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Online peer-reviewed Journal for Teachers

English for Specific Purposes World (ESP World)

English for Specific Purposes World

ISSN 1682-3257

English for Specific Purposes World (ESP World) Home    Information   ESP Encyclopaedia    Resources    Contacts


Violeta Janulevičienė and Galina Kavaliauskienė

Law University of Lithuania, Vilnius, Lithuania


The fifth skill is understood as an ability to function fluently in two languages alternately. This implies an ability to switch from one language to another at the moments notice, without any preparation or thinking time. For a monolingual speaker, this means an application of translation from (into) the first or native (L1) language into (from) the second or foreign language (L2).

The issue of translation has been rather controversial and seems to be a step backwards from the communicative approach to learning/teaching English through English. Non-native learners realize that they need as much exposure to the L2 as possible during precious classroom time. For a long time any usage of the L1 in class or translation has been considered as a waste of time, and native and non-native teachers of English have been in favor of this attitude and supported it overwhelmingly. It should be emphasized that translation here is used in the meaning of the language learning tool, but not in its another meaning, i.e. as a vocational skill that professional interpreters need to acquire .

We have noticed a shift in non-native learners and teachers attitudes towards the use of the L1 lately, which encouraged us to undertake this study. Setting out to examine the effectiveness of learning & teaching English for Specific Purposes (ESP), we have focussed on the following points: (1) Do learners need any translation at the intermediate or advanced level? (2) What are the students and teachers attitudes towards the use of the L1 in the ESP class?

In this article we report our findings on the teachers attitudes towards the use ofthe native language in teaching ESP.

Overview of the latest research

The investigation of students and teachers attitudes toward using L1 (Spanish) in the L2 (English) classroom was carried our by Schweers (1999:6), who overviewed a number of possible applications of the mother tongue in the L2 classroom:

-         eliciting language

-         checking comprehension

-         giving complex instructions

-         testing

-         developing circumlocution strategies

-         negotiating of the syllabus

-         classroom management

-         language analysis

-         presentation of grammar rules

-         explanation of errors

-         assessment, etc.

According to this source, there were 19 teachers-respondents, however, the number of students-respondents was not mentioned. The major result of this reseach was a very interesting fact: the majority of respondents supported the use of the mother tongue in teaching and learning English..

This research inspired us to conduct a similar study on the use of the native language in the ESP classroom, i.e. in the settings when learners are sufficiently proficient in a foreign language, but encounter certain difficulty in productive skills. There were 110 students-respondents, who by that time had had 200 hours of English instruction. We used a questionnaire which was almost identical to the one designed by Schweers (1999:6). Our findings were published earlier (Janulevičienė, Kavaliauskienė, 2000:9). There is a qualitative if not a quantative agreement between Schweers and our results. Moreover, teachers views on use of L1 were not highlighted in our paper, basically because only a few teachers had been interviewed.

Recently the data on a similar study in China (Tang, 2002:36) have been published. The author remarks that the value of using the mother tongue is a neglected topic in the TEFL methodology literature and little empirical research has been done to find out if it is an effective teaching and learning tool. In Tangs research, there were 98 first-year university students and 18 teachers respondents. The results on the use of L1 have many similarities to Schweers study:students and teachers responded positively toward its use, although there were minor discrepancies which tasks L1 should be used for. The most important observation in this research is a supportive and facilitating role of L1 in the English classroom used only as a means of improving foreign language proficiency.

The use of L1 in the ESP classroom needed researching, particularly the teachers point of view. Our findings are being presented and compared with students attitudes in the Results section.

Research method

Teachers attitudes on the use of mother tongue in the ESP classroom have been examined by administering a questionnaire similar to one that was used to study students views (Janulevičienė, Kavaliauskienė, 2000:9). 55 questionnaires to colleagues teaching foreign languages for specific purposes at universities in different countries have been mailed. However, only 35 responses have been received from teachers in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, and Finland. The vast majority of responses were received from the teachers of English, five - of German, and one of French. The data are described in the following section.


The first question of the questionnaire that was formulated as Should the native language be used in a foreign language classes at university? has received the overwhelmingly Yes responses - 86% of teachers and 83% of students. No answer has been favoured by 14% of teachers, and 17% of students, respectively. It seems that teachers and students are quite unanimous in their opinion on the importance of the L1 for teaching and learning a foreign language on a tertiary-level.

The second question concerned the amount of the native language that teachers / learners would like to use, and four alternative answers have been suggested:

Not at all
A little
A lot
Teachers' responses (in %)
Students' response (in %)


The responses are provided in percentage because percentage is easier to compare taking into account that a different number of students and teachers participated in a survey. Interestingly, the responses to this question vary quantitatively for points 2) and 3). However, only minority of respondents in both groups supported the extreme answers 1) and 4).

Ifthe mother tongue is to be used in class at all, then a question on the amount of its use arises. Here is a display of responses for a 90-minute lesson:

Time (in minutes)
Teachers (in %)
Students (in %)

The teachers and students attitudes differ considerably. Majority of teachers support a 9-minute limit for the L1, while majority of students prefer it between 18 and 27 minutes, i.e. up to the third of a lesson.

Why is there a significant difference between teachers and students views on the amount of the L1 in ESP class? The answers to the two following questions (below) partly shed light on this question:

Does the L1 help learners learn a foreign language?

N Answers Teachers,% Students, %
1. No
2. A little
3. Fairly much
4. A lot

and Why do you prefer to use L1 in class?

N Answers Teachers,% Students, %
1. It benefits teaching/learning the L2
2. It improves teaching/learning
3. It improves teaching/learning
4. Makes me feel more confident

According to the responses to the former question, 82% of teachers believe that L1 helps to learn L2 either a little or fairly much in comparison to 88% of students. This shows that there is no great difference in attitudes of teachers and students.

It is noteworthy that 26% of teachers ignored answering the latter question on preference for L1. Almost half of teachers (46%) agreed that L1 benefits students learning L2, and 14%- improves their teaching.

Among the other reasons (point (3)) that have been specified by teachers, the most interesting are:

-         at the advanced level, it makes students aware of the L1 interference

-         for ESP, it helps to introduce the terminology items

-         it benefits developing bilingualism or multilingualism in a learner

-         it saves time and makes things clearer.

Other reasons in students replies referred to a necessity of formulating ideas in their mother tongue before transferring to English and desire to avoid anxiety related to spontaneous use of a foreign language.

The final question of this survey deals with the specific tasks of using the native language. The data below coverthe teachers and students responses.

The mother tongue should be used:

N Reasonsfor using L1 Teachers,% Students, %
1. to explain difficult concepts
2. to check comprehension
3. to define new vocabulary
4. to define new vocabulary
5. to help students to feel comfortable
6. to test

A significant difference (between 20 and 30%) in teachers and students priorities is observed in twocases: necessity to explain difficult concepts and define new vocabulary.There is only a slight difference (about 10%) on the issues of checking comprehension, helping learners feel comfortable and testing. However, fewer teachers feel that learners need the support of the mother tongue.


New ways of treating a need for translation in language teaching are advocated by Guy Cook (2001:3): Communicative language teaching has prevailed for 30 years and outlawed the translation and explanation in the students first language, which was declared illegal. According to G. Cook, bilingualism and translation in the classroom are really quite authentic, together with the conscious focus on differences between languages... The notion that a bilingual environment with a lot of translation and a lot of code-switching and focus on form is something alien to what people are learning a language for is really quite peculiar. G. Cook concludes that learners need a bilingual environment with a lot of translation and a lot of code-switching and focus on form and a bit of focus on meaning and use.

Nigel J. Ross (2000:61) argues for translation as a useful language learning tool in the ordinary classroom: The real usefulness of translation in the EFLclassroom lies in exploiting it in order to compare grammar, vocabulary, word order and other language points in English and the students mother tongue. The areas where differences occur range from relatively small points such as false friends, through sizeable areas such as tense systems, to more complex fields such as contrastive rhetoric. If students are aware of the differences, interference is likely to be reduced. N.J.Ross describes some practical examples how to employ translation in teaching writing, grammar, vocabulary, and idioms.

The use of translation as a discredited tool for language learning has been re-examined lately by Daniel Linder (2002:39), who claims that EL teachers often reject translation in classroom because they associate translation with the use of grammar-translation as a non-communicative method. Another aspect of translation is its being a professional activity which requires special training. Thus, for students, translation into English as well as literal translation into students native tongue is professionally unrealistic task, and it should not be the focus of an English class. D.Linder advocates translation activities on a regular basis as natural language learning methods for promoting contextualised language use, discourse and textual-level language competence, and cultural transfer skills. Several practical translation activities, e.g. gist, jigsaw, cultural, sight translations, for the English classroom have been described and compared with translation in a professional context. According to D. Linder, translation activities should be used, and they should be supported by communicative, natural language learning methods.

Finally, G. Cook resurrects some worthwhile language teaching techniques which have become taboo in recent years, and translation has been one of taboos (Cook, 2002:5). Real-world foreign language use is full of translation... and for the majority of the worlds population, switching and negotiating between languages is partand parcel of everyday use. However, the usual objections to translation as a pedagogic tool are twofold: that it encourages a sense of false equivalence between two languages, and that it impedes automatic and fluent language use. Both views are silly. G. Cook reveals the cause of taboo: the outlawing of translation not only reflects the monolingual mind-set of the English-speaking world, it has also been to its political and commercial advantage. Monolingual native-speaker teachers have been privileged, and the status of local experts undermined.

Nobody would argue that human way of thinking is shaped by a mother tongue, which always interferes with a foreign language. The interference may be positive or negative, and the latter causes errors in a foreign language.

There appears to be a widespread assumption that language interference or transfer is an important characteristic of second language acquisition. Majority of linguists agree that the relation between transfer and other processes in second language acquisition remains only partly understood, and the role of language transfer has long been a very controversial topic. The term transfer is widely used to describe the issue of cross-linguistic influence. Cross-linguistic similarities and differences can producevaried effects (Odlin, 1996:36):

IPositive transfer

IINegative transfer

A.     Underproduction

B.     Overproduction

C.     Production Errors

D.     Misinteprtation

IIIDiffering lengths of acquisition

The linguistic awareness of the L1 transfer to L2 helps learners to deal with the hazards of using two languages alternately. In our settings, learners are rather multilingual than bilingual, which involves multilingual transfer and importance of language distance. A phenomenon of code-switching (Cook, 2001:3), which is very commonin multilinguals, is not a falling-back on the native language but rather a variety of switching skills that they possess. However, in the unknown territory of a foreign language for specific purposes, a demand for the mother tongue seems to be welcome. One cause for such a priority is probably a storage pool in memory linked to different languages (Kroll, 1994:122). Another cause might be psychological. All people have a strong interest in preserving face, which has two aspects: (1) positive face, the self-image and self-respect that a person has; and (2) negative face, the claim to privacy, freedom of action, and other elements of personal autonomy (Odlin, 1996:49). The abilty to switch to a native language even for a short time allows learners to preserve face, get rid of anxiety, build confidence and feel independent in their choice of expression.

In the coming years of greater mobility of population, successful multilingualism, on the one hand, and on-going maintenance of minority language within a single dominant language in the community, on the other hand, will increase. Undoubtedly, the necessity for people to be able to function fluently in a few languages will rise. The issue of the fifth skill a proficient use of several languages - in teaching/learning a foreign language will become even more important in the future than it is now.


This paper considers implications of an understanding of the importance of the fifth skill for the acquisition of a foreign language.

The teachers attitudes to the use of learners native language in the classroom on the tertiary-level have undergone significant changes from a complete denial to a reluctant acceptance. The majority of teachers support the limited use of translation in the ESP classroom and agree that L1 assists students in learning a foreign language. The prohibition or avoidance of the mother tongue minimizes the effectiveness of its learning. Use of translation helps develop bilingualism due to learners ability to recall appropriate word networks spontaneously.

The fifth skill of being able to function fluently in two or more languages alternately is becoming an important part of learning a foreign language and needs promoting within the framework of communicative language approach.

The major limitation of our findings is a relatively small sample of respondents 35 teachers and 110 students. Suggestions for further research: it would be beneficial to have a larger sample of teachers. In our settings, we failed to obtain responses from all the teachers that questionnaires had been mailed to.


Cook, Guy. January 2001. Interview in EL Teaching Matters. Is It Time forApplied Linguists to Step out of Chomskys Shadow?, 3.

Cook, Guy. 2000. Language Play, Language Learning. Oxford University Press.

Cook, Guy. April 2002. Breaking Taboos. English Teaching Professional, Issue 23, 5 - 7.

Janulevičienė, V. and Kavaliauskienė, G. 2000. To Translate or Not To Translate in Teaching ESP. Network, A Journal for English Language Teachers Education, 3/3: 9-13. Omnibus, Poznan, Poland.

Kroll, Barbara. 1994. Second Language Writing: Research Insights for the Classroom. Cambridge University Press.

Linder, Daniel.April 2002. Translation. English Teaching Professional, Issue 23, 39 41.

Odlin, Terence. 1996. Language Transfer: Cross-Linguistic Influence in Language Learning. Cambridge University Press.

Ross, Nigel J. 2000. Interference and Intervention: Using Translation in the EFL Classroom. Modern English Teacher, 9/3: 61-66.

Schweers, C.William. 1999. Using L1 in the L2 Classroom. English Teaching Forum, 37/2: 6-9.

Tang, Jinlan. 2002. Using L1 in the English Classroom. English Teaching Forum, 40/1:36-43.



We would like to express our sincere gratitude to all the teachers who responded to our questionnaire and made it possible for us to analyze teachers views on the use of mother tongue in the classroom on a university level.


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