M is for Mother tongue

19 04 2015

Berlitz frontispieceIn 1906 Maximilian Berlitz wrote, in the preface to his Method for Teaching Modern Languages:

“In the Berlitz Method, translation as a means of acquiring a foreign language is entirely abandoned. From the first lesson, the student hears only the language he is studying.”

The reasons for this (at the time) radical departure from established pedagogy included the following:

“He who is studying a foreign language by means of translation, neither gets hold of its spirit nor becomes accustomed to think in it; on the contrary, he has a tendency to base all he says upon what he would say in his mother tongue, and he cannot prevent his vernacular [i.e. his L1] from invading the foreign idiom [i.e. the L2].”

This view – that languages can and should be ‘kept apart’ because, if not, they will ‘invade’ one another – has underpinned second language teaching pedagogy ever since. Likewise, the folk wisdom that, unless languages are kept separate, learners will never learn to ‘think’ in the target language, has persisted until the present day.

What evidence is there (a) that languages are stored and accessed separately, and (b) that second language learners can be trained to ‘think’ in their L2?

Not a lot. The findings of neuroscience, based mainly on neuro-imaging technology, challenge the view that languages are stored separately in the brain. Instead, ‘current research suggests that the neural representation of an L2 converges with that of an L1’ (Green et al, 2006: 111) and that ‘each language affects the other and neither is identical to that of a monolingual’ (Birdsong 2006: 22). What’s more, ‘it would appear that the brain areas involved in L1 acquisition are very similar to those involved in L2 acquisition’ (Schumann 2006: 317).  In other words, languages do not develop separately, nor are they stored separately. Nor can they be: they are inextricably interconnected. Invasion, interference, transfer, leakage, competition – these are the facts of (psycholinguistic) life. Better, perhaps, to deal with them head on, rather than attempt to avoid them.

As for ‘thinking in English’: this seems only to occur in advanced learners who are committed to living their lives as part of the target language community. Studies of developmental changes in the way speakers gesture in their L2 (e.g. Gullberg 2008; 2011), for example, suggest that L1 cognitive structures persist even at quite advanced levels. Ellis and Shintani (2014: 243), reviewing the evidence, conclude, ‘it is clearly necessary to accept that the L1 will play a major role in most learners’ inner world’.

Berltiz prefaceMoreover, from a sociolinguistic perspective, it is quite likely that the L1 will play a role in the learners’ outer world as well – even in predominantly English-speaking contexts. Purely monolingual societies have probably never been the norm, but are less so now than ever. As Rampton (1995: 338) observes: ‘The idea that people really only have one native language, that really monolingualism is the fundamental linguistic condition, … underlies a widespread failure to recognise new and mixed linguistic identities’. This is even truer now than it was in 1995: in a globalized world, there is increasing use of, and greater tolerance of, ‘code-switching’ and ‘code meshing’ by multilinguals, and this needs to be reflected in pedagogy. Learners are probably not learning English to join a single monolithic discourse community but are ‘shuttling between communities’ (Canagarajah 2005: xxvi) – hence there should be a pedagogical focus on multilingual and multicultural practices, practices in which the learners’ mother tongue is not proscribed but legitimized.

Nevertheless, current methodology still seems heavily predicated on Berlitz’s ‘English only’ principle. Teacher education is directed, not at exploiting the learners’ L1 as a resource for learning and communication, but at compensating for many teachers’ lack of knowledge of their learners’ L1, and at producing learners who are simulacra of monolingual native speakers. Worse, this ‘native speakerist’ mindset seems to have ‘infected’ many NNS teachers, who feel guilty if caught using the L1 in the classroom.

In the Cambridge English signature event at the IATEFL conference in Manchester last week, I argued that the Cambridge English Teaching Framework, a rubric for the assessment of teachers’ effectiveness, should not only NOT proscribe L1 use, but should include a section that validates L1 knowledge. Adopting the categories of the existing five competencies (which includes Language ability, but only insofar as this applies to the target language, i.e. English), it might look like this:

L1 competence Cambridge Framework

It was gratifying to receive this response (from Karima Gikar) to my not entirely frivolous proposal:

The suggestion you made concerning the modification of the [CET Framework] as to make it compulsory for NS teachers to know their students’ L1 is bloody daring! If your suggestion came to be taken more than seriously (which I hope) and implemented in internationally recognised tests like CELTA, DELTA and TESOL, it would be a huge boost for NNS teachers who have long been made to feel less capable or even deficient only because they happen to be non natives. Turning the knowledge and use of students’ L1 into an asset rather than a setback will undoubtedly make teachers who have been put off by discriminatory attitudes and practices regain trust in the profession.


Birdsong, D. (2006) ‘Age and second language acquisition and processing: a selective overview,’ in Gullberg, M. & Indefrey, P. (eds) The cognitive neuroscience of second language acquisition. Oxford: Blackwell.

Canagarajah, S. (2005) ‘Introduction’, in Canagarajah, S. (ed.) Reclaiming the local in language policy and practice. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Ellis, R. & Shantini, N. (2014) Exploring language pedagogy through second language acquisition research. London: Routledge.

Green, D.W., Crinion, J., & Price, C.J. (2006) ‘Convergence, degeneracy, and control,’ in Gullberg, M. & Indefrey, P. (eds) The cognitive neuroscience of second language acquisition. Oxford: Blackwell.

Gullberg, M. (2008) ‘Gestures and second language acquisition’, in Robinson, P., & Ellis, N. (eds.) Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition, Abingdon: Routledge.

Gullberg, M. (2011) ‘Thinking, speaking and gesturing about motion in more than one language,’ in Pavlenko, A. (ed.) Thinking and speaking in two languages. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Rampton, B. (1995) Crossing: Language and ethnicity among adolescents. London: Longman.

Schumann, J. S. (2006) ‘Summing up: some themes in the cognitive neuroscience of second language acquisition,’ in Gullberg, M. & Indefrey, P. (eds) The cognitive neuroscience of second language acquisition. Oxford: Blackwell.

M is for Monolingualism

3 02 2013

sant pol ajuntamentCheck out the banner that now adorns the town hall in our village. It reads ‘Un país per tots.  L’escola en català’.  Roughly: ‘A country for everybody. Schooling in Catalan’.

Given that Catalonia is a multilingual region, with a population almost evenly divided between those whose mother tongue is Catalan and those whose mother tongue is Spanish (not to mention a host of minority languages including Urdu, Arabic, Mandarin and Romanian), the slogan has a kind of topsy-turvy logic that George Orwell would have appreciated. Something like: ‘In the name of diversity, uniformity’.  (For a breakdown of Catalonia’s mother tongues, see here).

On a less felicitous note, the slogan echoes the rhetoric of the ‘English Only’ movement in the United States.  The following text, for example, comes from a 1990 flyer mailed by an organization called ‘U.S. English’ (cited in McKay and Bokhorst-Heng 2008: 99):

A common language benefits a country and its people. In our country this common bond is more important than in most because Americans continue to be diverse in origin, ethnicity, religion and native culture.

In much the same way, the Catalan government justifies its policy of ‘linguistic normalization’: politicians regularly invoke the fact that Catalan is ‘a guarantor of social cohesion’ and ‘a model of integration for new arrivals, avoiding their segregation on the grounds of origin, culture or language’. (As Mercè Vilarrubias [2012] points out, in her persuasively-argued book on the subject, the terms bilingualism and segregation are frequently conflated in the discourses of Catalan nationalism).

Ironically, the model of linguistic immersion that the town hall slogan defends closely replicates the policy of monolingualism that General Franco attempted to impose on Spain only a couple of generations back. The following text, for instance, comes from a Spanish textbook published in 1947:

LECTURA- –  En España hay niños de la apacible Castilla, la admirable Cataluña, la encantadora Vasconia y la pintoresca Galicia. Sus madres les enseñaron a hablar y rezar como aprendieron de sus mayores; pero en la clase el maestro les enseña todos la lengua castellana. Esta lengua tan bella, dulce y sonora, es común a todos. Hablándola nos entendemos, aunque no nos conozcamos, como se comprenden los hijos de una misma madre. ¡Seamos siempre dignos de nuestra madre España!

[READING–  In Spain there are children from peaceful Castille, from the admirable Catalonia, the charming Basque Country and the picturesque Galicia. Their mothers taught them to speak and pray as their elders did, but in class the teacher taught them all the Spanish language. This language so beautiful, sweet and sonorous, is common to all. Speaking it we understand one another even if  we do not know one another, just as the children of the same mother understand each other. Let us always be worthy of our mother Spain!]

Gramática Española, Segundo Grado, Editorial Luis Vives, S.A., Zaragoza, 1947.

Needless to say, the vigorous promotion of Catalan nowadays, including the policy which requires all children to be schooled in Catalan, is partly a reaction (or over-reaction?) to the equally vigorous persecution of Catalan during Franco’s dictatorship. Linguistic normalization is also justified by what many regard as Catalan’s precarious status, despite the fact that its more than 7 million speakers outnumber those of many other European languages, including Danish, Finnish, Maltese, and Slovene. (Catalan also happens to be 19th in the order of languages most used on Twitter!)

But, whether under threat or not, the Catalan-only policy (and the English Only one in the US) runs counter to prevailing thinking that early education is best mediated, where possible, in the home language. Research in the US, where a number of states have opted for some form of immersion, is fairly conclusive in showing that, as Shin (2013. 165) summarizes the evidence, ‘English-only education neither leads to faster learning of English nor produces better academic results for language minority children’. Findings such as these no doubt motivated the UNESCO ‘Year of Languages’ commitment towards  ‘developing language policies that enable each linguistic community to use its first language, or mother tongue, as widely and as often as possible, including in education’ (UNESCO 2008).

Norma_troqueladaOf course, the powers-that-be in Catalonia argue that the need for social cohesion outweighs the need for equity in education. And social cohesion is (in their view) entirely contingent on there being a common tongue (ignoring, for the moment, such relatively cohesive multilingual precedents as Switzerland, Finland and Singapore). Besides (they argue), why should children be schooled in Spanish, when they will pick it up anyway, ‘on the street’ as it were? – an argument that elides the fact that ‘street Spanish’ is a far remove from the kind of Spanish that might later be needed in higher education or for professional purposes.

In fairness, Spanish is taught as a school subject in Catalonia, but this does little to mitigate the fact that, at primary level, over half the population is being educated in a language that is not its mother tongue — a situation that in fact contravenes Article 32 of the Catalan constitution (l’Estatut), which rules that no one should be discriminated against for ‘linguistic reasons’. Nevertheless, language planners and their political masters doggedly refuse to implement practicable bilingual educational programs of the kind that function perfectly well in countries as widespread as Finland, Canada, Wales and Israel, as well as in other regions of Spain. In their eyes, any attempt to institute bilingualism (as guaranteed by Spanish law, and as commonplace in many countries round the world) is tantamount to committing linguistic suicide.

And national suicide, as well: as Blackledge and Creese (2010: 26) remind us, ‘in public discourse, language often becomes inseparably associated with a territorially bounded identity in a relationship that takes language, territory and identity to be isomorphic’: one people, one nation, one language.  While this may have been the norm in some distant, possibly prelapsarian past, a whole host of factors, including immigration, colonization, and globalization, now militate against monolingualism. (Iceland is possibly the only country in Europe – and one of the few in the world – where nation, territory and language are homogeneous).

Multilingualism is — and always has been — the  norm. Nor should it be feared. Just as in the natural world, plurality is evidence of a healthy ecosystem (‘as diversity increases, so does stability and resilience’ [Lovelock, 1988: 488]), so, too, with societies.  As William Labov (1982) put it, ‘heterogeneity is an integral part of the linguistic economy of the community, necessary to satisfy the linguistic demands of everyday life’.

There are those who would argue that, in the interests of bilingualism, a more acceptable, less politically-sensitive alternative to Spanish is English, and that the promotion of English-mediated content-and-language-integrated-learning (CLIL) in Catalonia should appease advocates of linguistic diversity.  But English has had a poor history of co-habitation with other languages (witness the English Only movement in the US) and, besides, this does not satisfy the need for early education in the mother tongue.

escola en català

If the government is truly committed to improving education why put unnecessary obstacles in the way? A less divisive, more inclusive, and more coherent sign on our town hall might read:  Un país per tots. Escola en totes les llengües. (‘A country for all. Schooling in all languages’).  Maybe all languages is a tall order, but at least both. Anything less is a mandate for monolingualism.


Blackledge, A., & Creese, A. (2010) Multilingualism: A Critical Perspective, New York: Continuum.

Labov, W. (1982) ‘Building on empirical foundations’ in Lehman, W.P. & Malkiel, Y. (eds), Perspectives on Historical Linguistics, Amsterdam: John Benjamins (17-92).

Lovelock, J. (1988) ‘The Earth as a living organism’, in Wilson, E.O. (ed.) Bio-diversity, Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

McKay, S., & Bokhorst-Heng, H.D. (2008) International English in its Sociolinguistic Contexts: Towards a socially sensitive EIL pedagogy, New York: Routledge.

Shin, S. J (2013) Bilingualism in Schools and Society: Language, Identity and Policy, London: Routledge.

Vilarrubias, M. (2012) Sumar y no restar: Razones para introducir una educación bilingüe en Cataluña, Barcelona: Montesinos.