L1 in the English Class: A survey of Government Primary Schools of Delhi

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According to the NCF (National Curricular Framework) ‘Most children arrive in school with full-blown linguistic systems’ which means that they have learnt not only the basic systems of their language but also achieved a fair amount of communicative competence through appropriate use of language. A three–year–old can engage in a meaningful conversation in his or her mother tongue in a way that is appropriate according to the social milieu and culture in which he or she lives. She is well aware of the social formulae and knows how to use them in a specific socio-cultural contexts. This can be attributed to the innate language  learning capacity that Chomsky propounded. This acquisition of language includes an appropriate use of word order and the rules that govern the child’s own language. This implies that the child can observe, generalize, experiment with language in specific contexts using logic and understanding that is inborn in every normal child.

NCF further says, ‘Given adequate exposure, children will acquire new languages with ease; the focus in teaching should be more on content than grammar.’ This would mean that meaning takes precedence over form. If this is the normal entry behaviour of children at class I in school, why is there so much apprehension about their learning a second language (L2)? During my long association with teachers of English who address young learners, I have found that they are a worried lot.



In the training sessions they have been told that English must be taught directly, a method that precluded any use of the mother tongue in the class. The preferred methods of conveying new language and exercising different skills were the use of charts, pictures, gestures, situations, simulations, demonstration, modelling and an intense exposure to the target language. Cumbersome and time-consuming! But the ground reality is: here were children coming from deprived homes, unsure of the new environment they had been tossed into, where the teacher talked an alien tongue and it took long to understand what the sounds of the new language meant. As a result, the teacher took recourse to translating every word in the text, using only the mother tongue during classroom conversation and, being unsure of how much language the children  had actually learnt, insisted on drills and rote.

The trend is now changing and the ‘utility and use of L1 in the classroom’ (Costas Gabrielatos, 1998) is being recognized by all those who have anything to do with language learning. To quote Prodromou ‘Until recently the mother tongue in the EFL classroom has been a skeleton in the cupboard…The skeleton has been there all the time, we just haven’t wanted to talk about it.’ (Prodromou, 2000). It is being increasingly felt that young learners can learn only when they can relate it to what they already know. Though translation has been taboo in the ELT classroom, children have been doing it constantly in an effort to make sense of the new sounds and lexicon that they encountered within and without the class. They have been making associations and much of it has to do with seeking similarities in form and meaning in their own mother tongue. They have been contrasting the two languages in an implicit manner and been using a kind of ‘interlanguage” (Selinker, 1972).

Thus the debate on whether or not to use the mother tongue in the classroom is an open one and teachers increasingly feel that though they need to ‘use as much English in the classroom as possible there are times when the use of English’ to the exclusion of mother tongue ‘is counter-productive.’ (Young Learners, OUP). Since ‘learners tend to rely on their existing language knowledge’ we could use L1 as a resource to learning L2.

In the section Reinstating the mother tongue, in his paper ‘From mother tongue to other tongue’ Luke Prodromou has referred to Atkinson’s ‘careful, limited use of L1’ (Atkinson, 1993) and has suggested where mother tongue may be used as in the ‘procedural stages of a class, for example:

  • setting up pairs and group work
  • sorting out an activity which is clearly not working
  • checking comprehension
  • Beyond these basically managerial functions of L1, Atkinson also suggests ‘using the L1 for translation as a teaching technique.’

    Prodromou’s research revealed that ‘the overall rationale for this procedural use of L1 is that it is necessary to keep the lesson from slowing down or because things just can’t be done any other way.’

    Thus inspired by this research by Prodromou in Greece, a research was carried out amongst the primary teachers of our government schools and the questionnaire used by him was adapted for the purpose. The primary purpose of using Prodromou’s questionnaire was to initiate a discussion on the use of mother tongue in the language classroom. The discussion and the teachers’ responses were enlightening and the need to document it was felt. Hence this paper!

    These teachers were the participants of different in-service programmes which allowed the fora to discuss the issue as well. The teachers, 72 in number, largely belonged to the MC Primary Schools and Sarvodaya Vidyalayas of the Department of Education, Government of NCT, Delhi. One thing was evident during the discussion that the younger teachers who have undergone training recently and have learnt about scaffolding were in favour of the use of mother tongue and the teachers who had earlier been subjected to the ‘no mother tongue syndrome’ a decade or so earlier, held that only English must be used.

    Delhi is a melting pot and there are children who bring with them a variety of mother tongues, which means, any one language cannot be termed as the mother tongue of the target group. So in response to the question, ‘Should the teacher know the student’s mother tongue?’ 33.3% strongly recommended it, 56.9% felt it would be useful if it happened, and only about 9.7% disagreed with the need of the teacher knowing the child’s mother tongue. Their argument was that one need not use the children’s mother tongue in the class and hence there is no need to know it. Some argued that though the children spoke different languages at home they were united by Hindi, which all need to know to survive in the metropolis of Delhi. Hindi could thus be ‘termed’ as L1. Further, as 11.1% strongly recommended teacher’s use of L1 in the class, a large percentage (63.8%) felt that the use of L1 in the class was required for giving instructions, providing equivalents to the new vocabulary and for classroom language. They said that this would provide the much needed comfort and security to the young child.

    A very large number of teachers (83.3%) agreed that the young learners should be allowed to use their mother tongue in the class. The purposes listed by them were: in order to give the answers to questions based on the text to indicate that they have understood, giving meanings of new words to show comprehension and most significantly to talk about themselves, their lives and their feelings which they can express best in their mother tongue.

    With regard to the use of L1 by the teacher in the classroom for the purpose of explaining new words, there was a majority of teachers in agreement but strangely about 26% did not wish it to be used for explaining grammar. They felt grammar should be taught in English, and during the course of the discussion it was revealed that they taught grammar inductively. This made it obvious that there were no discussions on rule-discovery in their classes.

    A very large number of teachers (76%) felt that a comparison or contrast between the rules of L1 and L2 done in mother tongue would help the learners to understand and internalize the rules adequately. Regarding the use of mother tongue for giving instructions, there were many who agreed (67%), but there were about 30% who felt that learners must get used to instructions in English. If needed, the teachers could repeat, demonstrate, use gestures to aid comprehension instead of using mother tongue, they felt. They felt that classroom language and instructions are actual communicative activities happening in the classroom and hence their potential should be fully exploited by using L2 and scaffolding if required.

    When asked if students should be allowed to use mother tongue while talking in pairs or groups the teachers were divided. One group (53.2%) felt that if they could talk in mother tongue and get ahead with the task there was no harm in using it while doing collaborative activities. The second group (44.4%) felt that the purpose of organizing group and pair activities was to practise formulaic language for communicative purposes in addition to seeking the correct answers to questions and hence it would be better for the teacher to model the likely sentences for them and write them on the board for reference. This way the learners would learn to practise the target language for communicative purposes in the comfort of the small peer groups.

    The question of allowing young learners to use L1 in order to seek new language for concepts and vocabulary elicited a positive response from them. The teachers felt that often children tend to remain quiet even when assailed with doubt or curiosity for fear of using the target language incorrectly in their queries. They felt that an open environment allowing them to ask their questions in Hindi would encourage them to seek and learn the new language better. There were only a few voices of dissent who felt that the teacher should insist on the learners making their queries in English only.

    The teachers were almost unanimous in their opinion that children must be allowed to use the mother tongue to indicate that they have understood the word or the text in English. They said that this would make them feel comfortable with the language and be encouraged to move ahead which would mean using English in their responses as well.

    Regarding checking on listening and reading comprehension, a large percentage (75%) felt that Hindi or L1 can be used. The ones who disagreed said that instead of encouraging the use of L1 one could allow the use of single words or ask questions requiring only a word or two as responses to encourage the use of English in the class during feedback sessions.

    About 80% agreed that L1 can be used to discuss the methods the teacher used in the class or what procedure they followed to get to the answer or the meaning. They felt that for such discussions requiring meta-language and meta-cognition, the children may not have adequate vocabulary and hence would lose interest. It is important to develop their skills of cognition and observation, and for this the best would be to use L1.

    The concluding general discussion focused on the use of L1 for making learners comfortable, as a starting point, as an aid to comprehension, as a tool for thinking, comparing and contrasting. It was unanimously agreed that as the children became more confident, the teacher should slowly progress from partly L1 class to a totally L2 class where the children are given a greater exposure to L2 and are provided scaffolding that uses methods not requiring L1. The last remark was profound: ‘It is for every teacher to know his or her situation and use L1 judiciously at that moment in the class.’

    * Shefali Ray, ELT Trainer and Writer, 425, Hawa Singh Block, Asiad Village, New Delhi-110049


    • Prodromou, L. From Mother Tongue to Other Tongue, British Council, Greece

    • Atkinson, D. 1987. ‘The mother-Tongue in the Classroom: a Neglected Resource ?’ (ELT Journal, 44/1: 3-10)

    • English and the Mother Tongue, Cambridge University Press

    • Garielatos, C. ‘L1 Use in ELT: Not a Skeleton, but a Bone of Contention, A response to Prodromou

    • Cameroon, L. Teaching English to Young Learners, Cambridge University Press

    • National Curricular Framework, NCERT, 2005

    • English and the Mother Tongue, Internet, Cambridge University Press

    • Bawcom, L. Over-using L1 in the classroom? Modern English Teacher, 2002, ELT Forum, Internet

    • Young Learners, Oxford University Press

    * Shefali Ray is an ELT consultant and has been associated with the British Council (ELTeCS), CBSE, NCERT, IGNOU and National Institute for Open Schooling and SCERT, New Delhi.

    * Article first published in FORTELL newsletter, September 2007.

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