The issue of whether or not to use the mother-tongue (L1) in the English language (L2) classroom is complex. 

From mother tongue to other tongue - methodology article

This article presents the results of a survey into student attitudes towards the use of L1 in class and some suggestions for using the L1 and its culture as a learning resource.

  • Reinstating the mother tongue
  • What about the learners?
  • Survey result summary
  • Beyond monolingualism
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • Survey results in full


Reinstating the mother tongue
In Teaching Monolingual Classes (1993). Atkinson suggests 'a careful, limited use of L1' to help students get the maximum benefit from activities which in other respects will be carried out in the target language. The mother tongue may be useful in the procedural stages of a class, for example:-

  • setting up pair and group work
  • sorting out an activity which is clearly not working
  • checking comprehension


Beyond these basically managerial functions of L1, Atkinson also suggests using the L1 for translation as a teaching technique. From my research with teachers, the overall rationale for this procedural use of L1 is that it is necessary to keep the lesson from slowing down or because things just can't be done any other way.

What about the learners?
But do the learners agree with such uses?

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

Survey result summary
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.

Should teachers USE the mother tongue in class? Here, the figures for beginners and intermediate are quite high (66% and 58% respectively) but only a minority of advanced learners (29%) find the use of L1 in the classroom acceptable.

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%).

  1. Explaining differences in use between L1 and L2 rules
    It seems that roughly 1 in 3 beginners and 1 in 5 intermediate/advanced students find using the L1 for 'contrastive discourse' acceptable.
  2. Asking for vocabulary
    'How do we say ( L1 word) in English ? ' The intermediate learner feels most strongly the usefulness of asking for the English equivalent of a mother-tongue word (38%).

In all other instances of L1 use in the classroom, most students of intermediate and advanced levels feel they should be hearing and using English. This feeling includes 'procedural' or managerial uses of the target language: giving instructions; checking listening and reading. The conclusion is that procedural language in the classroom is too good an opportunity to expose students to natural English to waste on the mother-tongue. This contrasts very strongly with the view of Atkinson given above.

On the other hand, the general scepticism towards L1 in the ELT classroom shown by these particular students does not mean there is no place for the L1 at all. I will go on in the next section to illustrate a range of techniques for using the L1 to promote both learning and acquisition.

Beyond monolingualism
In response to the survey and in the light of my own feelings that the L1 language and culture are a valuable resource, I now make some suggestions for activities which use L1 in some way. I assume mono-lingual classes.

  1. Awareness-raising activities
    A questionnaire such as the one I used opens up the debate concerning the use of L1 and so may help deal with some of the students' scepticism.
  2. Contrasting L1 and L2
    Useful areas for study in this way are collocations, proverbs and idioms. Comparing verb-noun collocations across the two languages helps students understand how L1 interference can often give them problems. Comparing proverbs gives an insight into cultural as well as linguistic differences.
  3. Research in L1, Presentation in L2
    For example, following textbook work on famous English writers, I asked the students to research famous people from their country (using L1 and L2) and to make a presentation in a later class, in L2. An alternative is a local history project, in which grandparents are interviewed in the L1, and a report is made in L2.

In these examples, the foreign language is a medium through which the students explore their own culture, using the mother-tongue as a bridge towards English. The English language can help you learn things about your own community.

In general, 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.

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)
Baynham, M. 1983. 'Mother Tongue Materials and Second Language Literacy' (ELT Journal, 37/4 : 312-318)
Brumfit, C. 1980. Problems and principles in English Teaching. (Pergamon)
Duff. A. 1989. Translation (Oxford University Press)
Kramsch, C. 1993. Context and Culture in Language Teaching (Oxford University Press)
Kramsch, C. 1998. Culture (Oxford University Press)
Krashen, S. 1988. Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning (Prentice Hall)
Medgyes, P. 1994. The Non-Native Teacher ( Macmillan)
Phillipson, R. 1992. Linguistic Imperialism (Oxford University Press)
Richards, J.C. and T. S. Rogers. 1986. Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. (Cambridge University Press)
Widdowson, H 1996. 'Comment : authenticity and autonomy' E L T Journal, 50/1: 67-68))

Survey results in full
Survey : 300 students
The figures refer to percentage (%) responses by students at beginner, intermediate and advanced levels.

1 Should the teacher know the students' mother-tongue? 65 53 53
2 Should the teacher use the students' mother tongue? 66 58 29
3 Should the students use their mother-tongue? 63 53 35

It is useful if the teacher uses L1 when:
4 explaining new words 25 35 18
5 explaining grammar 31 7 0
6 explaining differences between L1 and L2 grammar 27 4 6
7 explaining differences in the use of L1 and L2 rules 33 22 20
8 giving instructions 3 9 0
  Students should be allowed to use L1 when :      
9 talking in pairs and groups 22 3 3
10 asking how do we say '..' in English ? 13 38 6
11 translating an L2 word into L1 to show they understand it 18 13 6
12 translating a text from L2 to L1 to show they understand it 21 7 6
13 translating as a test 21 2 6
  The teacher and students can use L1 to:
14 check listening comprehension 27 9 3
15 check reading comprehension 14 7 6
16 discuss the methods used in class 21 13 6












Luke Prodromou - teacher, teacher trainer, writer British Council, Greece


Submitted by Belkis Mohammed Omar on Mon, 08/28/2023 - 21:27


It's true said that the L1 is the bridge towards learning English language specially with primary students , I think it helps the students engage in the lesson , participate in the activities and try their best to produce new sentences based on their L1 .

Submitted by BrendanC on Sun, 10/12/2014 - 10:26


I am currently completing a Master´s project in Applied Linguistics but am having problems with identifying the original publishing date of Prodromou´s article: From mother tongue to other tongue. That is I have found some articles citing it as 2001 and others as 2002. I wonder if someone could help me clarify the issue? Many thanks in advance.

Submitted by Ruhiyye on Fri, 02/10/2012 - 12:47


 It would be effective if the teacher uses flashcards or picture while teaching the new words, I seldom use L1 in teaching new words, if there's no picture or it's an abstract noun  I try to explain it by giving synonims or antonyms, use it in a sentence by use the words they have already learnt... but It's impossible not to use L1 while teaching grammar rule. I always use L1 because it's difficult for my students to understand the rule without any definition in L1.

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