Task-Based Language Learning and Teaching and Students' Use of the Mother Tongue

Seminar Paper, 2011

12 Pages, Grade: 1,0


1. Introduction

Throughout history, there have been several different approaches to foreign language learning and teaching. Until the 1970s, it was a given that the teacher controlled the classroom activities as well as the learning process. This traditional approach to foreign language learning implicates the so-called presentation-practice-production model: first of all, the relevant structures are presented to the learner, then a controlled practice is implemented and afterwards, the students have to perform the structures introduced in an accurate and fluent way (Foster 1999: 69).

Due to the communicative turn in the 1970s communicative teaching approaches emerged which premised that language learning takes place through communication. Within these communicative approaches, task-based language learning and teaching has to be mentioned. It is an approach which embraces the learners’ needs and furthermore, which encourages the learners to communicate interactionally and actively in the target language. Although it is undisputable that task-based language learning and teaching seems to be an interesting and varied methodology regarding language classrooms, there may arise some difficulties when trying to implement this approach. One of the most challenging issues within task-based approaches is considered to be the students’ use of the mother tongue (Carless 2008: 331).

This term paper aims to examine how to deal with mother tongue use in a task-based classroom, how to encourage target language use and finally, how mother tongue use is compatible with task-based approaches. As a first step, it shall be given a short background of main characteristics and guiding principles of task-based language teaching. This overview provides a precondition for the understanding of the next section. Here, some studies are presented which have examined mother tongue use and its functions in task-based settings, followed by some implications for task-based teaching. Afterwards, different views on mother tongue use in second language teaching are demonstrated, focusing on the sociocultural theory and enlightened monolingualism. Finally, the conclusion intends to show to what extent task-based language teaching can be implemented with mother tongue use and which consequences can be drawn regarding future teaching.

2. Task-Based Language Teaching

Task-based language teaching is an approach to teaching a foreign language which developed from communicative language teaching approaches (Ellis 2003: 30). This approach is considered to be a humanistic one as it focuses on the learners’ needs (Ellis 2003: 31). The emphasis is placed on interacting in the target language because this is seen as the precondition for learning to communicate in a second language (Nunan 2007: 1). Additionally, the target language use should be a natural or naturalistic one. Therefore, authentic texts are used in order to ensure that the language used inside the classroom is connected with the language used outside the classroom (Nunan 2007: 1). Another important aspect is the learners’ personal experiences which should be strongly linked to classroom learning (Nunan 2007: 1).

2.1 Principles of Task-Based Language Teaching

Nunan has summarized seven principles which have to be followed in the frame of task- based language teaching: “Scaffolding”, “Task dependency”, “Recycling”, “Active learning”, “Integration”, “Reproduction to creation” and “Reflection” (Nunan 2007: 35ff.).

The first principle, scaffolding, claims that the chosen lessons and materials have to ensure that learning can take place. Thus, the learners have to be provided the language they need in order to complete the task (Nunan 2007: 35). Second, task dependency states that each task has to be connected with the one before as this sequence has to tell a “pedagogical story” (Nunan 2007: 35). The third principle corresponds to the students’ recycling of language by which language learning is optimally facilitated. By means of such a recycling, the learners can experience how the target language items function in closely related contexts and in completely different ones (Nunan 2007: 36). The fourth principle, active learning, focuses on the premise “learning by doing”. As language learning is best guaranteed if the target language is actively used, the teacher should play a more passive role as far as possible (Nunan 2007: 36f.). Fifth, task-based language teaching has to ensure that linguistic form, communicative function and semantic meaning are integrated into the learning process. Thereby, the learners are able to recognize the relationship between function and form and meaning (Nunan 2007: 37). The sixth principle, reproduction to creation, demands that creative language use develops from reproduction of language models. That means, the students first reproduce the language provided by the teacher, a tape or a text and as a next step, they are capable of using similar language items more creatively (Nunan 2007: 37). As the last principle, Nunan mentions the reflective element, namely that “[l]earners should be given opportunities to reflect on what they have learned and how well they are doing.” (Nunan 2007: 37).

3. Mother Tongue Use in Task-based Classrooms

As was described in the previous section, one of the main principles of task-based language learning and teaching is considered to be monolingualism. That means that the language used by both teachers and pupils has to be the target language. Admittedly, there may arise some difficulties when trying to implement the principle of monolingualism in a task-based classroom. How should one deal with situations in which students use their mother tongue instead of the required target language? Regarding this problematic question, several researchers have examined the student use of the mother tongue in task-based classrooms.

First and foremost, David Carless’ article “Student use of mother tongue in the task-based classroom” (2008) has to be mentioned. He considers the student use of mother tongue to be a “perennial challenge in the school foreign language classroom” (Carless 2008: 331) and therefore, he examines how, in spite of this key challenge, task- based approaches can be successfully implemented in Hong Kong[1] secondary schools.

Carless’ study was designed as an interview study which collected different views on how task-based teaching and its key challenges can be implemented successfully in school settings. As one of the main problems student use of the mother tongue was mentioned because it is often difficult to motivate students to use the target language in foreign language classrooms (Carless 2008: 332). Especially in Hong Kong classrooms, students are often not willing to converse in English due to several reasons such as “lack of confidence and fear of making mistakes; limited opportunities, particularly in large teacher-centred [sic!] classes; or peer pressure and resistance to speaking in a foreign tongue” (Carless 2008: 332).

According to the teachers interviewed, the students’ interactions in the target language consisted often of very short one or two word responses. In general, teachers reported that it was difficult to motivate their students to use the English language. Even in group work, which promotes a more communicative atmosphere than whole-class teaching, the students’ interactions in the target language were minimal, as one teacher reports (Carless 2008: 333):

I haven’t often seen groups interacting in the second language for long periods doing a larger type of task in English which is oriented towards output. Most of the classes I have seen, there is a lot of non-lesson interaction going on in Cantonese in the groups. (Carless 2008: 333)

Concerning the perspective on mother tongue use, most of the interviewees regarded the use of the students’ first language as unavoidable because it helps the students to “express meaning, identity or humour [sic!]” (Carless 2008: 333). Moreover, it was stated that the target language was generally preferred, but the use of the mother tongue should also be accepted to a certain extent in order to uphold the students’ attention and involvement. Though, most teachers agreed that too much use of the mother tongue should be avoided (Carless 2008: 334).

Furthermore, the teachers also described several strategies which they use individually and which aim to encourage students to use the target language. First, one could employ particular students as “language monitors” (Carless 2008: 334) who should walk around and remind their classmates to use the target language. This strategy’s benefit lies in a greater responsibility of the students and can be, if required, expanded through a “mother-tongue scribe” (Carless 2008: 334). Here, one student notes down what has been said in the mother tongue and this can support following activities, such as translating expressions from the mother tongue into the target language. Second, students can be motivated to communicate in the second language trough certain incentives such as stickers, stamps or group competitions. By such a reward system the feeling among the students can be created that it is appreciated that they use the target tongue (Carless 2008: 334). As a third strategy to encourage the students’ target language production the teachers interviewed mentioned recording devices. These are placed directly next to the groups and aim to motivate the students to use the target language and, plus, to monitor the groups’ usage of the mother tongue (Carless 2008: 334) .

All these suggested strategies are strongly connected with particular implications for teaching methodology. It is important to note that in task-based approaches the role of the teacher has to be more flexible and complex than in “traditional Presentation-Practice- Production methods” (Carless 2008: 335).

Some of the interviewees remarked that the type of the designed task is related to the probability of mother tongue use. For example, if the task is designed as a free one, “it is going to be free in terms of the languages they [the students] might use” (Carless 2008: 335) . Another teacher emphasizes that the likelihood of mother tongue use is greater if the task is a fascinating one: “Learners have to recognize the futility of using Cantonese earlier, because it doesn’t create conditions for the post-task to work.” (Carless 2008: 335). These statements refer to a previous study of Carless in which he could show that mother tongue use is strongly related to the types of tasks: “[...] the more complex and open-ended the task, the more use seemed to be made of the mother tongue.” (Carless 2002: 392). Furthermore, the likelihood of mother tongue use is connected with the students’ language proficiency; that means, the higher the language proficiency, the less use of mother tongue was noticed (Carless 2002: 393).


[1] Although Carless' study is restricted to Hong Kong secondary schools, his findings can certainly be transferred to other language classrooms.

Excerpt out of 12 pages


Task-Based Language Learning and Teaching and Students' Use of the Mother Tongue
University of Bamberg  (Lehrstuhl für Didaktik der englischen Sprache und Literatur)
Task based language learning and teaching
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ISBN (Book)
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task-based language learning, mother tongue use
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Anja Hilsenbeck (Author), 2011, Task-Based Language Learning and Teaching and Students' Use of the Mother Tongue, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/170578


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