Using the Mother Tongue

Title: Using the Mother Tongue
Author: Sheelagh Deller and Mario Rinvolucri
Publisher: English Teaching Professional
Delta Publishing
Reviewed by: Carmen Pilar Serrano Boyer
Review date: April 2004

Using the Mother Tongue, by Sheelagh Deller and Mario Rinvolucri, is an interesting as well as enlightening book which is addressed to both native and non-native foreign language teachers. We have all enthusiastically read books or articles that forbid or advise against the use of the L1 in the L2 classroom; this has been a view widely accepted by language teaching professionals over the last 50 years. Nevertheless, times are changing and so are perspectives and attitudes to language teaching. That is one of the reasons why, as an EFL teacher, I would recommend that my colleagues read this book. Perhaps it will make them rethink or redefine their positions on the use of the mother tongue in the L2 class. Not only do the authors of the book break barriers and help us overcome prejudices about the use of the students' L1 in our classes, but they also warn the language teacher to be careful and not overuse the L1 in the L2 classroom since it might be prejudicial for the students' learning process.

Using the Mother Tongue is by no means a theoretical approach to the use of the L1. On the contrary, it is specifically designed to offer practical ideas and become a helpful resource for the foreign language teacher. This 96-page book is divided into two main sections (Part A: Classroom Management and Part B: Living Language), an epilogue and a brief appendix. Each part has been subdivided into different sections, which contain a number of activities ranging from 4 in one section to 24 in another (with 115 in total). The explanation of every single activity is preceded by a box where the teacher is given information on the level of the activity, purpose, materials, whether the class is supposed to be monolingual or bilingual, and even the teacher's level in the students' mother tongue. These boxes are really useful since this way teachers can easily select the activity which best suits their students. As an EFL teacher at a secondary school in Spain, I found some activities quite entertaining and original, for instance the one called "Mother Tongue Alarm Bells" (part A, section 1) for which students have to hold something, go somewhere in the classroom, say something etc if they want to use their mother tongue.

Part A encourages the controlled use of the mother tongue to make groups, create a positive environment in the classroom etc. Most activities are done in a mixture of mother tongue and English (L2), however. This part also discourages the overuse or unnecessary use of the mother tongue. Part B includes a wide range of activities, the main purpose of which is to make the students aware that there are both similarities and differences in the way in which their L1 and L2 work.

Using the Mother Tongue emphasizes the idea that the foreign language teacher should use the students' mother tongue only in certain situations, for example:

  • comparing English grammar with the mother tongue's grammar can be very positive for some learners
  • beginners will probably progress at a quicker pace if the use of the mother tongue is allowed in the classroom
  • translation exercises may also be the perfect practice when there is a grammar point that is causing trouble to students

Mario Rinvolucri, whose books on language teaching are well known amongst language professionals all over the world, claims that "This book is a kind of apology to my students in the 1970's who had to smuggle their bilingual dictionaries into my classroom and hide them under the table. It is also a salute to the traditional teaching systems in places like China and Japan where it has always been understood that mother tongue is necessary" (p.4). Don't the author's words make you think, or maybe feel less guilty for having used your students' mother tongue in the classroom? Or perhaps they have just opened a little possibility if you are one of those teachers who defend the Direct Method and do not use the students' mother tongue under any circumstances.

All things considered, this is a practical book that arouses the reader’s curiosity from the very first pages and casts a new light on the use of the mother tongue in the foreign classroom.

TEFL.net ESL Reviews & ArticlesCarmen-Pilar Serrano-Boyer is an English teacher at IES Torreón del Alcázar, a state secondary school in Ciudad Real, Spain.