The use of mother tongue in the English class room has always been a contentious issue. 

The proponents of the direct method advocated that mother tongue must be banished from the class. On  the other hand, the advocates of bilingual and grammar translated method went to the other extreme and opted for the liberal use of mother tongue.

But I am of the opinion that neither method is entirely feasible. I feel that mother tongue can be used very judiciously, which is also a debatable issue. Who will decide the judiciousness? The teacher or the students?  How can a teacher decide when and how much mother tongue can be used in the English class?

I teach English to secondary students in a government school where both English and mother tongue are the medium of instruction. Although there is a slight variation in the way I teach English to English and regional medium (Telugu) students, I don’t deviate from the principal of my teaching. I feel mother tongue should neither be banished nor be used indiscriminately either in English medium or in regional medium in countries like India where English is learnt as second or foreign language.

I use mother tongue in the class in the following situations rather judiciously:

  1. Giving instructions: While doing the tasks like group work, pair work, project work and the like, the students must know how to do the tasks. A teacher can explain the details in the above situations in the mother tongue so as to enable the students to do the tasks correctly without any confusion.
  2. Explaining abstract nouns like integrity: It is very difficult to teach the meaning of abstract nouns as it is rather vague. For example, It is very difficult to define or explain what integrity is. So I use mother tongue equivalent in the similar context. The use of mother tongue help the students to get away from the hurdle of incomprehension or mis-comprehension.
  3. Teaching grammar: while teaching grammar, sometimes, the explanations may judiciously be given in student’s mother tongue.
  4. Teaching the low proficiency learners. I teach in a government school where most of the students, especially in regional medium sections, have low proficiency and are not in tune with the expected standards. The use of mother tongue becomes inevitable when all other efforts fail to make the low proficient learners comprehend the teaching item.

Inclusive classrooms

These are the days when we hear a lot about inclusive education which postulates that no student should be left out and is allowed to feel alienated from all other students. Every student should have his/her own space even if he is mentally, physically or even sociologically challenged.

So I come down to the level of the least proficient learner and use mother tongue to motivate him/her towards the lesson. One of my students was so deficient in English that he was not able to write the alphabet in an order. But he was able to identify them. So I believed that he was not as deficient as our head master and other teachers thought him to be. He was definitely much more than that. I started teaching in mother tongue only for him and asked him to concentrate on the words I wrote on the black board. He did so and recognized exactly 15 words correctly to the astonishment of the head master.

This was the turning point in his educational career. He developed a sense of pride in learning English and started understanding the questions for comprehension and started writing the answers, albeit with grammatical errors. Now the student has passed the tenth class exam securing an outstanding grade in English.

I would like to sum up saying that using mother tongue is not a sin or sacrilege in the English class either in the English medium or in the regional medium, but the student should neither be allowed to speak in mother tongue nor be allowed to write in mother tongue since the output given by the teacher may be in mother tongue but the output must always be in English whether it is speaking or writing.

The optimal use of mother tongue is progressive to the teaching learning process in English, its overuse blocks the acquisition process of the second language like English. The teacher must be very balanced in his methodology of his/her teaching while teaching in the non-native English speaking countries like India.


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