Mother Tongue in English Class: Bilingualism in Assessment


Cynthia plays the part of the girlfriend, who is misunderstood.

During a presentation of a video, a student of mine stumbled on a truth that has been known for some time, but this truth seems to have stayed out of discussions on assessment in education—as far as I’ve heard. Here’s how it happened:

Cynthia, Toni and Jenny were making a video of a little drama they wrote to illustrate how language does not work the same for guys and girls. (You can watch the whole thing at the bottom of the post.) In the scene, a guy misunderstands the subtle hints his girlfriend gives him. By the end, she gets angry, and he doesn’t get what is happening or why it’s happening. It was a brilliant show of this comical and painful problem in relationships.

But in the video all of the conversation was in Korean. I do have to assess the work, and the students know that I don’t speak Korean. So why would they use Korean in a project for English class?

In the explanation part of the presentation, Cynthia said that they tried writing it in English, but it didn’t feel right. English just didn’t work for the realism of the scene. This boyfriend and girlfriend would not be using English to have these chats. Only Korean sounded right.

I was so pleased at her insight. She had instinctively understood how different languages work for bilingual people. If a person wants to communicate personal or highly emotional ideas, a mother tongue works best. Second languages work better for more analytical thinking. In Cynthia’s drama, she was talking to her boyfriend about getting together on their 100th day of dating. She didn’t want to ask directly, so she hinted about it to her boyfriend, but he didn’t get it. All these intimate feelings and complex emotions just couldn’t be said in English. Korean had to do.

1. Boyfriend

This is Jenny playing the part of the boyfriend.

I first came across the of emotions in language when my school’s tech integrationist, also my wife, sent me an article on emotion and mother tongue. The article on the web site Science Daily summarizes the research by Yan Jing Wu and Guillaume Thierry published in the Journal of Neuroscience. Here are the comments on emotion and language:

“…People have a greater reaction to emotional words and phrases in their first language- which is why people speak to their infants and children in their first language despite living in a country which speaks another language and despite fluency in the second. It has been recognized for some time that anger, swearing or discussing intimate feelings has more power in a speaker’s native language. In other words, emotional information lacks the same power in a second language as in a native language.”

Cynthia was not able to get at that emotion and the tension in the relationship in English. The subtlety came from the nuanced use of her Korean—and so did the believable nature of the conversation. I would even suggest that certain meanings can’t be communicated except through the mother tongue.

This brings us to the big question of how3. Misunderstand to assess this task. Because the conversation is in Korean, I can’t understand what they are chatting to each other. The students did include translation (with several grammatical errors), and that translation misses some of the flavor and meaning of the original, but it was enough for me to tell what was going on. The students used English to explain how the indirect speech Cynthia’s character was being misunderstood. They tracked three different ways the girlfriend was using language subtly and explained it thoroughly. I could easily see that they had an excellent level of understanding of how indirect speech could lead to misunderstandings—or new understandings, as we see in the end of the video.

My conclusion was that Cynthia, Jenny and Toni were able to show their mastery of the goals of the unit through their analysis of the situation—in English; they explained how the indirect speech led to confusion and even put the relationship in jeopardy.

This has gotten me to thinking about how to include mother tongue more often in assessment. Any ideas?

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