Wolfgang Butzkamm

Monolingual Principle

(In: Michael Byram [Hrsg.]: Routledge Encyclopedia of Language Teaching and Learning. London and New York: Routledge,415-417.)

The monolingual principle espouses the exclusion of the native language (or other, previously acquired languages) from the classroom, the target language being both the object and the sole medium of teaching. In particular, it prescribes the strict avoidance of the mother tongue for meaning conveyance and, less often, for explanation of grammatical rules. The use of translation and interpreting as valuable skills in their own right is generally considered to be a separate issue. This article focuses on the acquisition of meaning.

Language is concerned with the communication of meanings, and it is meaning-conveyance which first comes to mind in any consideration of language teaching. When we hear an unfamiliar utterance, our first reaction is to know what it means, and the most natural way to satisfy this desire would be through a mother tongue version, unless, of course, we had already made much progress in the foreign language. Up to the second half of the nineteenth century, the mother tongue was generally seen as the most obvious and direct means for the transmission of meanings. It was an undisputed resource, and bilingual techniques for demonstrating meaning are usually identified as the oldest language teaching techniques. They include interlinear versions, translations in parallel columns, individual word glosses, and, later, bilingual dictionaries. Modern bilingual phrase-books for tourists and travellers may be added to the list.

On the other hand, it has always been understood that quite apart from any consideration of how the meaning of new material is to be established, ample provision must be made for practice and communication without intrusion of the mother tongue. The monolingual principle emphasises a general law of learning: We learn what we practice. So we should practice the precise function to be developed. If we do not practice conversing in the foreign language without native language support, we will never learn to do this. The monastery schools, while using translation in the classroom, stipulated that only Latin be used outside the classroom, and boys caught using the vernacular were punished.

Foreign language teachers have long been fascinated by the apparent ease with which children learn their mother tongue. Since there is no other language for them to fall back on, foreign languages should also be taught without recourse to another language. This point was forcefully made by the proponents of the *direct method in the late nineteenth century. ‘Direct’ meant direct association between concepts and the new language, without interposition of the mother tongue. Even today in the teaching guidelines issued by education authorities of many countries, there is a clear taboo against using the mother tongue - evidently an echo of the *reform movement more than a hundred years ago.

However, it was soon pointed out by some of the reformers themselves (including, somewhat later, *Palmer) that a distinction should be made between a quick, initial grasp of meaning and the subsequent acquisition of fluency in using the new language items, the latter requiring considerable time and effort. Among the terms used to characterise the distinction were Verstehen vs. Aneignung, interpretation vs. assimilation, identification vs. fusion, recognition vs. integration (Butzkamm 1973 / 1978). ‘This important distinction was forgotten when the pendulum swung in the 1960s to audio-visual methods...Insecure teachers, anxious to be in the fashion, were to be seen going through every kind of contortion...trying to get precise meanings across to their class without letting slip a word of English.’ (Hawkins 1981: 133).


A serious flaw in the direct method argument is that it uses first language acquisition as a point of reference. If it is true that language teaching should model itself as far as possible on learning in the nursery, then it should be the bilingual nursery which provides that model. This was self-evident to the great Czech reformer *Comenius. When he discussed foreign language teaching, he referred to the development of natural bilinguals, not only to infants learning their mother tongue. Modern studies in the bilingual upbringing of children all point to the fact that developing bilinguals use their dominant language as a point of reference through which they successfully extend their linguistic competence in the weaker language. This natural strategy unfolds in several ways. Bilinguals ask for the equivalent expression in the language which is not being used for communication at the time. They request translations from their interlocutor, to extricate themselves from a vocabulary problem or sometimes simply to satisfy their curiosity. They create clarity of meaning and order their linguistic worlds by contrasting equivalent expressions (Saunders 1988).

Moreover, research has shown that good language learners cannot help but see the new in terms of the familiar. The new language must be firmly linked to the universe of things and events which learners have, for the most part, already experienced through the mother tongue. Their task is to establish new links and draw on their total language experience, not cut old links off. Successful learners capitalise on the vast amount of both linguistic skills and world knowledge they have already accumulated via the mother tongue. For the most part, they need not reconceptualise their world in the new language. ‘Thousands of concepts, both simple (sweet / sour) and complex (true / untrue) already learned must be carried over into the new language, with any necessary cultural adjustment or refinement. At later stages of learning (assimilating, emancipating what has been presented) the mother tongue is rightly avoided...’ (Hawkins 1981: 175). It is hard to imagine how someone could comprehend the French anniversaire without making the connection- overtly or covertly - with birthday. Only students from cultures which do not celebrate the regular returns of one’s birthday would need additional explanations, and might even have to be taught the modern concept of the calendar. But most children today will have acquired a working concept of chronology in their mother tongue and be fully equipped to deal with such problems.

Foreign language explanations, demonstrations, actions, pictures and realia can enliven teaching, but can clarify meanings satisfactorily only if teaching texts are carefully graded and selected. The danger of a content vacuum especially in beginners’ classes is obvious (Mitchell et al. 1981: 66). Moreover, experiments have shown that the mother tongue generally is by far the quickest, safest, and most precise means of getting the meaning across (Dodson 1967 / 1972). Sometimes, a combination of idiomatic and literal translation can be highly effective, as it clarifies both what is meant and how it is said:


Why have you marked this word wrong?

Warum hast du dieses Wort angestrichen (clarifies the meaning)

Warum hast du dieses Wort falsch markiert? (renders the structure transparent)


This technique provides immediate access to a complete meaning. From the start, learners have a total survey and feel assured that they understand what they hear and know what they are talking about - and this may do much to maintain their confidence and self-esteem. They are now in a better position to practice the phrase (and its variations) and to try it out in personal communications.

From the second half of the nineteenth century to this day, the issue of the use of the mother tongue has been a veritable battle ground. The mother tongue has mostly been portrayed as a hindrance, not as a help. Conventional wisdom has only managed to achieve a weak compromise: Use the mother tongue as little as possible, usually as a last resort only. Translation is allowed when no easy alternative suggests itself. Instead, we have to re-define the functions of the native language as a major resource in foreign language learning and teaching.

These considerations apart, the monolingual principle underlines the necessity of establishing the foreign language as the language of interaction for all classroom routines and activities. Teachers should not restrict the foreign language to the coursebook, but should also include informal social interactions with students as early and as far as possible. Teachers should be consistent in their use of the foreign language and should equip their students with the verbal means of reciprocating in the target language and of participating in classroom management. They should be able to anticipate their students' comprehension difficulties and employ a wide range of simplification techniques to forestall them. A positive foreign-language working atmosphere must be sustained throughout.

Thus, the monolingual principle is best understood as a warning against the persistent temptation for pupils and (tired) teachers alike to fall back on their first language. And, admittedly, avoidance of indiscriminate use of the native language is a top priority. But a deliberate and well-calculated use of the mother tongue as a support is, in the final analysis, teaching from strength, not from weakness. Paradoxically, learners are best weaned from dependence on their first language not by the teacher ignoring it, but using it. The native language, along with the concepts acquired through and in it, is the greatest resource a child brings to school.


(See also bilingual method, direct method, translation, reform movement)



Butzkamm, W. (1973/1978) Aufgeklärte Einsprachigkeit. Zur Entdogmatisierung der Methode im Fremdsprachenunterricht. Heidelberg: Quelle & Meyer.

Dodson, C.J. (1967/1972) Language Teaching and the Bilingual Method, London: Pitman.

Hawkins, E. W. (1981) Modern Languages in the Curriculum, Cambridge u.s.: Cambridge University Press.

Mitchell, R., Parkinson, B., and Johnstone, R. (1981) The foreign language classroom: An observational study. Stirling Educational Monographs No. 9.

Saunders, G. (1995) Bilingual Children: From Birth to Teens. Multilingual Matters (2 nd ed.). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters Ltd.


Further Reading

Allen, W.S. (1948/49) ‘In Defence of the Use of the Vernacular and Translating in Class’. ELT Journal 3: 33-39.

Butzkamm, W. (1998) ‘Code-Switching in a Bilingual History Lesson: The Mother Tongue as a Conversational Lubricant’. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism Vol. 1: 2 , 1998: 81-99.

Duff, A. (1989) Translation. Oxford: OUP.

Green, J.F. (1969) ‘The Use of the Mother Tongue and the Teaching of Translation’. ELT Journal XXIV: 217-223