I present a theory that restores the mother tongue to its rightful place as the most important ally a foreign language can have, one which would, at the same time, redeem some 2000 years of documented foreign-language teaching, which has always held the mother tongue in high esteem. The mother- tongue is, for all school subjects, including foreign-language lessons, a child’s strongest ally and should, therefore, be used systematically. In contrast, methodological thought throughout the 20th century has been dominated by a negative metaphor: Foreign language teachers build islands that are in constant danger of being flooded by the sea of the mother tongue. They have to fight back this sea, build dams against it, stem its tide.

This much is true: Every new language is confronted by an already-existing mother tongue. All languages are competitors in the sense that if they are not used, they may be lost, and there is only a limited amount of time that can be shared between them. Precisely because the mother tongue is always available, it is so easy to avoid using a foreign language – a constant temptation for pupils and teachers. We do not learn any language by using another one. This is a truth that has nonetheless led to false beliefs. And, in contrast to this view, I present the following theory:

Using the mother tongue, we have (1) learnt to think, (2) learnt to communicate and (3) acquired an intuitive understanding of grammar. The mother tongue opens the door, not only to its own grammar, but to all grammars, inasmuch as it awakens the potential for universal grammar that lies within all of us. This foreknowledge is the result of interactions between a first language and our fundamental linguistic endowment, and is the foundation on which we build our Selves. It is the greatest asset people bring to the task of foreign language learning. For this reason, the mother tongue is the master key to foreign languages, the tool which gives us the fastest, surest, most precise, and most complete means of accessing a foreign language.

The theory predicts that the mother tongue as a cognitive and pedagogical resource will be more important for pupils of seven or eight upwards, by which time the mother tongue has taken firm root, and it will be more in evidence in the conventional classroom, where exposure to the FL is inevitably restricted, than in immersion situations.


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