Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Using the Mother Tongue to Teach another Tongue

By Peter McKenzie-Brown

“Language teaching must start afresh!” was the battle cry of a German language teacher, Wilhelm Viëtor, who published a manifesto of that name in 1886. His text lays out the weaknesses of the then-current grammar translation approach to language teaching, and proposes a surprisingly modern method to replace it.

This was one of the seminal moments for the Reform Movement in language teaching, and communicative language teaching is clearly part of the tradition that Fricke described so many years ago.

His thoughts on using the foreign language and the students’ native language in the classroom are worth noting. “It goes without saying that that the foreign language should always be spoken in class,” he says. However, “in certain circumstances, (questions about the content of a text) may have to be put in German first, then in the foreign language….” In his thoughtful commentary, he thus comes down on what I take to be the right side of an issue that has bedeviled reformers from his day to the present.

Sometimes called the principle of monolingualism, the idea is that you should essentially banish your students’ mother tongue from the foreign language classroom. This notion, which is very convenient for teachers who do not know the native language of the students they are teaching, has many advocates. This practice is essentially a product of the twentieth century. In no other age have language teachers been forbidden as a matter of principle to communicate with their students in their native language.

The widely respected methodology writer Jeremy Harmer, for example, makes a concession to the mother tongue in these words: “Where students all share the same mother tongue (which the teacher also understands), a member of the class can be asked to translate the instructions as a check that they have understood them.” The very wording of this proposal implies that the teacher should ban the mother tongue from the classroom. It certainly sounds as though Harmer wouldn’t stoop to use it himself!

Does this make sense? For some, using the students’ native language is not an option. These teachers may work in western countries where attendance sheets read like UN committee lists. Or they may have monolingual classes in developing countries whose language they have not mastered or even attempted. Much conventional wisdom about language teaching suggests that these situations are irrelevant, since the ideal language classroom should involve communication in the foreign language only. Conventional wisdom notwithstanding, there are strong arguments that the monolingual principle is an impediment to effective language teaching.

The balance of this commentary will reflect the ideas of a worthy successor to Viëtor, the 19th century German pamphleteer. Now a retired professor of language instruction in Aachen, Germany, Dr. Wolfgang Butzkamm argues that having the ability to speak the first language of your learners is a gift to be valued. All else being equal, a teacher fluent in her students’ mother tongue will be a better teacher than one who blunders in that language or doesn't know it at all. He assumes that the students are at least seven years old, by which time their native language is well established.

Here is his essential argument.
Using the mother tongue, we have learned to think, learned to communicate and acquired an intuitive understanding of grammar. The mother tongue opens the door not only to its own grammar, but to all grammars, inasmuch as it awakens the potential for universal grammar that lies within all of us….For this reason, the mother tongue is the master key to foreign languages, the tool which gives us the fastest, surest, most precise, and most complete means of accessing a foreign language.

This is a radical notion, but in many ways it makes great sense. The trick is to use the mother tongue sparingly in class. Offer brief explanations and instructions where necessary, but do not do so randomly; Butzkamm suggests particular techniques to use in the classroom. He adds,
In principle, conveying meaning is not a matter of vocabulary, but concerns the text, i.e. it takes place simultaneously on a lexical, grammatical and pragmatic level. The pupil first wants to understand not what an individual word is saying, but what the text is saying, as accurately and completely as possible. An oral utterance equivalent in the mother tongue is the best and fastest way to fulfill this basic need.

He adds that “interferences, those unwelcome imports from the mother tongue, are avoided by the sandwich technique.” The sandwich technique? This is when the teacher “inserts a translation between repetitions of an unknown phrase, almost as an aside, or with a slight break in the flow of speech to mark it as an ‘intruder’.” In this way the teacher briefly uses the mother tongue, but quickly re-establishes syntax for his students.

Butzkamm’s arguments are often complex, but they fall well within the structure of communicative language teaching. For example, he suggests that using teaching aids in the mother tongue can “promote more authentic, message-oriented communications than might be found in lessons where they are avoided…. (Also,) mother tongue techniques allow teachers to use richer, more authentic texts sooner. This means more comprehensible input and faster acquisition.”

In a comment on this post, Butzkamm pointed out that "my argument stands even if there is no such thing as a universal grammar common to all languages...in the Chomskyan sense." He continues,
Mother tongue grammars have paved the way to foreign grammars in as much as they have prepared the learner to expect and understand underlying basic concepts such as possession, number, agent, instrument, cause, condition etc, no matter by what linguistic means they are expressed in a given language. Naturally, if both the target language and the FL have adjectives, relative clauses or the pluperfect tense in common, they need not be taught from scratch, but are directly available for incorporation into the L2 system. However, the path breaking power of L1 grammar is not dependent on the fact that both languages share such grammatical features. One natural language is enough to open the door for the grammars of other languages because all languages are cut from the same conceptual cloth.
At first, some of his arguments sound like those of a CL teacher gone mad. Consider the beginning of this argument, for example: “Mother tongue aids make it easier to conduct whole lessons in the foreign language.” This sounds almost surreal until he explains that using such aids enables “pupils to gain in confidence and, paradoxically, become less dependent on their mother tongue.”

The mother tongue has a role in explaining vocabulary, Butzkamm says, but we have to me careful about it, as his explanation of the sandwich technique illustrates. In language teaching, other approaches do not work as well, he says, and can even be harmful. As importantly, “we need to associate the new with the old. To exclude mother tongue links would deprive us of our richest source” for building associations with words we already know. In general, he says, “the foreign language learner must build upon existing skills and knowledge acquired in and through the mother tongue.”

Butzkamm is not modest about his ideas. His theory, he says,
restores the mother tongue to its rightful place as the most important ally a foreign language can have, one which would, at the same time, redeem some 2000 years of documented foreign language teaching, which has always held the mother tongue in high esteem.

Hardly the first linguist to argue against the principle of monolingualism, Butzkamm’s arguments may be the most coherent and compelling. Language teachers – especially those whose students speak a common language – should remember a simple truth: knowing and judiciously using your students’ native language can make you better teachers.
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