Artwork by Fatema Boxwala
First Language in the Second Language Classroom: Mother Tongue Nurtures New Languages
by Rose Kulsum-Binder
To learn new concepts and topics is a true joy, but to teach them can sometimes be a challenge. The act of teaching therefore needs to draw on all possible tools and aids to accomplish its task. Mathematics education benefits from using counters and diagrams in order to be better visualized. Science teaching finds assistance in hands on activities and illustrations. From my years of teaching experience, I have observed that second language instruction often suffers, however, as it fails to make use of all the available resources surrounding it, specifically the ubiquitous first language. Known by a number of terms such as native or first language, this often overlooked component of every classroom is a crucial device in the language learning process. It is therefore evident that first language (L1) usage is instrumental in second language (L2) acquisition as a result of its developmental, functional, bilingual, and multicultural implications. This paper will consequently be examining the benefits of utilizing first language as a tool in the process of second language learning.
The development of first language serves an initial role in building students’ self-esteem and eventually a key role in the development of future languages. A student, especially a child, needs the backbone of an encouraging setting in order to excel in learning a new language and positive self-esteem is certainly a contributor to that. Dr. David Johnson, Kennesaw State University linguistics professor, explains in his book, How Myths about Language Affect Education: What Every Teacher Should Know (2008) that when a child acquires a comprehensive knowledge of L1 first it builds within him or her an initial sense of self-worth, prior to the acquisition of the second language. Furthermore, only once this first language knowledge is solidified can a student progress towards acquiring subsequent languages. As young learners are in the midst of this process, it is essential that they fully complete it first. Johnson notes that “[t]his allows the child to perform all sorts of complicated cognitive functions: exploring, interacting, naming, and listening” (2008, p.63). Consequently, these correctly developed first language skills will be functional in lending a hand in later language learning.
First language plays a functional role in aiding students in the completion of meaning and grammar related tasks as well as in the maintenance of a pleasant social environment in the classroom. It becomes a handy tool that can be wielded to fashion new language proficiency. The support of a commonly known language enables students to assist each other in the classroom setting, thereby increasing their learning opportunities and capabilities. Expert linguist and senior lecturer of ESL at the University of Melbourne, Dr. Neomy Storch, and her colleague Ali Aldosari have observed these functions in their study of Arab EFL students in the context of a Saudi classroom. They found that the use of first language helps students with the completion of meaning focused tasks in the second language, through discussions over new vocabulary as well as the requirements of the presented tasks (Storch & Aldosari, 2010). It also serves students in grammatical expression and accuracy tasks, as Storch and Aldosari explain that it allows them more flexibility and ease when deliberating on the meaning of a text or attempting its editing (2010). Additionally, the final function worth noting pertains to the students themselves as they point out “… that the L1 was also used as a social tool that reflected and maintained the relationship formed by the pairs …” (p. 372). The very fact that a student juggles two languages earns them the designation of a bilingual, which changes the nature of the learning process itself.
Bilingualism is a specific linguistic state which is often harmed by monolingual pedagogies which often stem from circumstance and incompetence. According to Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of London and renowned contributor to the field of communicative language teaching, Dr. Henry Widdowson, bilingualism is an attained state which is reached through the procedure of gaining an additional language to the one already possessed (2001). This situation clearly indicates some form of interaction between one language and the other, as their existence within the student’s realm of experience is simultaneous. Naturally, what would follow is the realization that there is a certain degree of connection linking both languages together. The pedagogy in this case must then be adjusted accordingly because as Widdowson mentions, “… the notion of a second language implies the existence of a first, and you cannot recognize what is foreign in a language without relating to another which is familiar …” (2001, p.12). Therefore, as he further notes, the reality of the second language takes on an additional dimension transforming it into a bilingual actuality, and the teaching logic does not follow correctly with the use of a monolingual pedagogy (Widdowson, 2001). This faulty methodology is often propagated as a result of rather banal factors. As Widdowson explains, many contexts of second language learning contain students with a diverse range of first languages, so it is the necessity of the circumstances as well as an obvious linguistic lack on the teachers’ part that propel this practice of monolingual teaching (2001). Educational establishments are often guided by practicality, which is not well served in such situations as a result of fund and teacher shortages. As changes occur in the learning environment, they produce a need for revisions to the teaching system.
Today’s worldwide multiculturalism requires a dynamic form of bilingualism which is beneficial and can be taught through translanguaging. This term is essentially similar to “bilingual languaging” and can be described as the “act performed by bilinguals, [which involves] accessing different linguistic features or various modes of what are described as autonomous languages, in order to maximize communicative potential” (Ofelia & Wei, 2014, p. 140). The current communication arena is far more complex than ever before, requiring a more inclusive form of bilingualism in the classroom. According to Dr. Ofelia Garcia, noted professor of languages at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and her colleagues Nelson Flores and Heather Woodley, the increased interaction between people of different backgrounds has relaxed the identity of linguistic exchanges into less regimented divisions. As a result, they explain that subtractive and additive bilingualism should make way for a dynamic version that better fits this new pluralistic situation (Garcia, Flores & Woodley, 2012). Taking the approach of removing L1 from the scenario or adding L2 as a separate component is not suited to the current needs of students today. They further point out that, “within … [this] conceptualization of bilingualism, bilinguals are valued for their differing multi-competence because their lives, minds and actions are different from those of monolinguals” (Garcia et al, 2012, p. 50). Garcia et al. continue in proposing that as a result of this linguistic multi layering and interdependence, bilingual education practices can be improved and optimized through the application of a translanguaging approach that uses both concerned languages in an interchangeable manner (2012). Translanguaging essentially makes use of both languages simultaneously, allowing for questions to be posed in one language while replies are offered in the other. This approach, however, is not agreed upon throughout the entire education community.
Some educators argue that only full immersion learning is effective as bilingual education is confusing for students, difficult and expensive to arrange and not favored by parents. According to Linda Chavez and Jorge Amselle of the Center for Equal Opportunity, there have been many cases noted by parents that bilingual education causes nothing but confusion in their children’s minds, and consequently leaves them with poorly developed languages skills on both fronts (1997). They justify their position further, by arguing the impracticality of this approach when they mention that“… implementing the program is … a problem” as “school districts must pay a premium to attract bilingual teachers …” (Chavez & Amselle, 1997, p. 102). They then present their final justification from the perspective of the parents, stating that the majority of them value a teaching methodology that focuses on each language separately, especially if L2 is more highly regarded than L1, thereby prioritizing it and minimizing L1’s interference (Chavez & Amselle, 1997). In response to the first argument, it has already been observed as far back as 1997 by Dr. James Flood of the San Diego State University, and his colleagues Diane Lapp, Josefina Tinajero and Sandra Hurley, that there is long standing evidence of many immigrant Americans establishing L1 schools for their children in order to provide them with a solid foundation before commencing L2 instruction (Flood, Lapp, Tinajero & Hurley, 1997). As far as the unfeasibility is considered, it is a valid point to some extent. However, it is a known fact that it always costs more to receive more, and in this case the added educational benefit that students would enjoy is a worthy necessity. Finally, it may well be that many parents place preference on this form of separationist pedagogy and they certainly may have the best intentions at heart, but they need to realize the fact that languages cannot be divided up in this artificial manner as they are an organic component of the human experience.
In conclusion, it is crucial that second language education be given serious and sincere consideration in terms of the role it takes on in the lived reality of a student’s life. We are after all, beings in a constant state of interaction and exchange. It is the natural way of things in our animated existence and evident in every aspect of our lives. Language is most certainly one such aspect and is as much alive as we are, therefore it should be taught with a considerable measure of fluidity as opposed to rigid artificiality. If we possess the tools of L1, we should in all earnest apply them to L2 learning for the ultimate benefit of student development. In my experience as an early childhood teacher at Wesgreen School in Sharjah, I have witnessed firsthand the fruitful results of an organic and dynamic application of L2 teaching, in the cognizant eyes of my students and that evidence has singlehandedly resolved this debate for me and forever closed the door of uncertainty on this subject.
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Storch, N., & Aldosari, A. (2010). Learners’ use of first language (Arabic) in pair work in an EFL class. Language Teaching Research, 14(4), 355-375. doi:10.1177/1362168810375362
Widdowson, H. (2001). The monolingual teaching and bilingual learning of English. In B. Spolsky et al. (Ed.), New perspectives and issues in educational language policy: A festschrift for Bernard Dov Spolsky. (pp. 7-17). [Ebrary version]. Retrieved from
Rose Kulsum-Binder is Polish student who has lived in the U.A.E with her family for over three decades. She is currently a Junior at AUS, studying for a Bachelor’s degree in English Language. She has worked in a number of fields throughout her life, from business to fitness, but when she finally ended up in education, she knew that she had found her calling. After having taught at the foundation level of Grade 1, Grade 2, and KG 2 for eight years, Rose decided to resign from work and pursue a formal qualification in this field. When she's not buried in my studies, Rose enjoys reading, being outdoors and cherishing time with her family and cats!