Is that English you are speaking? Towards a more L1-supported English language learning

2017 edition

Nune Ayvazyan

English is undoubtedly the lingua franca of the moment, but what kind of English should we learn?


Often, the accent is put on learning “perfect” English instead of learning to communicate. It is often believed that English has to be native-like to be good. This also perpetuates the belief that language is better learned with no interference from the learner’s mother tongue. The fact is, however, that a language is rarely learned without resorting to different communication techniques, like body language, intercomprehension or translation. In fact, studies show that reliance on one’s mental translation and mother tongue are important foreign-language learning techniques. So, the paradox is, if mother tongue can be important to learn a foreign language, why are we told not to use it in classrooms? The answer is that English is still a big business that manages around 18 billion euros per year (Grin 2005: 7), and that alone is a good reason to try to maintain its status as a hegemonic language. However, “[t]he concept of English as a lingua franca “dethrones” the native speaker and defines the goal of English learning as the ability to communicate successfully with other non-native speakers.” (European Commission and Directorate-General for Translation 2011: 28).


Nowadays multilingualism is one of the main concerns in Europe, expressed for example through the “Mother tongue plus two” objective of the European Commission that supports linguistic diversity. If efforts are made to support multilingualism, why do we still feel the pressure to speak perfect English with no interference from our mother tongue?


In my study, I have found that students (especially low- and intermediate-proficiency ones) who are permitted to speak their mother tongue in an English class are able to ask more complex questions about their own learning process, which can accelerate their progress English. Therefore, in my research I defend the role of the mother tongue when learning English as a foreign language.