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Using local languages in English language classes (Ahmar Mahboob)

One of the most consistent findings in the NNEST literature is that both students and teachers find the NNESTs (and other teachers) proficiency in the students’ vernacular as a positive and useful resource. If this finding is indeed valid, then one might ask: why is it that ELT teacher education programs and teacher educators do not train the teachers in judicious and pedagogically appropriate uses of local languages in the classrooms? Why is it that the administrators do not sanction or approve of the use of local languages in classrooms (and sometimes the whole school)? And, why is it that teachers feel ashamed and guilty of using local languages as part of their lessons? In this brief essay, I will share some of the reasons for a lack of engagement in local languages in TESOL & Applied Linguistics and will then (based on some current research) outline ways in which teachers may use local languages to achieve their pedagogical purposes.

There are two major reasons that have led to a development of negative attitudes towards the use of local languages in English language classes. The first reason is related to the history of English language teaching and teacher education; while the second is related to the study of and literature on second language acquisition. Here, we will explore both these factors and identify some of the myths that these factors have resulted in.

English language teaching evolved from practices in foreign language teaching. In early days, the dominant approach to language teaching was the grammar translation approach. This approach gave a primary position to a (dominant) local language (by dominant local language I mean a language that is considered a language of literacy in local contexts; this might or might not be the same as a learners’ mother tongue)and used it extensively in building knowledge of and about the target language. Many of the teachers of languages in these contexts were non-native speakers of the target language. The grammar-translation approach was used to teach not only English but also a range of other foreign languages.

The teaching approaches that developed in the 20th century can be seen as a succession of methods that reacted to the (perceived) shortcomings of the one preceding them. So, for example, the Direct Approach emphasized oral communication skills, which was not a focus of grammar translation method. The Direct Approach, like the other major approaches to language teaching in the 20th century were developed in English speaking countries (predominantly in the UK and the USA). The teachers trained for teaching English (and the teacher trainers/researchers) in these contexts mostly spoke English as a mother tongue; furthermore, the ESL student population in these countries came from a number of different language backgrounds. Given these contextual factors, the role of local languages was not really considered as a factor in the development of pedagogical material or training of teachers. Later, as larger groups of international teacher trainees came to the West for being trained as teachers and teacher educators, they were also trained in the methodologies developed for the ‘mother tongue’ English teachers. As such, these teachers and other educators from NESB (non-English speaking backgrounds) were not directly trained or instructed in the use of local languages in teaching English. In many cases they were explicitly instructed not to use the vernaculars as it was seen as a potential threat to the development of the target language.

Over time, these Western trained educators, who were valued in their home countries as being “foreign” trained, went back to their home countries and further spread the belief that the use of local languages needs to be discouraged in ESL and other English-based education. A result of this has been a negative attitude towards the use of local languages in schooling. This negative positioning of local languages was more a result of the context in which these methodologies were developed and used rather than about a careful consideration of their value or role in non-English dominant countries.

Table 1 below provides a summary of some of the key teaching approaches developed in the 20th century, the context in which these methods were developed, and their position vis-à-vis the use of vernaculars. The table shows that other than the grammar-translation method, the other approaches do not have a systematic approach to using local languages in English language classrooms. It also shows that these approaches were developed in the UK and/or the USA, which partly explains why they did not have a clearly defined role for using local languages.

Table 1: Major teaching approaches and the role given to local languages. Source: Mahboob (2011).

Teaching approach
Context of development
Use of local language
Grammar translation
EFL (also used for other languages)
Dominant (local used extensively)
Direct approach
Europe and US
No use of students’ vernaculars
US (then spread)
No use of students’ vernaculars
Cognitive approach
Limited use of students’ vernaculars
Affective-humanistic approaches
Varied, but limited use of students’ vernaculars
Natural approach
Use of vernaculars discouraged
Communicative approach
US & UK (then spread)
Use of vernaculars discouraged

In our context today, as we have a large and professionally trained cadre of NNESTs (or other teachers with an understanding of local languages), we need to revisit the role that local languages can play in ELT and integrate this understanding into our classroom practices. In the latter part of this essay, we will start to consider ways in which we can use local languages productively. However, before we do this, we will look at another major factor that resulted in a negative attitude towards the use of local languages in English language classrooms.

A second major reason for developing a negative attitude towards the use of local languages in English language classes is the research on second language acquisition. For example, the notion of ‘acquisition’ itself suggests that something is being acquired which is different from what one already has (as opposed to the notion of ‘development’, where one is developing language by adding new ways of creating and representing meanings). This sense of acquisition is most salient in foundational work in SLA (second language acquisition) studies. For example, Selinker’s (1972) notions of fossilization and interlanguage highlight a (inaccurate?) belief that the goal of a learner is to move away from their mother tongue features and adopt the features of an ‘ideal’ ‘native’ speaker of the target language. In this context, there was little role for the use of mother tongue in English language learning/teaching – local languages were seen as a source of interference that needed to be overcome.

In another major theory of SLA, Krashen (1985) posited that the one necessary and essential requirement for SLA is access to comprehensible input in the target language. Once again, there was no real place for or role of local languages in Krashen’s model. While many researchers today question the validity of Krashen’s work; there is still a belief that the use of local languages have negative consequences in an ESL class. Some of the beliefs and myths that result from this work in SLA include: a) use of vernaculars lead to language transfer or negative interference; b) additional languages are best learnt by being immersed in target language, i.e. immersion in the target language is essential; and c) the goal of additional language learning is to sound like native speakers. Research on NNESTs and World Englishes have, over the last two decades, been trying to dispel these beliefs and have been conducting research using an NNEST lens (Mahboob 2010). The NNEST lens, as I have defined elsewhere, is a lens of multilingualism, multinationalism, and multiculturalism through which NNESTs – as classroom practitioners, researchers, and teacher educators – take diversity as a starting point, rather than as a result.

In recent years, there has been some more focussed work on studying the role of local languages in English language classrooms. This work sees local languages as a resource rather than a threat in language classes. Here I will share two recent papers that provide examples of how to use L1s successfully in English language classrooms.

Forman (2010) shares ten principles for using L1 in English language classes. These principles and the reasons for using them are given in Table 2 below. In his paper, Forman also provides a number of examples for each of these principles.

Table 2: The ten principles of using local language in English language classrooms. Source: Forman (2010; p. 78)

L2 development
To explain L2 vocabulary, grammar, usage, culture
To facilitate easy, ‘natural’ interaction amongst students and with teacher
Interpersonal development
To develop collaborative, team-work abilities
To make good use of limited classroom time
To convey meaning successfully
To ensure that all students can participate
To respond to immediate teaching/learning needs
Classroom management
To maintain discipline
Globalised communication
To enable students to move flexibly and effectively across two languages
Political positioning
To resist the political dimension of global English

In another recent publication, Swain, Kirkpatrick, and Cummins (2011) provide guidelines on how to use local languages ‘guilt free’ in an English language class. Among other things, they state that using the local languages help in making the content comprehensible because it allows teachers/students to: a) Build from the known, b) Provide translations for difficult grammar and vocabulary, and c) Use cross-linguistic comparisons. Once again, they provide a number of examples of how this can be done successfully in actual classes.

This recent work on the use of local languages has started to identify some of the reasons why we need to consider using local languages in English language classrooms. While this research has been productive, we still need considerable new thinking in this area. I do hope that this short essay for the NNEST blog will encourage colleagues to develop and carry out more in-depth and systematic studies on this issue. This work will be invaluable as we train our future English language teachers and teacher educators.


Forman, R. (2010). Ten principles of bilingual pedagogy in EFL. In A. Mahboob (Ed.), The NNEST lens: Nonnative English speakers in TESOL. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Press.

Krashen, S. (1985). The input hypothesis: Issues and implications. Beverly Hills, CA: Laredo Publishing Company.

Mahboob, A. (2010). The NNEST lens: Nonnative English speakers in TESOL. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Press.

Mahboob, A. (2011). Using local languages in the English classroom: Positions, politics, and possibilities. Plenary address given at the Linguistics Society of the Philippines National Conference and General Meeting, Ateneo de Manila University, Manila, the Philippines (August 19-20).

Selinker, L. (1972). Interlanguage. International Review of Applied Linguistics, 10, 209-231.

Swain, M., Kirkpatrick, A. & Cummins, J.(2011). How to have a guilt-free life using Cantonese in the English class: A handbook for the English language teacher in Hong Kong. Hong Kong: Research Centre into Language Acquisition and Education in Multilingual Societies, Hong Kong Institute of Education.

Ahmar Mahboob was born in Karachi (Pakistan), grew up in Ajman (United Arab Emirates), and received his tertiary education in Pakistan and the United States of America. Ahmar currently teaches in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Sydney, Australia.

APA style for citing from the blogpost:

Mahboob, A. Using local languages in English language classes. Retrieved month date, year (e.g. September 1, 2011), from