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Book review
Using the Mother Tongue cover
Using the
Mother Tongue
Making the most of the learner's language
by Sheelagh Deller
& Mario Rinvolucri

(Delta Publishing/English Teaching Professional, 2002)

Review written by Thomas Simon

A book on 'Using the Mother tongue'! But haven't we always been told that we should try to get meaning across in English & only in English, that we would create bad habits if we started using it & anyway, contrasting English & another language as a way to teach English has been discredited. This is all a bit unnerving - I feel a paradigm shift coming on. I need to go away & cut something up!

So what do the authors say about it:

Hans Anderson has a story in which an emperor is tricked by some tailors into solemnly walking through the capital with no clothes on. Because of his status, the townspeople persuade themselves to think he is wearing sumptuous robes. One child, however, shouts out:


This book shouts out:


Orthodox thinking over the past forty years in the US, UK and Europe has been that the use of mother tongue should be excluded from the foreign language classroom.

Our contention is, on the contrary, that mother tongue (MT), is indeed the mother of the second, third and fourth languages. It is from this womb that the new languages are born in the student's mind, so to exclude MT from the English classroom is like trying to wean a baby on day one of their life.

What we propose is that teachers use the students' mother tongue in clearly-defined circumstances and in the carefully crafted activities that make up the main body of this book.

The overriding aim of the book is that your students should willingly come to reduce their dependence on MT. Paradoxically, this will come about earlier in their learning process than would be the case if MT were all 'banned' from the classroom.

The judicious use of MT in the classroom benefits everyone.

A book about using the MT in class is long overdue. Ideas have been creeping in through other teacher ideas books & it is time to recognise that MT use is a natural tool for language learners. To the frustration of the learners, we've been pushing MT use in the classroom under the whiteboard for far too long & it is time for it to be recognised.

So, having agreed with the premise behind the book ...

There are two main sections; Part A: Classroom Management & Part B: Living Language. Each is sub-divided.

The Classroom Management section divides the 16 activities into four sections - Advocating & avoiding mother tongue, Starting new groups & Getting on-going feedback. These sections look at 'ways that MT can be used to create a safe & cooperative working environment'.

The Living Language section contains a massive 99 activities spread among the following sections; Grammar, Vocabulary, Skills - input, Skills - output & Using translation.

Each activity comes with a key at the beginning that gives information about the level of MT knowledge needed by the teacher, whether it is for a monolingual or multilingual class, the level of the students & the aims of the activity. The procedures are clearly numbered. On a cosmetic level, I'm not too keen on the general layout & cover - the same in the series of 'Professional Perspectives' books - it tends to look slightly dated, maybe the result of the cost-conscious small publisher in an expensive market dominated by few.

The activities are wide-ranging; from awareness of MT use to learner training , to language & to skills development. They are imaginative, well thought out & clearly they are tried & tested. A few that caught my eye:

'Mother tongue alarm bells' provides techniques to put MT in a specific space in the class. When the students want to use the MT, they have to abide by certain classroom rules; to stand somewhere, to hold something, to preface what they say with something - in order to then use the MT.

Some of the activities link to ingrained MT expressions & bring them to life in English. The activity ' How do your parents sound in English?' asks students to translate those well-worn expressions that your parents used to say such as 'Greens are good for you' & 'Tuck yourself in'.

The Grammar section offers contrastive activities such as the 'Student-generated multiple choice' activity which gives 'as' & 'like' as an example. The students are asked to write four translations, three acceptable & one incorrect, for a series of sentences. They then exchange & do each others multiple choice tasks. The Vocabulary section also contrasts MT & English with collocations & specific words & lexical sets.

In the excerpt above the authors say that the MT should be used with 'clearly-defined circumstances and in the carefully crafted activities'. True enough. There is a tendency for teachers starting out to use the mother tongue as they do not know of any other ways to do the same thing. It is also seen as an easy way out, which more often than not can be an inaccurate way, & teachers can fall into the trap of using the MT more than is healthy for both the students & the teacher.

A principled approach to MT use in the classroom is needed & this is where initial training courses can help out. Traditionally we have told trainees that they need to develop essential teaching skills & wait a while until their teaching & awareness has developed to a degree that they are able to use the mother tongue in a principled way. Slightly patronising you might say but there is some truth to it. If training courses had a session on MT use & showed which activities from this book could work for them, & what to be wary of, then trainees would be even more equipped to really deal with their students' needs & wants. Needless to say, for the more experienced teacher there is more than enough to dive into. A solid buy that provides a host of interesting & relevant activities.

Another taboo hits the dust. Right, what's next?

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