(M)other tongue

When I started teaching English back in 1981, a friend put a book in my hand and told me to study the teacher’s notes before each lesson and to do exactly what they said. And don’t use Spanish, she insisted. Only English.

Her advice kept me alive for the first few months, and since I barely spoke Spanish, it wasn’t hard to follow. Also ‘English only’ was the name of the game back then. Behaviourism still ruled and the only thing the other tongue could do was get in the way. Habit formation was what mattered, and this was especially true for pronunciation teaching, as O’Connor had made clear:

[t]he main problem of English pronunciation is to build a new set of boxes corresponding to the sounds of English, and to break down the arrangement of boxes which the habits of our native language have so strongly built up‘. (O’Connor 1967: 3). 

The blame for poor pronunciation lay squarely at the door of mother tongue interference. And to a large extent, it still does – interference from the first language pronunciation system, or phonological transfer as it better known, is deep-rooted and finds its way through any cracks in the ceiling very quickly.

However, if we stop assuming that the goal of pronunciation is to sound like native speakers, and start accepting (please!) that the primary goal for most learners today is intelligibility, then things change quite radically. Suddenly, as Jennifer Jenkins pointed out, that deep-rooted phonological transfer that previously drove us to distraction ‘can be of benefit to learners; it is not to … be abandoned easily or willingly, unless there is very good reason to do so’ (2000: 119)’. The mother tongue, she was suggesting, is not so much a foe as a friend, not so much an obstacle as a resource.

I’ve written about how to get the mother tongue (and other tongues – many learners are plurilingual) working in our favour on a number of occasions, beginning in 2001 when I first wrote about international intelligibility. You can read the full article just as it appeared in English Teaching professional Issue 21, here. I wrote specifically about the usefulness of the mother tongue more recently in another ETp article that you can download here. Finally, Chapter 5 of Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca focuses exclusively on how to use the learner’s mother tongue to attain international intelligibility for learners from ten different L1 backgrounds.

For Chapter 5 of Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca I needed the help of experts in the phonology of each language. I can’t give you free access to the chapter for copyright reasons, but I’m sure that OUP or Amazon would be happy to send you a copy of the book for a modest price.

What is common to all of this work is the fact that for me the benefits of using the mother/other tongue(s) far outweigh any possible problems that might arise. These benefits could be summed up as:

  • Dealing with the elephant in the room. The learner’s L1 is in the room. Instead of dancing around it, acknowledge that it is there, and make it clear to your learners that you’ll be looking to their L1 pronunciation from time to time to help them with their pronunciation of English. (If there are two or more L1s in the room, the above still applies. Ignore them and you will discover that they are still elephants, and they are still in the room.)
  • Lightening the load. Even a cursory examination of the learner’s L1 (or L1s) will reveal that a lot of what they need for the intelligible pronunciation of English, they already do perfectly well in their L1. These features can therefore be eliminated from any teaching programme, regardless of the importance your course book might give them.
  • Focusing our interventions. Where the learner’s pronunciation still needs teacher intervention, a working knowledge of the learner’s L1 will allow us to focus the intervention on the real problem, which isn’t necessarily where pronunciation manuals suggest it lies.
  • Using the L1 as a resource. In my own experience, where my learners are coming at English from Spanish, I have been surprised how many times their L1 already has the target feature as a natural part of a regional or national accent, or hidden away in the L1 at a phonetic level, or available via the imitation of L1 speakers of English pronouncing the learner’s L1 with an (English) accent.

You would probably like some examples of the above benefits, but this post would get horrendously long if I were to give you them, and I’m writing it under trying circumstances right now. So what I’m going to do is to stop writing, and invite you to download my two ETp articles if you want fuller explanations and those ever-so-useful examples. The more recent article, Accentuate the Positive, is the best place to start. To do that click here.

To end, here’s an anecdote about my own language learning. I didn’t understand it’s significance then, but I do now. I couldn’t do the Spanish ‘r’ in ‘pero’ (but) or ‘caro’ (expensive) so my L1-Spanish friend asked me if I could do an American accent. I could, I said. She told me to say ‘water’ stars-and-stripes style. I did. She got me to isolate the ‘t’ and then transfer it to my target Spanish words. Also done, and then hey presto, I had my route to a key Spanish consonant sound. The cognitive stage of learning of this particular piece of pronunciation was over, and I could get on with the abundant practice of the associative stage. My L1 had given me the answer to my L2 problem. My obstacle had become my resource. Three cheers for the (m)other tongue.


Jenkins, J. The Phonology of English as an International Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

O’Connor, J.D. (1967). Better Pronunciation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Walker, R. (2010). Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

One thought on “(M)other tongue

  1. Pingback: Priorities for pronunciation | englishglobalcom

Comments are closed.