A Journal of Teaching English Language and Literature

ISSN Print : 2229-6557, Online: 2394-9244

Language Teaching in Multilingual Contexts: Using the First/More Enabled Language as a Positive Resource in the English Classroom

Geetha Durairajan

Language use in India

India is a country both societally and individually multilingual at the grassroots level. Many languages are spoken in the country, but they are not all used in the same manner. Some are minority languages while others are used as mediums of instruction. English, in this context, occupies a unique space. It is not a foreign language but a second language and also the associate official language. Till two decades ago, English was regarded as a library language, but today, in the twenty-first century, it has become the language of economic and social mobility. This does not mean, however, that it will ever become the only language used in our country. Language policies of countries where individuals may be bilingual but are officially monolingual can afford to be assimilationist in nature. In countries that are multilingual at the grassroots level, however, all language functions will never be fulfilled through one language. According to Mohanty (1994), in India, bilingual persons or communities need to be accepted as those who can effectively meet the communicative demands of the self and the society in their normal functioning and in their interaction with speakers of any or all of these languages.

Languages and Relationships

Some languages in India and even in other multilingual countries are unfortunately more equal than others. For instance, Hindi, and English ‘wield’ more power than the other languages used in India. In terms of policy, planning, pedagogy and practice, languages can either negate, recognize, tolerate, respect or nurture each other, or go beyond that and share mutual space (Durairajan, 2003). Currently, English classrooms in India do not even recognize languages other than English that are a part of the repertoire of students. It is assumed that English is an added-on language and that it will not affect or be influenced by the other languages. If there is any ‘influence’ it is perceived as an ‘interference’ that needs to be eradicated. However, teaching or learning an L2 is not just about teaching a student how to add a few rooms to a house by building an extension at the back; it is like the rebuilding of internal walls. It implies that in some ways the construction of the house itself will change. Trying to put languages in separate compartments in the mind is doomed to failure since the compartments are connected in many ways (Cook, 2001). 

Nature of Language Proficiency in Multilingual Countries

In the late seventies and early eighties, Jim Cummins posited the idea of cognitive linguistic interdependence. Ever since then, the notions of semilingualism and separate underlying proficiency have been negated. The model of language capability within a bilingual mind is universally accepted as Common Underlying Proficiency (CUP) and not as Separate Underlying Proficiency (SUP). This implies that students who know two or more languages have a common base of capability and draw from it when they use another language for communication. It also implies that if students have more capability in one language, and use that language within or outside classroom contexts, that capability can be tapped to enable proficiency in another language. According to Cummins, CUP is like a central operating system, with capabilities such as inferring, organizing, planning being available to all languages; the surface features of the respective languages alone will be separate. This is referred to as the dual iceberg analogy (as cited in Stern, 1983).

Language proficiency was construed by Cummins (1979), as comprising two aspects—BICS and CALP (Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills, and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency). Thirty years later, based on a whole body of research evidence, Cummins reconceptualized these two aspects as CLP and ALP (Conversational Language Proficiency and Academic Language Proficiency) (2000). Based on his original construal (BICS and CALP), he also posited the related dual continuums of texts that could be cognitively demanding or undemanding and either context embedded or context-reduced (Cummins, 1980). This massive body of research evidence, however, has not affected or influenced  the language pedagogy and practice of most multilingual countries in general and plurilingual India in particular.

Language/Educational Policy and Practices in Twenty-First Century India

From the 1960s, India has had a three-language formula, but it is an accepted fact that it has not been successful. Also, it needs to be perceived more as a framework/formula that was put together to try and ensure varied language use in the country and not as a big policy document. That apart, the associate official language, English, is much more than only an associate language. At one level, English is the language of economic and social mobility. It is also the language of opportunity and access to knowledge. At another level, this “language of learning” as it is sometimes called, overshadows and takes over the spaces that other languages occupy. All of us are much more comfortable and less judgmental when we hear or use English words while speaking our own languages; conversely, we are less tolerant when we hear words and phrases from our languages used in English speech.

In the twenty-first century, the Right to Education has made education mandatory in India. Coupled with the strong reservation policy advocated by the post Mandal Commission report, the pyramid of education must and will be opened up. This implies that there will be many more students who are first generation learners and who are entering and coping with tertiary level education. English may not be their language of academics, or their language of thinking, but they need to engage with it. Indian students in India need to be proficient in English, because they need the language to empower themselves. Our government is pushing for entrepreneurship in a big way. This too cannot happen without proficiency in English. From an academic perspective, the National Curriculum Framework and the Knowledge Commission report both advocate the development of critical and higher-order thinking skills. Learners are therefore required not only to comprehend and understand new concepts, but also to apply them to new situations. They need to analyse these concepts, evaluate them and then use these ideas to become co-creators of this knowledge. For many of our learners, English is not their language of thinking. However, this does not mean that they do not possess higher order cognitive skills. They do possess these skills but in their first or more enabled languages. To enable our learners to make connections and draw on their thinking capabilities, we need them to be able to exploit their abilities in other languages in English classrooms. But this kind of cognitive recognition of capabilities is not a reality in the Indian educational context. The first or more enabled language is used in English classrooms, but rarely as a positive resource by the English teacher.

Existing and Posited use of L1 in English Classrooms

The first or more enabled language is used in English classrooms for administrative or classroom communication purposes. If used academically, assuming that students cannot understand what is being stated in English, it may be used to either translate the text or explain it. Such a use of the first or more enabled language is equivalent to speaking a white lie: we speak it but do not own up to it and also apologize for it. Current L1 use in the English classroom is best summed up as—cannot be advocated nor avoided. Teachers deliberately do not use it as a positive resource in the classroom. It is never used to tap the cognitive capability of the students and enable better proficiency in English.  

The first or more enabled language should not be used by the teacher to merely translate the text or provide explanations. This will only “dumb” our students and make them more and more teacher-dependent. It should also not be used for classroom transactional purposes. All such transactions are, after all, context-embedded. Learners, with a little bit of effort, will always understand what is required of them. Moreover, for these purposes, the more abled peers will be able to help as well. The first or more enabled language can be used both in the language and the literature class for a variety of purposes; but primarily, it needs to be used as a scaffold or a prop so that higher order skills can be enabled.

Use of the First or More Enabled Language in English Classrooms

In language classrooms, the first or more enabled language can be used to enable all four literacy skills.

To Enable Writing Capability

Our students, when asked to write essays, often turn in stereotyped book essays which can usually be traced to a guide book. This is because we expect them to think, plan and write in English and such capability is often beyond the ken of the student. Brainstorming, planning and organizing can be done in homogeneous L1 classrooms with the class as a whole in the more enabled language. Students can be encouraged to search for and find equivalent words in English once the ideational planning is done and then asked to compose their essays in English. If needed, feedback may also be given in the first language (Kumar, 2011). If the class is heterogeneous and has many first languages, the students can be divided into language groups and the planning and organization can happen at the group level and not at the whole class level. If it is possible to work in tandem with another language teacher, it should also be possible to get similar essays written across languages. Feedback can be common across the languages and comparisons can also be made regarding their capability across languages.

To Enhance Reading Capability

The receptive capability of our students is always much higher than their productive capability. As such, students can be given texts to read in English. However if they are not able to answer in English, they may be encouraged to respond in their first or more enabled language.

To Improve Speaking Capability

As with writing, students can be encouraged to compose their ideas in their first language and if needed, also be asked to speak on the same topic in that language. Once this is accomplished, they can be asked to jot down their ideas for their “talk” in English and then encouraged to speak. In such an experiment, the talk in the first or more enabled language can function as a parallel task that will initially provide confidence and enable transfer of ideas, and later strategies, and eventually capabilities.

To Augment Listening Capability 

Our students have to listen to many lectures and take down notes in their classes. More often than not, their “taking down speed” in English is not very fast and because of this, they fail to take down what the teacher says. This, more than any other reason, forces them to resort to bazaar guides and notes. We could use expository texts in our English classes and encourage our students to take down notes and also answer questions. To increase this ability and also to teach our students what they should be looking out for, we could give our students a mind map (with just the structure of the talk) in their more enabled language and ask them to write down only the main ideas and supporting detail, as indicated by us, in English. This L1 mind map will then serve as a scaffold and also teach them to read and comprehend texts better.

Use of the First or More Enabled Language in Literature Classrooms

In Literature classrooms, the awareness of literary genres and other literary techniques that are known in the first language can be used as a base to help students develop the same capability in English (Ghosh, 2010). As with the language classroom, if students are able to read literature in English but find it difficult to respond in that language, they can be encouraged to respond in their first or more enabled language. Once we have established that literary capability exists and is well developed in the students’ first language, transferring of that capability to English will happen with ease.

Advantages of Using the First or More Enabled Language as a Scaffold in the English Classroom

When teachers use the first or more enabled language as a positive resource in the English language and literature classroom, the advantages include enabling the student in both cognitive and affective domains. A cognitive scaffolding will help teachers to teach and enhance higher order thinking skills of the students and this in turn will lead to student empowerment.

Students will begin thinking about what they are capable of doing across languages; this will enable them to reflect on their own capabilities and thereby go meta on their own language lives. Once students are able to articulate for themselves what they can and cannot do across languages, they will be able to draw on their capabilities in their L1 language and use it as a strategy to develop proficiency in English.

Such enabling across languages indicates to students that their first languages are equally important and that their language and their capability in that language are valued by the educational system. This in turn will lead to affective empowerment.


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Cummins, J. (1979). Cognitive/academic language proficiency, linguistic interdependence, the optimal age question and some other matters. Working Papers on Bilingualism 19, 197-205.

Cummins, J. (1980). The Cross lingual dimensions of language proficiency: implications for bilingual education and the optimal age issue. TESOL Quarterly 14, 175-187.

Cummins, J. (2000). Language power and pedagogy: Bilingual children in the crossfire. Cleveland: Multilingual Matters.

Durairajan, Geetha. (2003). Enabling non-prescriptive evaluation: Rediscovering language as a convivial meaning-making tool (Unpublished Ph.D. thesis). CIEFL, Hyderabad.

Ghosh, D. (2010). Transfer of L1 literary capability to L2: A study at the tertiary level (Unpublished M. Phil. Thesis). English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad.

Kumar, N. S. (2011). Using L1 as a resource in ESL writing instruction (Unpublished M.Phil. thesis). CIEFL, Hyderabad.

Mohanty, A. (1994). Bilingualism in a multilingual society: Psycho-social and pedagogical implications. Mysore: Central Institute of Indian Languages.

Stern, H. H. (1983). Fundamental concepts of language teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Geetha Durairajan works as a Professor in the Department of Materials Development, Testing and Evaluation, at the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad. Her research interests include using evaluation as a pedagogic tool and the use of the first language as a resource in ESL contexts.