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.