Surprise! Another person on the Internet is wrong.

But this time it's not just your politically charged uncle sharing fake outlandish fake news on Facebook. It's a whole generation of language learning pundits warning that you there is no place for your mother tongue in second language learning.

Having spent over a decade developing a new technique on how brain science can help you learn faster, Brainscape has become quite confident that your mother tongue can actually be one of the most useful tools in learning a foreign language.

It's just a matter of how you use it.

Today, we're using Science! to debunk the myth that you shouldn't use your mother tongue in second language learning. You should. And we'll show you why.

Critiques of relying on your mother tongue in second language learning

So what exactly are people saying?

Briefly, critics object to a second language learner learning primarily by translating the language they’re learning into their first language. Instead, they argue that a person should “stop translating in their head” and, instead, train your brain “to start thinking in a foreign language”.

These critics are essentially nervous about creating a reliance on translation as the primary means of eliciting the learner’s production. They argue that this dependence on a person’s first language may impede the proper learning of the second. Indeed, some of today’s most popular language education companies promote their exclusive use of L2 immersion as one of their most significant pedagogical advantages.

Some language theorists break this fear into several distinct points:

  • That translation suggests that languages are equivalent, even though no language is exactly the same;
  • That the first language (called the “L1”), interferes with the development of the second language being learned (the “L2”);
  • That translation is “easier” than other, more effective methods for learning, such as figuring out the meaning from contextual cues; and
  • That acquiring an L2 through exposure and experience is how we learn a language as an infant and is a more “natural” way to learn a language.

These fears are perhaps why we are used to see elementary ESL teachers yelling at kids in their classes who spoke in their native language, explaining things to their peers. Cringe!

Our response based on the scientific literature

Line drawing of man at desk writing a letter in his mother tongue
Here's our response to the critics of a person using their mother tongue in second language learning.

We at Brainscape maintain that the proper use of the mother tongue can and should be considered as a valuable asset in learning a new language rather than as a source of interference and confusion.

Yes, of course exposure and immersion in an L2 are great for learning. But our view, and we’re confident that this is backed by the research literature, is that our first language is a MASSIVE linguistic resource.

We took 5 years to learn to speak it fluently, and we’ve continued to develop our L1 skills over our life. Using our L1 to facilitate our acquisition of an L2 can help us become conversational in L2 in much shorter than 5 years!

We point to the substantial and growing body of evidence supporting the idea that the use of L1 and translation is indeed useful, if not critical, to adults’ ability to assess their progress toward learning L2. For example, according to Buck,

"the widespread rejection of translation as a language testing procedure by teachers and testers is […] simply not warranted on psychometric grounds."

There remains a large role for L1 in second language learning provided that it is used correctly in conjunction with other types of engaging activities.

Translation is a central part of Brainscape’s web and mobile flashcard curriculum, including for our language learning courses to Learn French, Learn Spanish, and Learn Chinese. Brainscape highlights several benefits of using L1 and translation in its own web/mobile curriculum.

Here’s why we’ve designed these courses that way, and what the benefits are.

1. Translation helps illustrate more complicated concepts

Girl reading dictionary

First, translation may be a faster way to illustrate concepts that cannot be easily conveyed using environmental or pictorial cues.

While it may be easy to elicit the L2 version of the word “apple” by showing a picture of one, it is less feasible to illustrate complex sentences like “If I’d had more money, I wouldn’t have bought such cheap shoes” exclusively in L2 without first setting up that sentence by creating a time-consuming contextual background.

Brainscape’s use of a single L1 cue enables it to separate L2 production exercises into quickly digestible individual sentences which can then be repeated more frequently according to the learner’s own repetition needs (see our Intelligent Cumulative Exposure methodology). Prasada, Pinker, and Snyder show that frequency of exposure to each language aspect (phonology, orthography, vocabulary, morphology, and syntax) is the most important determinant of how fluidly the learner will be able to access it in the future.

2. Explanations in L1 are useful for explaining grammar

Second, certain essential grammatical concepts are treated so differently between an L1 and L2 that they may benefit from a supplementary explanation in L1 in order to be fully understood within a reasonable amount of time.

Anton and DiCamilla show that for complex concepts “... L1 serves a critical function in students' attempts to mutually define task elements, provide each other with scaffolding help, and externalize inner speech".

In another study, White found that learners are best able to grasp difficult concepts, like adverb placement, when they are given positive or negative feedback in their native language.

While adult learners are probably capable of subconsciously figuring out grammatical structures after repeated and differentiated exposure, explanations in the familiar mother tongue can expedite the understanding process and allow the learner to progress to other topics more comfortably.

3. Translation is unavoidable

Translation is useful and unavoidable.

It is important to note that not only can translation help explain, deepen, or more clearly illustrate concepts essential to second language learning, but it’s also natural and unavoidable.

Adult learners have been conditioned for their whole life to think in their native language. So it’s not a surprise that we see that this occurs when they learn a second language.

Pariente-Beltran and Upton and Lee-Thompson show this happens unconsciously. Even when a lesson or activity is conducted exclusively in L2, new information tends to be processed through internal cognitive processes in L1 anyway. Incorporating actual L1 annotation into a lesson helps learners externalize those processes while helping teachers identify misunderstandings more transparently.

Perhaps even more importantly, it has been shown that learners seem to prefer spending time on L1-supplemented activities. Since study time is one of the biggest contributors to learning a second language, making use of translations including L1 more effectively encourages learners to solve communication tasks on their own.

4. Translation is a valuable skill

Finally, translation itself can be a very valuable and applicable skill.

Whether interpreting a conversation for a friend, translating a document for work, or converting one’s personal emails between L1 and L2, a language learner is likely to encounter many real-life cases in which translation skills prove useful. Making translation a part of a language learning program helps develop this skill.

The importance of translation as a communication tool suggests that there exists no intrinsic incompatibility between translation and language instruction.

Enjoy the resources your mother tongue gives you

Man holding up a sign in a non-English language
Our mother tongue can be useful to us when we learn a second language.

We get that language teachers want to encourage their students to really use their L2. Using language is, of course, extremely important for learning it.

But asking students to forget their mother tongue entirely is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Yes, provide extensive L2 input. But we don’t think anyone benefits from excluding L1.

That’s what Brainscape has done in our Learn French and Learn Spanish courses. Our web and mobile flashcard application harnesses many of the benefits of translation by anticipating the errors that learners are likely to make in each new grammatical learning objective, and by clearly explaining the rules (in L1) below each respective L2 sentence.

While the specificity of correction may not be as intelligent as a human tutor, Brainscape expects that its annotations will address the majority of major confusions that could be associated with each concept. The benefits gained from such clarification are maximized as Brainscape maintains each concept in an optimal review cycle based on the learner’s comfort level.

In this way, we get the best of both worlds. When people see the flashcards, they use active recall to find the concept for the vocabulary in their head. But if they don’t understand something, they also have a clear explanation in their native language.

Our mother tongue has a clear role in second language learning. It's time to use it the right way.

[See also: The best way to learn a language: your complete toolkit]

Sources

Avand, A. Q. (2009). Using translation and reading comprehension of ESP learners. The Asian ESP Journal, 5(1), 44-60.

Anton, M. & DiCamilla, F. (1998). Socio-cognitive functions of L1 collaborative interaction in the L2 classroom. Canadian Modern Language Review, 54(3), 314-42.

Buck, G. (1992). Translation as a language testing procedure: Does it work? Language Testing, 9(2) 123-148.

Cook, V. (2001). Using the first language in the classroom. Canadian Modern Language Review, 57(3), 402-423.

Kern, R. G. (1994). The role of mental translation in second language reading. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 16(4), 441-461.

Nae, N. (2004). In defense of translation. Nagoya University of Commerce and Business Journal of Language, Culture and Communication, 6(1), 35-46.

Pariente-Beltran, B. (2006). Rethinking translation in the second language classroom: Teaching discourse and text analysis through translation to advanced students. Unpublished Masters Thesis. University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Prasada, S., Pinker, S., & Snyder, W. (1990). Some evidence that irregular forms are retrieved from memory but regular forms are rule-generated. Paper presented at the 31st Annual Meeting of the Psychonomic Society.

Upton, T.A. & Lee-Thompson, L.C. (2001). The role of the first language in second language reading. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 23(4), 469-495.

White, L. (1991). Adverb placement in second language acquisition: Some effects of positive and negative evidence in the classroom. Second Language Research, 7(2), 133-161.