Judicious Use of Mother Tongue in EFL Classroom: Some Considerations

*Dharmanand Joshi


Use of mother tongue in English language classroom has long been a contested issue. There are multiple opinions of the scholars and practitioners regarding this issue. In this article, I discuss how mother tongue can be used in EFL (English as a foreign language) classroom in balanced way. To bring it into balance, the paper focuses on terminologies like ESL (English as a second language)/EFL distinction, use of mother tongue and its pejorative sense along with the ways to overcome it. Further the article analyzes the perspectives of different scholars regarding the use of mother tongue along with criticality of using it judiciously focusing on two opposite sides; no use of mother tongue via judicious use of mother tongue.

My Story

It was in 2001 when I joined Intermediate level majoring English. As a student migrated from remote area to urban, I started cramming major English in search of academic development. I entered the class where the teacher teaching major English Englishized the class. It made me think several times whether I will be able to comprehend content in English. Although I adjusted to the environment and bring improvement in me, it triggered me to think what if Nepali equivalents are used for incomprehensible words. I personally requested my teacher for the equivalent words that is meant for our understanding while I encountered difficult words. He provided some Nepali equivalent terms and made me really convenient to understand the content. After, intermediate level, I joined Bachelors in English Education(B.Ed.) majoring in English, where I had to study with the students of other subjects such as Nepali, Health and Mathematics during the General English classes. It was tough for the teacher to deal such academically heterogeneous class since it was the class beyond teaching English in English all the time. After a few days, he was rejected, as the students opposed his use of English only while teaching English.  The new teacher was accepted since he simplified the understanding of content using Nepali language when needed. This incidence made me think that use of mother tongue in need which has some potential for making learning meaningful.

The issue of mother tongue

There is always a debate on use of mother tongue in English language classroom. It is an important issue in English as a foreign language classes. The scholars are divided on this issue; one group is in favor of judicious use of mother tongue and another one favors complete rejection of mother tongue in foreign language classes.  Advocates of monolingual approach assert that target language should be the only medium of communication in the classroom since they believe that the prohibition of the native language would maximize the effectiveness of learning target language. In this regard, Krashen (1981) argues that learners acquire foreign languages following basically the same path they followed to acquire their mother tongue. He further claims that mother tongue use in English language teaching should be minimized since it may sometimes mislead in the process of learning target language. Despite the fact that there is universal system of language governance, languages differences result errors in the process of target language learning (Krashen, 1981).

Similarly, Ellis (1994) also supports this idea as he states that “it is widely acknowledged that the role of the mother tongue in foreign language learning is a negative one” (p.19). Such views are now being criticized because EFL teachers have become aware of the significance of L1 in supporting the L2 learning process. Cook (2001) takes the use of mother tongue in EFL classes as “a door that has been firmly shut in language teaching for over a hundred years”. However, to me, the use of mother tongue in the classroom is not irrelevant as its use can be helpful in learning new vocabulary items and explaining complex ideas and grammar rules since I believe teachers who master the students’ native language have far more advantages over the ones who don’t.  When students come to the EFL classroom they come loaded with their native language which cannot be underestimated. The first language should be used as tool to maximize the learning.  Supporting this idea, Freeman (2000) says, “The native language of the students is used in the classroom in order to enhance the security of the students, to provide the bridge from the familiar to unfamiliar and to make the meaning of the target language words clear.” (pp.101-102). However, the relevance of the use of the mother tongue is determined by the extent to which we use it.  If we encourage the students to use the target language and also allow them to use their mother tongue to some extent, it can help them learn the target language better.

There are many academicians who prefer to avoid language beside English in EFL classroom. However, Deller and Rinvoluncri (2002), Butzkamm (2008), Larrea (2002), Prodromou (1992) and Baker (1996) argue that there should not be ban to L1 in a language classroom since L1 is a great asset and teaching aid to benefit the learning process. The students can better comprehend if the concepts are explained in the language that is comprehensible beside English, that is mother tongue when in need. But allowing the learners to use their mother tongue excessively can have detrimental effect on their English language achievement. To quote Pakera and Karaagac (2015), “Excessive use of mother tongue may result in to too much dependence on it which has less desired outcomes.” (pp. 111).

EFL and ESL demarcation: Doorway to mother tongue use

Whether to use mother tongue in the classroom or not is guided by our perceptions about ESL and EFL. To put simply, ESL denotes using English inside and outside the classroom. In other words, if the learner is learning English in English environment inside and outside the classroom, that represents their ESL context. On the other hand, if the learner is learning English inside the classroom but adopts the mother tongue context outside the classroom, this represents EFL context. For the ESL context, there must be English environment both inside and outside the classroom so that the learners will use English without having wider exposure to their mother tongue besides their regular communication done in some informal setting like their home and other contexts.  In Nepal, students learn English inside the classroom but when they go out they will be mostly in either L1 setting. It is purely EFL environment

EFL and Mother tongue

The term “mother tongue” represents first language which we acquire first in our childhood. It can be termed as a native language too. Mother tongue plays significant role to learn foreign language. Both, the EFL teacher and the students remain adhered to the mother tongue while teaching and learning to some extent. While learning foreign language, complete avoidance of mother tongue is not possible and even not justifiable. In this context, Atkinson (1987), states that mother tongue is always consistent with the preferred learning strategies. Its significance can be further verified from the Spanish context in Puerto Rico. Schweers (1999) found that 88.7% students felt that Spanish language should be used in the classroom. However, the use of mother tongue should not be extravagant and teachers should be judicious to allow the students to use it.

EFL students possibly get interfered by mother tongue, although they feel uncomfortable in expressing. Nunan (1999) reports cases from China; when students spoke Cantonese in the classroom, they were imposed fines and as a result the results remained silent during the classroom activities. This can be felt in Nepal too particularly for the students from rural area where ‘English only’ classes might not benefit them much.

Judicious use: Get rid of pejorative concept: Perception in Nepalese context

In a country like Nepal, where English has been used as a foreign language, it is limited to use in very few areas.  In such a case, denying the mother tongue and other languages cannot be denied. This will stop the learners from learning through lived experiences. In this connection, Schweers (1990) argues that “Starting with the L1 provides a sense of security and validates the learners’ lived experiences, allowing them to express themselves. The learner is then willing to experiment and take risk with in English” (p.7). His research advocates the idea that mother tongue should be used in the classroom since it makes feel them more comfortable and confident in leaning.

If the mother tongue has a role to play in the learning of a foreign language, then it may be beneficial to use when learning complex grammar rules and vocabulary. According to Cook (2001) and Celik (2008), over 80 percent of modern language instructors use L1 for grammar instruction and use dictionaries for translation. However, over use of mother tongue should be avoided.

The following figure can be used to show the reasons for judicious use of mother tongue.

Figure 1. Reasons for judicious use of mother tongue.

The diagram shows the primary areas that require use of the mother tongue in English classroom. There are other elements such as confirming students’ understanding, administrative information, discussing course policies, to elicit English words or sentences, to explain the grammar rules. Although there is no dispute on the part of the advocates of judicious use of mother tongue, the judicious use has not been observed very much practically. Sharma’s (2006) research showed that all the students and teachers used mother tongue in the classroom. Surprisingly, 59% teachers thought that use of mother tongue helped learning of English a little and 52% thought that mother tongue should be used only sometimes.

English classes in Nepal, particularly the government aided schools lack resources like audio visual materials making it challenging for the teachers to teach English using English only. As a result, teachers make use of the mother tongue excessively.

The background of the learners also plays crucial role to determine whether mother tongue is used judiciously or not. In Nepalese context, teaching and learning of English starts with translation, and the exposure provided to the students in English is minimum. The students focus on passing the examinations getting minimum required marks but their progress in English language remains minimum. Teaching new linguistic items to the students who have not mastered the language taught in the previous grades makes it more challenging for the teachers. Similarly, students find difficult to acquire the level of English prescribed in the course. This is the fact that brings tussle– whether to use English only in the EFL classroom or Nepali only or to adopt the middle way i.e., using mother tongue judiciously. In such circumstances, EFL teacher certainly encounters challenges as regards the language use in the classroom. To improve the academic condition, EFL teacher must make a plan mainly keeping in mind what his students understand rather than which language he uses to teach.

How to practice judicious use of mother tongue?

To get a way to above mentioned important issue, there are different activities that can be practiced. Firstly, code switching technique can be adopted in which the teacher brings alteration between two languages. In this respect Cook (1999) asserts, “Methodologists’ insistence on the L2 does not mean that L1 has not in practice been used in most classroom.” (p.200). And codeswitching is common one. According to Eldridge (1996), “Code Switching is the natural and purposeful phenomenon which facilitates both communication and learning.” (p. 310). It can become fruitful in accomplishing pedagogical goal which brings equivalence to the difficult term. Secondly, translation can be a way to bring judicious use of mother tongue. Sometimes, to deliver the concept of the meaning of English language, EFL teacher might face difficulty where translation works better. As Harbord (19920) writes:

Translation /transfer is a natural phenomenon and an inevitable part of second language acquisition even where no formal classroom learning occurs. Learners will inevitably (and even unconsciously) attempt to equate a target language structure or lexical item with its closest or most common correlate in the mother tongue, regardless of whether or not the teacher offers or permits translation (p.351).

This statement from Hobard clearly mentions that students from EFL background subconsciously use mother tongue no matter whether people take judicious use us mother tongue with acceptance or debate pejoratively. Mukattash (2003) also argues that translation can be used as a teaching technique particularly in those areas where there is marked discrepancy between L1 and EFL system, and to disambiguate ambiguous sentences translation is of paramount importance.

Figure 2. A model for creating space for students mother tongue in college classrooms (Source: Journal of Global Citizenship & Equity Education, Vol 1, No 1 (2011))

Why to use Mother tongue?

EFL learners have some affective factors which accept the fact that use of mother tongue cannot be rejected. Natural tendency to use their mother tongue, cognitive support, enriching the process of learning, sense of security and general comprehension are important factors for success in second language learning.  One of the reasons for use of mother tongue in EFL classroom is students’ natural tendency. Using mother tongue is a habit which automatically relates learning process with new learning. To be more specific, natural tendency to use mother tongue can help to the EFL students therefore it should not be discarded. Wechsler (1997) views that if students’ natural tendency to use mother tongue is suppressed, it brings counterproductive tension. As a result, learning cannot be fostered. However, in the name of natural tendency, over use of mother tongue should not be encouraged. Learners get cognitive support while their mother tongue is used in the class. Consequently, students explore more knowledge. Storch and Wigglesworth (2003) believe that L1 gives cognitive support which is an ability to storm knowledge of language to generate better learning. It can further help to think, speak and act through interaction.

Mother tongue can be used as a resource in EFL classroom. It is the resource in the sense that culture of mother tongue can work as an impetus to learn other languages. In this regard, Atos (2001) says that mother tongue use enriches the process of learning by using the mother tongue as a resource and by using culture of the culture of the mother tongue teacher can facilitate with teaching and learners can enhance with learning. The following diagram summarizes why use of mother tongue is beneficial in in EFL classroom.

Figure 3. Benefits of using mother tongue in a language classroom


Although teaching and learning English through English is way to natural learning, better learning and output-based teaching seem unbearable denying the use of mother tongue because it can bring positive learning environment with high drive to the students in foreign language setting. The recent teaching methodologies such as communicative approach, project based learning also allow the use of mother tongue for teaching and learning foreign/second language as per the need. Therefore, rather than having a direct yes or no approach, teachers should make judicious use of mother tongue in EFL classes to support the teaching and learning process.


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Larrea, E. (2002).  Should we (or should we not) use L1 in the communicative English classroom? Journal Approach. : ALC Association of Linguistic de. Cuba. (Online). Available: http:// www.scribd.com/doc/6578587/ Using L1 in the EFL classroom.

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Parker, T. & Karaagac, O. (2015). The use and function of mother tongue in EFL classes. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 199, 111-119.

Schweers, W.C. (1999). Using L1 in the L2 classroom. English teaching Forum, 37(2). 6-13.

Storch, N., & Wigglesworth, G. (2003). Is there a role for the use of the L1 in an L2 setting? TESOL Quarterly, 37(4), 760-770.

Sharma, B.K. (2006). Mother tongue use in English Classroom. Journal of NELTA, 11 (1&2), 88-87.

(*Dharmanand Joshi is pursuing MPhil in English Education at School of Education, Kathmandu University, Nepal and has been teaching English for last 14 years to various levels. He is one of the editors of NELTA ELT forum and Secretary of NELTA Kanchanpur Branch. His areas of interest includes teaching methods and techniques, ICT in education and language planning and policy. He can be reached at dnsushil016@kusoed.edu.np)


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