Is a student’s mother tongue a help or hindrance in learning a new language?
Pop your head into English language classes around the world and it would appear it’s more often considered a hindrance.
But is that what it really is?
Proponents of the bilingual method argue that the mother tongue is an essential tool for achieving fluency in a second language.
What’s the Bilingual Method?
There are three widely-recognized methods of teaching a language:
1. The Grammar-Translation Method
2. The Direct Method
3. The Bilingual Method
Often referred to as the traditional method, the grammar-translation method is derived from the classical approach to teaching Latin and ancient Greek. This method places a strong emphasis on the grammatical structure of language and is heavy on rote memorization for learning. Lessons are undertaken in the students’ native language (L1) and involve extensive translation to and from the students’ target language (L2).
The direct method has been strongly favored among language teachers for many years now. The direct method utilizes L2, employing visual aids and role-playing extensively, and encourages students to use an inductive approach to discover the rules of the target language. It attempts to simulate the conditions through which we acquire our native language and, therefore, heavily discourages the use of the mother tongue.
Our focus here is on the third method: the bilingual method. This method was developed by C.J. Dodson in the 1960s and 1970s. Dodson set out to make improvements to the audio-visual method (which has much in common with the direct method outlined above). The bilingual method makes use of the traditional three P’s: presentation, practice, production. The three P’s are the three main stages of any language lesson. First, you present material. Then you all practice together and students are expected to produce something with their new knowledge.
The bilingual method advocates the use of the L1 in learning the L2. It’s distinct from the grammar-translation method in that it places a strong emphasis on oral language. Later in this post we’ll examine in more detail how these principles can benefit learning in your classroom.
The 2-Tongued Solution: 7 Advantages of the Bilingual Method of Teaching English
1. Students become functional bilinguals
If the aim of language learning is ultimately for the student to become fully bilingual (or multilingual) then this method models this positive outcome from the very beginning. As the students begin their language learning journey, their destination is visible in their language teacher. The competence and confidence of the teacher as she moves from L1 to L2 and back again is a clear model for the student to emulate.
2. Never miss out on a lesson
Rather than being a hindrance, advocates of the bilingual method argue that the mother tongue of the students is the greatest resource in the language learning process. This is true particularly for those students over the age of 7 or 8, when the mother tongue has been firmly established in the students’ minds. The bilingual method allows easy glossing of difficult words and efficient explanations of points of grammar. Time saved in this manner optimizes learning opportunities.
3. Give some love to other languages
While English, with an estimated 328 million speakers, is the third most widely spoken language in the world, it’s perhaps first in terms of prestige. For this reason, students worldwide are clamoring to learn it. This is good news for English language teachers. However, there are inherent dangers for languages considered less prestigious.
The French linguist Claude Hagege argues, “If we aren’t cautious about the way English is progressing it may eventually kill most other languages.”
An important aspect of the bilingual method is the acknowledgement it gives to the importance and the validity of the student’s L1 language and culture. Language learning is one of the most enriching experiences we can have as human beings. It isn’t merely the substitution of one means of communication for another. It’s a celebration of the diversity that exists in the world and we would be infinitely poorer with it. Vive le différence!
The bilingual method ensures accessibility. Students beginning the daunting task of learning a new language can immediately find a level of familiarity, avoiding the terrors of that “deer in the headlights” stage of acquiring new skills.
Through the use of the mother tongue, meaning is conveyed efficiently and the teacher can ensure that concepts have really been grasped, adapting the pace of the lesson accordingly.
Many fresh-faced English language teachers landing on exotic shores with a shiny new TEFL certificate struggle with this one. An oft-heard complaint among foreign teachers is that they aren’t afforded the respect given to the local teachers.
Learning the local language can be a sure-fire way to improve your behavior management skills. Expectations can be made explicit from the beginning when you have the ability to speak the students’ L1. It’ll also aid in ensuring smooth transitions between lesson activities, ensuring best use is made of the time available.
You can get into the details of language much more deeply than you can if you only speak English. If you can explain concepts in the students’ L1, then newcomers to English will be able to grasp the more complex statements you’ll want to make about grammar and vocabulary use. All in all, you’ll be able to get your students farther, faster.
6. It’s a teacher’s tool, not a student crutch
Though the bilingual method employs the students’ native language, it’s important to note that it’s predominantly the teacher who makes use of L1. This distinguishes it from the grammar-translation method which relies more on rote learning and the translation of texts.
The bilingual method focuses more on using the language for oral communication. Students won’t be using their native tongue much in the classroom.
7. Build strong foundations for reading, right from the start
As with the direct method, basic texts make use of picture strips to accompany the dialogue. The bilingual method makes use of the written form of the language from the start. This allows students to begin to see the shapes of words as they repeat them orally.
The Challenges of the Bilingual Method
As with any methodology, the bilingual method faces several challenges to its efficacy. With awareness, reflection and sufficient preparation these challenges can become opportunities.
1. You need to be bilingual
Firstly, it requires the teacher to be bilingual in both the native language and the target language. This requirement at times may pose difficulties in sourcing suitably qualified teachers. The “fresh-off-the-boat” TEFL teacher can, however, avail of an opportunity here to learn the local language.
Those engaged in the teaching of English in their own English-speaking country may wish to specialize through learning the language of an immigrant community. As the teacher navigates their way through the complexities of a new language, students will feel empathy for the teacher’s language learning challenges.
The difficulties facing L1 speakers will become apparent as the teacher gets to grip with the differing syntactical structures and idiomatic usages. Students, in turn, will appreciate the teacher’s effort and recognize their own struggles in that of their teacher. You’re all on the same path, heading towards very similar language goals together.
This process ensures the teacher isn’t open to the common criticism of monolingual English language teachers—that they’re attempting to teach their students to do something that they’ve never achieved themselves, i.e., learn a new language.
2. Students may become overreliant on their first language
Overreliance on L1 can lead to a bad habit of filtering everything through the mother tongue. As language is more than just the simple substitution of one series of coded sounds with another, it is important to avoid this. Careful planning, preparation and reflection on the part of the teacher can ensure this does not happen.
3. You need to know what’s up
You need to fully understand the principles underlying the method so that it doesn’t turn into a thinly-veiled version of the grammar-translation method. Though grammatical structures are important in this method also, the bilingual method places great emphasis on attaining oral fluency.
You’ll need to be extra certain that you maintain this focus in the planning and preparation stage. Adherence to the principles of presentation, practice and production should ensure that this focus is maintained.
3 Ways to Employ the Bilingual Method in Your Classroom
1. Use what’s useful
There’s more than one way to skin a cat, as they say.
The bilingual method has some great advantages, but other methods, such as the grammar-translation and direct methods, have theirs too. “Know your audience” isn’t only the first rule of comedy, but it’s also the first rule of teaching.
Don’t be a slave to a system that isn’t the most effective tool for the students in your care. As Bruce Lee said it, “Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.”
2. Make a sandwich
The sandwich technique involves the following process:
1. Introduce new word or phrase in L2 (English).
2. Give the idiomatic meaning in L1.
3. Repeat the new word or phrase in L2.
This technique and its variations are advocated strongly by Wolfgang Butzkamm, who many view as the heir to C.J. Dodson’s ideas.
3. Combine written and oral exercises
The importance of attaining oral fluency is apparent in the central place dialogues play in this method. However, children should be given opportunities to refer to written texts in the target language while practicing these dialogues. They should then be given opportunities to role-play and improvise around the language structures covered.
Though the bilingual method has been much neglected in recent years, it’s clear that it has much to offer.
Since we’re thoughtful teachers, willing to self-reflect and reassess our teaching strategies, we should recognize that its value is worth a rethink.
Give the bilingual method of teaching a try in your classroom!
Oh, and One More Thing…
If you’re really digging these teaching strategies, then you’ve got to try FluentU.
It’s got a huge collection of authentic English videos that people in the English-speaking world actually watch on the regular. These are videos that your students already love watching, so they’ll be beyond excited to interact with them in the classroom.
On FluentU, all the videos are sorted by skill level and are carefully annotated for students. Words come with example sentences and definitions. Students will be able to add them to their own vocabulary lists, and even see how the words are used in other videos.
Worried that students might be stumped by some of the harder videos? No way. FluentU brings authentic content within reach by providing interactive captions and in-context definitions right on-screen. For example, if a student taps on the word “brought,” they’ll see this:
Plus, these great videos are all accompanied by interactive features and active learning tools for students, like multimedia flashcards and fun games like “fill in the blank.”
It’s perfect for in-class activities, group projects and solo homework assignments. Not to mention, it’s guaranteed to get your students excited about English!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to teach English with real-world videos.