Mother Tongue in English Class: the Benefits of Bilingualism

Teaching in an international setting—or in the immigrant rich areas of the States—handling language use in the classroom can be tricky. As English students, they need to develop their English skills, so we insist that they use English as much as possible. But there are times when the kids could and should use their mother tongue, because there is understanding and meaning that they can achieve that they can’t by staying only in English.

I’ll explain using one Korean word that my students came up with during a discussion in a literature unit. We were reading Pride and Prejudice. They had to explain what was happening between Elizabeth and Darcy. The two had moved past antagonism and were clearly feeling strongly for each other, although neither had said anything about that feeling. What then was that feeling? Was it love?정 Jeong

As the kids debated, the discussion would slip between Korean and English (all the students were both English and Korean speakers). At issue was whether the Korean idea of jeong fit. I asked what it meant, and this led to few minutes of explanation, as they threw out ideas of what the word meant. The nuances were hard to track. We had the ideas in English, but without the ease of a single word, they had to dance around the meaning, what it was, what it wasn’t.

Here is a replay of another conversation later with two students Yeeun and Seohyun as they try to describe the meaning of jeong.

Seohyun: It’s not love.

Yeeun: Not love, but like friendship. Loyalty.

Seohyun: But it’s more than that.

Yeeun: Yeah, you can’t define it in one word.

Seohyun: It’s like: You live with that person for a long time, and it comes. Natural liking.

Yeeun: Yeah, I’d say, after time, you get used to that person, and as time passes, you get to like that person.

Seohyun: After being with that person for a time, and they leave, you miss then.

Yeeun: Like affinity.

Seohyun: Yeah.

Other conversations added more interesting elements: it can be like brother and sister, even though they don’t like each other; it can be a person you hate, but you have jeong with them. My students reading Pride and Prejudice said it was like how they felt about the girl’s soccer coach. He was rude and angry, but he got them good results. I once heard him say to a student that she was way too heavy. He was terrible. Yet, they had jeong with him.

There is no English equivalent.

The students had come to a subtle understanding of what was happening between these two characters, but to get there, they needed to dip into their Mother Tongue.

What meanings have developed in Spanish from the different culture that could highlight literature interpretation differently than English could? How would a person of Latino culture see a novel differently than the English speakers in the class? Imagine how diverse and rich a class discussion could become with each person finding their Mother tongue affirmed in the context of students learning better how to understand literature.

Look for the next post on Teaching and Mother Tongue when I look at what this means for assessment.