical implications. Discussion begins with a brief historical review of the use of native language in second/foreign language learning. It is then followed by presentation and discussion on current researchers have found on the issue. At the end, some conclusions are presented.


Native language Use Controversy in Second/Foreign Language Teaching

The controversy of the use of native language in second/language learning could be easily traced back in the historical sequence of the most-recognized language teaching methods. Under the domination of the Grammar Translation Method (GTM) up to the nineteenth century, second or foreign languages were taught through grammar illustration, bilingual vocabulary lists and translation exercises. Since its fundamental goal is to help learners be able to read literature in the target language, GTM emphasizes on the literary language, not to enable students to communicate verbally in the target language. Stern (1983) emphasizes that in GTM the students’ native language is freely used as “a reference system” in the process of the target language acquisition (p. 455).

Due to the high increase of transnational commercial contact and travel in Europe in the late of the nineteenth century, a great need of the ability to communicate with people of different nations emerged. Different from the previous trend, people now wanted to learn a second or foreign language in order to communicate, not to read the literature of the target language. This led to the appearance of the Direct Method (DM), which totally concentrates on the spoken language. The basic premise of the DM was that one should attempt to learn a second language in much the same way as children learn their native language. In this light, learners should be immersed in the target language through its use as a medium of instruction and communication. According to Harmer (2001), “the idea that all use of the mother tongue in the language classroom should be avoided stems from the advent of the Direct method …, and from the training of native-English speaker teachers who either had to deal with multilingual classes…” (p.131). Translation, therefore, was thought as uncommunicative, boring, pointless, difficult, and irrelevant. Although the DM began to decline in first quarter of the twentieth century due to its impracticality (it needs high cost, the class size is small, class hour is very long it laid foundation upon which many of the later methods and approaches expanded and developed. Among them are the Audiolingual Method and Communicative Approach.

The Audiolingual Method (AM), originated from a U.S. Army program devised after World War II to produce speakers proficient in the languages of friend and enemies, aims to help learners “to be able to use the target language communicatively” (Larsen-Freeman, 2000, p. 43). Grounded in the habit formation model of behaviorist psychology and on a Structural Linguistics theory of language, the AM emphasized on memorization through pattern drills and conversation practices. It forbade translation at early level and the use of the students’ native language in the classroom.

Beginning from the last decade of the 20th century, Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) approach emerged and become the most popular in the language teaching profession the present days.  This approach focuses on the use of the target language during authentic, functional, communicative activities. However, the use of native language is allowed where feasible and translation may be used when learners find it essential or helpful (Finocchiaro & Brumfit in Ellis, 2003, pp. 84-85). This is in line with the fact that more and more researches in applied linguistics indicated that learners’ mother tongue can be very useful in a second/foreign language teaching (Malmkjaer, 1998). Cook (1996), for instance, asserts that translation promotes multilingual competence, and, therefore, serves as a valuable tool in language teaching.

Based on the brief review of the language teaching methods history above, it is obvious that the use of native language in the teaching of second/foreign languages is controversial because different theories of second/foreign language acquisition afford different hypotheses about the value of mother tongue use in second/foreign language classes. Some theorists who believed in the similarity of the process of second/foreign language and first language (mother tongue) learning have promoted a monolingual approach. They argued that maximum exposure to second/foreign language and least exposure to mother tongue are very essential because interference from first language knowledge obstructs second/foreign language learning process (Cook, 2001). Krashen (in Brown, 2000), a pivotal advocate of the only target language use in the classroom and also an expert in the field of linguistics, emphasizes that “comprehensible input is the only causative variable in second language acquisition” ( p. 280).

However, some language educationists have argued against the complete elimination of the learners’ first language from second/foreign language classes (e.g., Nation, 2003; Larsen-Freeman, 2000) and have reiterated that a judicious and well-planned use of native language can yield positive results (Cook, 2001). That idea is in line with Atkinson (in Harmer 2001) who claims that judicious use of the mother tongue can provide some general advantages. He suggests that activities like grammar explanations, checking comprehension, giving instructions, discussing classroom methodology and checking for sense are included into this category. He claims that if teachers can use the students’ language, these tasks will be expedited more efficiently.

The essence of a judicious and well-planned use of native language in foreign language teaching is also emphasized in a statement published on its website IATEFL Conference in Aberdeen on 18-20 April 2007, which summarizes the opinion of the famous British linguist, Cook (2007):

 “The most important statement was the fact that English teachers tend to take a monolingual approach thus neglecting the importance of translation in the process of teaching English. The ESL classroom cannot follow the motto “One nation, one people, one language”, a somewhat overrated statement since it implies that a classroom is a state. Quite contrary to that, the L1, i.e. the mother tongue of the students, should by all means be acknowledged. The importance is highlighted even more by the fact that the students’ culture is part of their language and by neglecting their language, the teacher, in a monolingual classroom, neglects their culture which leads to the danger of neglecting their identity as well. What is more, there is no valid database that could confirm the standpoint that the monolingual approach in teaching is the best one. The disregard of the students’ mother tongue can in fact de-motivate the students and be counterproductive. Therefore, there is neither a scientific nor a pedagogic reason to exclude L1 from the teaching process”. 


Recent Research Findings

The results of the rising research on learning strategies have indicated that translation is a cognitive learning strategy. The study of O’Malley et al. (1985), revealed that translation a common learning strategy in second language learning. Of the total 11 cognitive strategies identified by the researchers, translation accounted for 11.3% of all strategies used by secondary school learners of English as a second language. Only three other strategies were used in higher frequency, namely repetition (19.6%), note-taking (18.7%), and imagery (12.5%). While Kobayashi and Rinnert (1992) found that the scores obtained by Japanese students who wrote English essays through the translation from Japanese were higher than the scores of students who wrote directly in English. The students felt it was easier to develop ideas, to express thoughts clearly, and to find more suitable dictions by translating when they were writing essays. Prince’s (1996) research revealed that translation enabled students to learn vocabulary in greater numbers. Such findings led researchers to believe that students can utilize their native-language’s elements to learn a new language.

Those findings are consistent with the findings obtained from a survey of the teaching of translation in nineteen out of twenty-one British universities. The results indicate that translation was taught as a way of improving students’ linguistic proficiency; and that translation was used to consolidate the target language constructions for active use and monitor and improve comprehension of the target language, Based on these findings, Anderman (1998) emphasizes, “language teaching through translation is now reasserting its position on the school curriculum after a few decades in the cold…”

Experimental research conducted Liu (2008) regarding the effects of the use of Chinese in English vocabulary learning by Chinese college students revealed that the native language provided many advantages. For these students, translation was an easy and efficient strategy to express the essential meaning of a word. Their knowledge of the equivalent words in Chinese with the English word being studied provided certainty to them about the meaning of the word. Such certainty is naturally very helpful in the students’ effort to keep the meaning of the word in the long-term memory. In relation to that, it was concluded that there is no solid theoretical basis to avoid the use of translation in vocabulary enrichment as well as in efforts to check students’ understanding of the meaning of those words.

Although the majority of those research findings tend to support the usefulness of native language use in second/foreign language learning, researchers provided varied opinions about when the use of translation is most beneficial to students. Husain (1995) suggested that translation gives a very positive effect on students with elementary and intermediate mastery levels. To students with higher levels of mastery, translation seems not very beneficial. Some other researchers found that translation strategies can enhance English language learning in almost all levels of mastery. It was also discovered that translation strategies is more suitable in learning vocabulary and phrases, but not so disadvantageous in the study of ‘tenses’. These findings indicate that the semantic aspects of language are more common among languages ​​than the structural aspects. In addition, other researchers warn that the use of mother tongue may possibly lead the students to think that the vocabulary and structure of the target language are equivalent to the vocabulary and structure of their native language, whereas in most cases they are not. It is therefore important to raise learners’ awareness about that inequality. This could possibly be done by letting them to think comparatively.


Students and Teachers’ Perceptions

Empirical studies which specifically examined the beliefs of students and teachers about the use of native language in learning a foreign language have recently conducted extensively. The results of these studies indicate various views of students and teachers. Horwitz (1988) found that the majority of German and Spanish students (70% and 75%) supported the idea that learning English is nothing more than translating from English, while the French students who agreed or strongly agreed with the same idea is only 15% . Meanwhile, Kern (1994) found that although the foreign language teachers and their students were aware of the involvement of mental translation while reading the target language texts, both parties often viewed translation as unwanted ‘disturbing’ elements.

In addition, Prince’s (1996) research, which compared the use of translation and context in learning foreign language vocabulary, indicated that learning vocabulary using context was widely accepted by teachers as an effective strategy, but students preferred learning by translation, i.e. by linking the word studied with the equivalent word in their mother tongue. For them, translating the words into their native language is more effective to enrich vocabulary. Schweers’ (1999) study supported that idea. His study revealed that the majority (88.7%) students stated their mother tongue should be used in teaching English as a second language. They also said that they would feel their identity threatened threatened if their mother tongue was prevented in the foreign language learning they were doing. The same idea was indicated by Janulevičienė and Kavaliauskienė’s (2004) research. Conducted in Lithuania using 110 respondents, the study revealed that 86% of respondents said their mother tongue should be used in the classroom, especially in the explanation of difficult concepts (90%), the introduction of new materials (57%), explanation of new materials (74%) and the explanation of the relationship of English and their mother tongue (55%).

Because students have often encouraged by their teachers to think in the target language, some students may have believed that relying on their native language while learning a foreign language is harmful. The results of a research on student perceptions of writing in English by translating from Japanese than writing directly in English conducted by Kobayashi and Rinnert (1992) indicated that 88% of Japanese students with high proficiency preferred to write directly in English rather than through translation, and 53% of low-capable students also preferred direct composition. Some students said that they preferred direct writing because they wanted to be able to think in English.

In a study conducted to see the profile differences between high and low achieving Chinese students in learning English, Wen and Johnson (1997) chose ten students majoring in English in Chinese as subjects. Based on the data collected through interviews, diary studies, and strategies used during reading tasks, they found that the low-achieving students did not think the use of translation strategies impede the progress of their learning. In contrast, high-achieving students explicitly stated that the use of Chinese language interfered their learning of English. Wen and Johnson concluded that Chinese students should be encouraged to reduce the use of their native language. This conclusion is in line with results of Mahmoudi & Amirkhiz’s. (2011) study of the use of Persian in the EFL classroom at pre-university level in Iran. The study revealed that the pre-university students of different proficiency levels (high-achieving & low-achieving) were supportive of English domination in their English classes and were critical of an excessive use of Persian in the context of Iranian schools.

In contrary to Wen and Johnson’s conclusions, Hsieh (2000) found the translation to their native language helped Taiwanese students in learning English,  especially in reading comprehension, reading strategies, vocabulary learning, and the development of cultural background understanding. At the end of EFL learning by using the translation method, 52 students were asked to fill a questionnaire dealing with their attitudes and perceptions. The results showed that 85% of the participants said that translating into their native language (Chinese) helped them to see the coherence and contextualization of the English text; 73% of students said that they felt the importance of their native language through translation; 65% thought that translation aided them to better understand the meaning of some words in English, 62% felt translation helped in vocabulary and reading skills development. In general, students believed that the use of native language had a positive effect on English reading proficiency and vocabulary enrichment.

Quite different from studies on students’ perception, the number of studies on teachers’ perception is still very limited. One of them is Anh’s (2010) study on the attitudes of Vietnamese university teachers toward the use of Vietnamese in English Language Teaching (ELT) in the context of Vietnam. Findings of this study support the judicious use of Vietnamese in some situations in ELT. Vietnamese appeared to be very advantageous in the activities of explaining new words, especially terminologies and abstract words



Based on the discussions on the ideas and research findings above, it is obvious that the role of native language in second/foreign language learning is dynamic and multifaceted. As a consequence, the complete rejection of the use of native language could be accepted. With a multidimensional perspective in mind, teachers could wisely determine whether they will use native language in their second/foreign language class or not. In general, the students’ mastery level of the target language should be taken into the first consideration. The lower their mastery, the more tolerant the teacher should be with their reliance on their native language. Then, the use of the mother tongue should gradually be reduced in line with the students’ better mastery of the target language.

Last but not least, it is important to note that since the ideas and current research findings discussed in this paper were obtained from outside of Indonesia, there is a need to conduct studies in Indonesian context in order to evaluate the actual role of Indonesian in English teaching.



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