How I changed my mind and started using the mother
tongue in the foreign language classroom
An autobiographical essay in honour of C. J. Dodson
C.J. Dodson, em. Prof. of Education, University of Wales, Aberystwyth, at 75
Intellektuelle Erkenntnisse sind Papier. Vertrauen hat immer nur der, der von Erfahrung redet. (H. Hesse)
At a grammar school: the compromise method
I was trained as a grammar school teacher to use a modified version of the direct method. Each textbook chapter began with a text containing the new grammatical structures and the new words to be practised in that unit. The text was to be presented orally with books closed, and explained, as far as possible, in the target language alone. Use of German was to be the exception to the rule, and kept to an absolute minimum. Today, 30 years later, this continues to be the standard procedure, and is still rarely questioned.
This standard procedure had its critical moments. The trainee teacher was judged on his ingenuity in bypassing the MT. Could he draw stick figures, rapid sketches, or graphs such as family trees? Could he build up a blackboard drawing that slowly took shape under the eyes of attentive pupils? Or did he resort to prepare it in advance, during the break - something he would never do again after passing his exams? Was he skilled in using glove or finger puppets? Did he bring realia to the classroom or use visual aids (there were as yet few pictures in the textbooks)? Was his English flexible enough to paraphrase words, find suitable explanatory contexts for individual words, give examples and easy definitions? Above all, could he demonstrate actions, communicate an experience or emotion by acting it, using gestures, mimes and facial expressions, and did he have enough imagination to dramatize bits of the story?
Well, I enjoyed my work back then, did as I had been instructed in my trainee period, and considered myself to be reasonably successful. I particularly remember a lesson where, in the course of my presentation of a new text with books closed (Texteinführung), I covered the whole blackboard with a drawing of a soap-box race, from the start on a hillside to the finishing post with the winning soap box being cheered by a group of spectators. All the objects, items, persons were carefully labelled. I assiduously made sure that the class repeated each new word several times before I added it to my drawing. Standard presentation techniques included choral repetition of individual words before they appeared on the blackboard, and I usually finished off by getting individual pupils to read bits from the text out loud. Everybody was eager to get a chance to read, but there was never enough time for everybody to have a go because my presentation- cum-explanations took the lion's share of the lesson time. I may have occasionally used the mother tongue, to get to the point more quickly, in a practical, commonsensical sort of way, but I always considered this to be merely a last resort. I never thought of the mother tongue as a potentially positive resource because I was still in the thrall of direct method orthodoxy.
At a comprehensive school: experiments with the audio-visual and the bilingual method
After several years, I changed schools and helped set up a comprehensive school – one of the first of a number of pilot comprehensives in my country. It was not, however, truly comprehensive, in the sense of having an intake of students across the whole ability range, because there was a well-functioning grammar school in the neighbourhood which continued to skim off the cream. So it was more like a very big secondary modern school (Hauptschule).
We started out with 14 fifth grades, and I had four English beginners' classes with 5-6 periods a week. We tried out conventional textbooks as well as some of the first audio-visual textbooks of that time such as Look, Listen and Learn (L. G. Alexander) and Passport to English (Paris: Marcel Didier). The audio-visual method was the latest thing at the time. Its advocates claimed that they would put the reforms initiated at the turn of the century properly into practice and develop pupils' oral skills. The methodological compromises of the past were now considered outdated. At long last, the necessary media had been made available to do justice to the direct principle, namely to teach strictly without recourse to the mother tongue, and, initially, without recourse to the printed text, either. That was then the sole officially approved method. The mother tongue was nothing but a mischievous devil out to set traps for pupils. The new audio-visual approach would lead to the ultimate realisation of the Great Reform envisaged at the turn of the century when our profession began to rebel against the grammar-translation method.
Dialogues became the favourite type of language teaching text. They were shorter than traditional texts, and the teacher was expected to present the texts from the tape. In some cases, the first few texts were omitted in the pupils' book to prevent teachers from misusing the method and introducing the written word too early. In addition, pictures available in the books as well as on slides were provided with the primary function of helping to clarify the meaning of new words. Often, the teachers' books contained hints for every new word to help the teacher convey the meaning without having to resort to the mother tongue.
In two respects this approach marked a clear step forward. Firstly, it was a great advantage to have native-speaker versions of the dialogues available. Teachers learned to pay more attention to pronunciation features such as intonation, co-articulation and linking, and were encouraged to give greater priority to the training of aural skills. Excellent techniques for pronunciation training were developed.
Secondly, if the dialogues were lively and short enough, as in Look, Listen and Learn, it was great fun to act them out in groups in front of the class. Thus role play became a much more accepted and more widely used technique than in previous approaches.
Rising from dogmatic slumbers
In another respect, the very radicalism of the new approach helped clarify matters on a purely theoretical basis. It was easier to take a critical stance towards the clear, uncompromising dicta of the audio-visualists than towards the wishy-washy formulations of their predecessors. The more radically a thesis is formulated, the more easily and clearly a counterthesis can be put forward. It so happened that, at that time, I came across C. J. Dodson's Language Teaching and the Bilingual Method (London: Pitman 1967). I immediately started putting his ideas to the test. I was in a favourable position to do this, having four parallel classes, so that what I tried with one class, I could try again in another, and then go on to do it differently a third or a fourth time. In addition, the general climate in those days was all for experiment and research. English teachers in the newly founded comprehensive schools were a group of enthusiastic young people working together as a team, discussing textbooks, methods and results, and writing informal tests to be used in all classes. (It was at that time, too, that some teachers began to allow students to call them by their first names.)
Dodson's two heresies: the printed word; the mother tongue
I didn't take long to find out that Dodson's techniques worked better than those propounded by the audio-visualists. Dodson preached two heresies: the usefulness, from the very beginning, of L1; and the usefulness of the printed word. It became evident to me that, if I used the printed text from the very beginning, albeit in a special way where the spoken sentence was still the primary stimulus for the learners, it was easier for the children to imitate the sentences. There were fewer omissions of words, and I needed to model the sentences less frequently when the printed word was available. At the same time, there was no distortion of speech that could be traced to the influence of the printed word, apart from a few instances of typical interference errors which could be dealt with immediately.
I observed similar positive effects when I used mother-tongue equivalents at sentence level to convey the meanings of unknown words or structures. In this way, I reached the ”fun phase” more quickly, i.e. the stage where I could safely ask the children to act out the dialogue in groups. And the lesson time saved by this approach ensured more active practice time for the learners.
I was surprised. Wasn't it paradoxical that the printed word should support the oral acquisition of the dialogue sentences instead of interfering with it, as had repeatedly been claimed? Dodson's ideas afforded an entirely new view of the printed word as a help rather than a hindrance. Also, previously, I had pitied those teachers who could not handle the direct method as well as I thought I could. They did not seem to have the necessary fluency and flexibility to give a vivid presentation supported by mimes, gestures, actions, realia and drawings while keeping up a steady flow of language. I remained critical of teachers who could not handle these situations without leaping into the mother tongue, but I, too, now started using the mother tongue as a short-cut, in judicious, well-defined ways.
No revival of grammar-translation
The discrepancy between what was conventional practice on the one hand and Dodson's experimental findings and methodological suggestions on the other hand disturbed my peace of mind. I looked into the theoretical foundations of the issues involved, and discovered how insubstantial they were, how much had been claimed for the traditional method and how little investigated empirically, let alone proved. Much of the ”proof” was supplied by fervent ideologues masquerading as neutral experts. Dodson, however, did provide hard data. I also explored the history of foreign language teaching and found interesting bilingual techniques and ideas that had been forgotten, although they had nothing to do with old-fashioned grammar translation techniques. I was fascinated. This was my ”eureka” experience, which inverted my customary approach to teaching. My reading grew into systematic research, and my interest in research opened the door for me to a second career as a university teacher.
The Reformers had rebelled against grammar-translation. But they had thrown the baby out with the bathwater. For them, the mother tongue was nothing but a source of interference. This is utterly absurd. And the fact that this opinion continues to be widely held in no way detracts from its fundamental absurdity.
You simply cannot ignore the mother tongue. That would be like cutting yourself off from your own thought processes. If you did not make the connection between, let's say, the new word ”anniversaire” and the familiar word ”birthday”, you would simply not understand. But once you have made the connection to ”birthday” and all that this word has meant to you, the mother-tongue word itself need not be re-activated whenever you use ”anniversaire”. It can drop away, because the French word has now acquired the power to refer to all those past experiences originally linked to ”birthday”. It can even be associated with new, typical experiences that are not covered by ”birthday”. Under the influence of a new language, we add new concepts and revise old ones, in much the same way as we constantly do in our own native language. We certainly do not have to re-conceptualise our world view and disassociate the new from the old.
To sum up:
The first language is a scaffold on which to build the second. Even if teachers deliberately ignore it, their students won't. It is much wiser to exploit the mother tongue through well-devised and sophisticated techniques than to avoid it. This is neither a return to the grammar-translation approach, nor a compromise method where use of the mother tongue is only a stop-gap strategy.
These techniques maximise positive transfer from the mother tongue at all levels of language while at the same time reducing its potential for interference. There are research data (apart from Dodson's own data) to support my claim.
More meaningful and completely comprehended input
Thanks to the improvements suggested by Dodson, my teaching became so much more meaningful and message-oriented. (Dodson and I coined the distinction between message-oriented and medium-oriented communication; in German: sprachbezogene und mitteilungsbezogene Kommunikation). I could now build on the natural intuitions of the learners instead of thwarting them, and progress was so much more rapid. My pupils were highly motivated, not only because I had rendered learning easier for them, but also because the texts I now used were much more meaningful. In an all-English, mother tongue free approach, textbook authors up to the present day have had to grade their texts carefully to ensure that new words and structures can be explained without recourse to the mother tongue. I was almost free of such constraints. I could use ”difficult” words or past tense forms before the past tense had been systematically introduced. I could use authentic texts almost right from the beginning, connecting language to life outside the classroom, building a bridge between Germany and anglophone countries. With such quality and diversity of texts to choose from, I did not have to continue serving up second-rate reality, i.e. contrived texts written solely for language teaching purposes. I could use texts which were cognitively more demanding and which thus captured the students' interests. The students heard and read greater amounts of new language in interesting texts.
Thirty years later: still a rebel with a cause
Ever since those comprehensive school days when C. J. Dodson's book first fell into my hands, I have been a rebel in the field of foreign language teaching, but a rebel with a cause, and that cause is meaningful communication.
In the meantime, mainstream thinking has now moved away from the old dogmatic direct method approach to a point where teachers who occasionally use L1 in class need no longer feel that they ought to have a bad conscience. Does this mean that I have been flogging a dead horse all these years?
I don't think so. Dodson's techniques are quite different from what is generally understood by judicious use of the mother tongue, or by sensible compromise. Also, the monolingual, all-English idea is still widespread in many countries and certain academic circles. Unfortunately, but typically, objections have come from some of the best teachers in the country. Because they are so skillful at getting new meanings across to their pupils (with a lot of support from modern textbooks and media), they simply cannot imagine they might be making a mistake somewhere along the line. This makes it especially difficult to win over highly efficient and competent teachers - teachers who would have to give up something. Ironically, they would be even more successful if they made systematic use of the mother tongue at specific points in the teaching process.
After thirty years of keeping a watchful eye on all the literature and the research pertaining to the role of L1 in the context of foreign language teaching, I increasingly get the feeling that I have read it all before. I am still struck by the truth revealed to me by C. J. Dodson, who later became a good friend. I am as convinced as ever that Dodson was right. His findings were confirmed in a Dutch study by Meijer (Meijer, T.: De globaal-bilinguale en de visualiserende procedure voor de betekenisoverdracht. Een vergelijkend methodologisch oderzoek op het gebiet van het aanvangsonderwijs frans. Academisch Proefschrift. Amsterdam: Vrije Universiteit te Amsterdam 1974).
Why are teachers so slow to change?
Many have stopped progressing and have given up trying to improve. Improvement can only begin when we question what we already believe and practise; it means challenging the validity of what we were previously taught and what we still hold dear. There is a natural inclination to keep things the way there are; to stick to the beaten track. Perhaps I was only able to give Dodson's ideas a try because, at the time, I had only had five years of full-time teaching experience and was still quite young. I had not yet become too old a dog to learn new tricks.
The danger in accepting any approach as a dogma is that it will constrain you to use only a fixed set of techniques - and you will never know whether other techniques work even better.
Changing means putting your own self aside, giving up, albeit temporarily, the conviction of knowing best in order to make room for the assimilation of new ideas. It is the only way towards self-development and real growth. It means welcoming strangeness and novelty. This implies effort. It is not an easy or comfortable path.
A new orthodoxy?
It is not my intention to establish a new dogma. All I am pleading for is responsible experimentation, competition and comparison of methods, for there is little doubt in my mind that we need to rethink conventional practices.
I do not mean to throw out a single monolingual technique, simple or sophisticated. Dodson's bilingual techniques are clearly intended to enrich existing methodologies, and not to improverish them: accumulation of proven techniques, not their replacement.
I will not feel that my work has been accomplished until a substantial number of foreign language teachers are willing and able to use bilingual techniques effectively for the benefit of their pupils. Few things can provide more lasting pleasure than to see one's ideas put into practice elegantly and effectively for the benefit of all.
So I will go on trying to influence the, course of events – through demonstration, discussion and publications. We all need others with whom we can share our understanding of the world, and I hope that a lot more can be achieved within my lifetime.