Stop inflicting unnecessary misery on language learners! Teaching learners with different mother tongues

Why do so many asylum seekers fail the official German courses, among them even highly qualified, highly motivated and hard-working migrants who are keen on starting a new life in Germany?

All those teachers who are teaching German as a foreign language according to a monolingual German-only approach are doing this to the detriment of their clients.

Beyond all question, the contents must match the label, that is, in the teaching of German, German must be spoken. As much as possible.

However, the German-only approach  (or, for that matter, the English-only policies worldwide) is self-crippling. It is a sink or swim method, leaving many learners frustrated in spite of coursebooks peppered with colourful pictures. In our digital age it is a patent absurdity and a cause of unnecessary misery especially for speakers of commonly called “remote” languages.  As a rule, German students get German explanations when learning foreign languages such as English. Why should foreign students learning German be denied explanations in their respective mother tongues? Many refugees fail the monolingual German courses.  But clearly defined and brain compatible bilingual teaching techniques in conjunction with monolingual activities empower the students and enrich the teachers’ repertoire. The mother tongue is not a mortgage encumbering the foreign language learner. On the contrary, it is a huge capital resource which should rightly be exploited.

I propose:

  • Textbook publishers offer bilingual lists of words and phrases in many languages. The lists should be arranged in three columns and ordered according to lessons  – this is standard practice in German coursebooks of English.  These lists should be printed separately or downloaded freely from the internet. Bilingual classroom phrases for beginners should also be available.
  • Teachers allow a “time-out” to help learners who speak the same language clarify comprehension problems among themselves. Learners use dictionaries and smartphones and share the information gained.
  • Teachers select and present youtube videos on special German grammar topics to groups of students who share the same language. As they watch and learn, the teacher continues working with the rest of the class. German grammar videos are provided free of charge by bilingual native speakers and have often been clicked more than a million times (see, for instance, Deiaa Abdullah for Arabic and Almani be Farsi for students from Iran. For students who come equipped with a good knowledge of English is a great help.)   
  • Teachers ask former students who have become proficient bilinguals to provide them with parallel translations of selected texts which they will use time and again with new students.

Or even better: Migrants work themselves with Google Translator. They write short dialogues in their mother tongues, something they would want to say in German. Then with Google Translator, they translate their text into German, phrase by phrase (not word for word). If possible, their teacher or another native speaker can check the translation. Then they practise with a partner / act it out in class.

  • Contrary to what is officially recommended, homogeneous classes where all students share a language will be formed wherever possible. For them special textbooks  such as Hossein Tavakkoly’s  “Deutsch für Perser” could be used. These textbooks are written in the learners’ own language, and it is possible, wherever necessary, to provide word-for-word translations of unfamiliar and “bizarre”  German constructions. Here are four examples illustrating this technique for English speakers. I have called it mother-tongue mirroring. For instance, in many languages the phrase “Do you have a passport?” is rendered literally “Is to-you passport?”.  In the Twi language, spoken in Ghana, comparisons such “Kofi is bigger than me” are expressed  by means of a verb: “Kofi big exceed me”. In Mandarin, the plural of nouns is not marked by an ending, but by inserting a special measure word: “two books” is literally “two volume book”, “two knives” is “two grip knife”, somewhat similar to ”two pieces of soap” or ” two bars of chocolate”, etc. My last example comes from the Ponca-language. Here the phrase “I have a sister” is something like “I am sistered”. – In this way, languages can become transparent for one another.
  • I also suggest that teachers who love languages should, over time, make themselves familiar with a few grammatical peculiarities of their students‘ languages. They may record files of recurring errors from speakers of these languages and develop strategies to deal with them. Even a little knowledge of students’ languages will go a long way.
  • My 7. Suggestion concerns textbook lessons for advanced students which usually deal with certain topics such as “trade unions”. Teachers should point out to their students that there could be Wikipedia articles on the same topic in their own languages. Reading them will certainly help them to understand the foreign language text better. Comprehension is the key to language.      And lastly:
  • Since students come from varying school cultures, they should be taught effective learning techniques such as the read-and-look-up method.
  • Well, if you are a European and still believe in a monolingual approach: Why don’t you learn Japanese and choose a class where only Japanese is spoken. Do this and you’ll see.

Conclusion: Our digital age provides many opportunities to tailor the teaching and learning of foreign languages to the individual needs of the learners.

The situation is complex, and the bilingual approach is no cure-all against failures. Teaching migrants remains a difficult job. Students differ significantly according to their origins, cultures, languages, ages, talents, motivation, and previous knowledge. But only those who promote the interplay of their students‘ mother tongue are actually meeting their students where they are.

So: Teach with mother tongue support. Teach with the wind beneath your wings.

Oh, I forgot to tell you: If you want to know how migrants in German-only classes cope with this situation, have a look at the article

Evidence for the Bilingual Option: Re-Thinking European Principles in Foreign Language Teaching which can be downloaded from the internet.

Stop inflicting unnecessary misery on language learners!

The German-only approach = sink or swim

Bilingual lists of words and phrases ordered according to lessons

Bilingual classroom phrases for beginners

Time-out for learners with the same mother tongue

Free youtube videos: Deiaa Abdullah (Arabic) / Almani be Farsi /

Former students provide parallel translations of standard texts

Students write their own dialogues with Google Translator(phrase by phrase)

Hossein Tavakkoly: Deutsch für Perser

Do you have a passport? = Is to-you passport?

Kofi is bigger than me = Kofi big exceed me

Two books = Two volume book

I have a sister = I am sistered

Wikipedia articles in the students’ languages

„Ideas for multilingual classes“ in: W. Butzkamm & J.A.W.Caldwell (2009, pp.229ff.). To be downloaded at researchgate.

Wolfgang Butzkamm ♦ Michael Lynch
Evidence for the Bilingual Option: Re-Thinking European Principles in Foreign Language Teaching

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