What does “judicious” use of students’ “own language” in language classrooms look like, practically speaking?

Graham Hall and Guy Cook are two experts on “own language use” in language teaching and learning who wrote a state-of-the-art article about this subject in 2013 that answers the above million-dollar question. In this week’s post, I summarize that article’s six sections: (1) what academic and societal trends have led to more support for “own language use” in language teaching, (2) key arguments that underpin the revival, (3) relevant theoretical frameworks from psycholinguistic and cognitive approaches to language learning, general learning theory, and sociocultural research, (4) what is “judicious” in-class own-language use, practically speaking!!, (5) teachers’ and students’ attitudes about own-language use, and (6) pedagogical implications. Even if you are already familiar with translanguaging and/or plurilingualism, Hall and Cook aren’t cited in much translanguaging and plurilingualism research because they are concerned with specific named languages: how languages people already know can help them learn additional languages (i.e., plurilingualism and translanguaging research are less interested in the languages than in the integrated individual repertoire). However, like many translanguaging and plurilingualism researchers, Hall and Cook are concerned with linguistic social justice, and these concerns will be discussed in this post.

Hall, G., & Cook, G. (2012). Own-language use in language teaching and learning. Language Teaching45(3), 271-308. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0261444812000067

This article is freely downloadable if you want to use it as a course reading.


First, what do Hall and Cook mean by “own language”? They do not use the terms “first language (L1)” and “second language (L2),” because English (the most common “second language”) is often not a second but a third or fourth language for many people around the world. Often, English is learned by people using a language that is their second or third language (for example, people may speak an indigenous/tribal/regional language at home, but are schooled in the national language, and it is this language—not their first—through which they learn English). Therefore, Hall and Cook state at the outset that they define “own language(s)” as “the language[s] which the students already know and through which (if allowed), they can approach the new language” (p. 274; G. Cook, 2010). That is, the authors recognize people’s plurilingual repertoires and do not essentialize people by their so-called “mother tongue,” “native language,” or “L1″… but also assume that many people have a dominant language that fulfills most of their cognitive-conceptual functioning, which may or may not be the first language they were exposed to at birth.

Where did monolingual, or target-language-only, language teaching originate? This is the topic that they address in the introduction. As many translanguaging and plurilingual researchers agree, this is indeed a Eurocentric, Anglocentric, or “Western” concept, arising from the European colonial empires that finally clashed in WWI. In the 19th century, there were at least two well-known methods of language teaching in the West—grammar translation and Berlitz. Grammar translation was not a monolingual approach. In contrast, the Berlitz legend goes like this…

Berlitz was a multilingual German in the U.S. who ran a language learning school. One day, he got sick, so he got his assistant, Joly, to be a substitute teacher in his French class for some time. Joly didn’t speak any English, so Joly had no choice but to run the class in French, “making his meaning as clear as he could through gestures, facial expressions, pictures and so forth” (p. 275). In some ways, this method does have benefits over grammar translation—to Berlitz’ surprise, when he came back, students were productively communicating in basic French. It inspired Berlitz to develop his method, a popular language teaching approach that survives today!

Obviously, this method is not likely to work beyond teaching a basic functional proficiency in the language, and while it offers a “quick start,” that is about all it does. Despite its limitations, it has the following colonial advantages: (1) it puts “native speaker” teachers who have no proficiency at all in students’ languages in a positive light (they don’t have to account for what they don’t know), (2) it standardizes language instruction across contexts (i.e., you can practice the Berlitz English teaching method the same way, whether in South Korea or Saudi Arabia), (3) it “was in the interests of both publishers and language schools based in English-speaking nations to promote monolingual products which could be implemented by native-speaker experts, marketed worldwide without variation, and did not need input from speakers of other languages” (p. 275). 

Thus, monolingual language teaching during much of the 20th century (whether Berlitz, Communicative Language Teaching, Task Based Language Teaching, Content Language Integrated Learning, etc.), privileged monolingual “native speaker” competence (Davies, 1995, 2003) over the bi/multilingual competence of people in multilingual environments, people who could do translation and code-switching as valued qualities of the language teacher (Sridhar & Sridhar, 1986), which reflects how bi/multilinguals do academic and professional work at every stage of life… something that monolingual standardized tests fail to recognize even as they ostensibly “prepare” bi/multilingual people for future academic study/jobs (Shohamy, 2011). Monolingual teaching also did not take into account how learners might wish to preserve their own linguistic and cultural identity while learning other languages. 

Thus, there was little research on students’ own languages as a resource for teaching languages in much of the 20th century, except for some “contrastive analysis” work in the 1940s and 1950s. This work was drowned out by research that peaked in the 1970s and 1980s primarily focusing on universal principles of language acquisition. What was neglected as a result in Second Language Acquisition (SLA) research were principles that are not universal, such as how students’ own language influences how they go about learning a new language (e.g., if the target language is Japanese, this will be different for you depending on whether your own language is Korean, Chinese, or German). And it does not even begin to touch on sociocultural factors that affect language acquisition, such as whether a language is a colonial language or an indigenous/endangered one… or any aspect of the learner’s identity.

1. What academic and societal trends have led to more support for “own language use” in language teaching?

So what has led to major shifts in language teaching and learning, particularly English language teaching and learning? One thing was a “social turn” in the 1990s, associated with scholars like David Block, James P. Lantolf, Diane Larsen-Freeman, Leo van Lier, Bonny Norton, Aneta Pavlenko, and Ben Rampton—who called attention to the social and cultural factors behind language learning, not merely its psycholinguistic processes (p. 278; this led to a state-of-the-art article called the “Douglas Fir Group” paper drafted during a reunion in the 2010s; see DFG, 2016). With this shift, “language learners are increasingly seen as multiple language users… with the language classroom conceptualised as a multilingual speech community” (p. 279). One article whose title captures this paradigm shift is “‘I never knew I was a bilingual’: Reimagining teacher identities in TESOL” (Pavlenko, 2003).

While there were always studies on how contrastive analysis, translation, etc. could help students learn new languages, the social turn ushered in research that showed “own-language use and code-switching in the English language teaching (ELT) classroom are not ‘just’ technical issues surrounding how languages are learned, but can underpin learners’ sense of who they are and who they want to be in a complex multilingual world” (see Arthur, 1996; Katunich, 2006; Lin, 1996). Meanwhile, new constructs were being developed like “intercultural communicative competence” (Levine, 2011; Stiefel, 2009) and “symbolic competence” (Kramsch, 2006) that highlighted the ability of speakers to communicate in culturally appropriate ways in languages other than English or bi/multilingually, or move between languages and cultural groups—hence the decision to use one language over another at a particular time is not a final or static judgment about which one is better, but is influenced by the history and power relationships between those languages (p. 280).

Stern (1992) was a forward-thinking researcher in the 1990s who made the following arguments, summarized on pp. 280-281 of Hall and Cook’s article: (1) Purely monolingual language learning is unrealistic for an additional language—to translate, even if only mentally, to one’s own language is natural behaviour; (2) Bi/multilingual and monolingual techniques and practices can complement each other: “if communicative proficiency in the new language is the principal goal of teaching and learning, intralingual [monolingual] strategies will dominate; however, if mediating skills such as translation and interpreting are the goal of learning, crosslingual strategies should be an important part of classroom life” (Stern, as cited in Hall & Cook, 2013, p. 280).

Let’s take a look at what exactly “mediating skills” are, and why they’re so important. To “mediate” means to manage, and teachers manage many different things simultaneously. Another scholar named Cook (Vivian Cook) outlined that we sometimes can’t fully explain grammar, efficiently organize classroom activities, maintain discipline, build rapport/form deep relationships, or fully assess what students know if we use only the target language (V. Cook, 2001). Therefore, use of students’ own language should not be seen as a “fallback” that teachers should feel guilty about, but as a regular and normal part of the learning process, alongside practicing communication in the target language.

Butzkamm and Caldwell (2009) argue that learners’ own language is “the greatest pedagogical resource” and “lays the foundations for all other languages we might want to learn” (as cited in Hall & Cook, 2013, p. 282). Yes, it can be used to explain meaning if learners don’t understand—but so can gestures, pictures, etc. On the other hand, the learners’ own language has some advantages over multimodalities when learners are learning to “code-break,” to decode codes. To be able to use language in a powerful, authoritative, or influential way, learners have to learn how meanings are encoded rhetorically in words/texts they are studying—and they figure that out by talking with one another or hearing their teacher’s explanations in a language they’re familiar with. This is related to Butzkamm’s (1989/2002) notion of doppelverstehen/“dual comprehension”—understanding not just what is said but how it is said (as cited in Hall & Cook, 2013, p. 283). You cannot teach this without resorting to learners’ own language, and if you omit this kind of verbal mediation, you omit a large part of what it means to teach in a critical, socially just way (Janks, 2009; Janks, Dixon, Ferreira, Granville, & Newfield, 2013).

Therefore, use of learners’ own language goes way beyond mere translation, but even translation (despite its unpopularity as a language teaching method) has its benefits. It is a natural means of language learning and an efficient way of learning vocabulary and explaining grammar; moreover, it can protect learners’ cultural identity. It can also increase learners’ understanding of culture-specific content and literary texts, and can even improve fluency and accuracy to some extent (p. 283).

2. Key arguments that underpin the revival of bi/multilingual language teaching

Hall and Cook present pedagogical arguments before theoretical ones, and we will start with these. Pedagogically, the teacher has many meditational goals: instructional goals, classroom management goals, and socioemotional goals (expressing concern, sympathy, rapport, etc.)—all of which are sometimes best achieved by using learners’ own language. This also reassures learners that their own language has a place in the class, which is important for their individual and group identity and psychological well-being. Conversation analysts have shown that there are just some things that would be socially awkward/inappropriate to do in the target language (e.g., responding to someone’s amazingly good news, or to an emotional outburst; making a polite request for someone to change their behaviour), because use of that code for that purpose would suggest unnatural distance/formality or condescension. Citing Edstrom (2006), the authors write:

Edstrom suggests that teachers [whether or not they know learners’ own language] have a ‘moral obligation’ to recognize learners as individuals, to communicate respect and concern and to create a positive affective environment (which, in turn, benefits learning). She therefore argues that concerns for learning affect [i.e., feelings about what it means to learn that language in that classroom] outweigh her belief in maximizing new language use, although she notably points out that, whilst this may seem subjective, she is not arguing for ‘purposeless’ or ‘lazy’ own-language use (Edstrom, 2006: 289). Instead, she suggests that ‘thoughtful [and] honest self-analysis’ can help teachers use the learners’ own language ‘judiciously’ [whether they know it or not]. (Hall & Cook, 2013, p. 287; my bold and additional explanations) 

In other words, it is time to see learners’ own language is one potential pedagogical resource in the teacher’s toolkit. This relates to some theories of second language acquisition, both cognitive and sociocultural.

3. Relevant theoretical frameworks from psycholinguistic and cognitive approaches to language learning, general learning theory, and sociocultural research

Starting with cognitive theories, Hall and Cook cite Vivian Cook (2008) and Jim Cummins (2007). According to Vivian Cook, “multicompetence” means the bilingual brain is not two monolingual brains joined to one another—bilinguals are not two monolinguals in one person. The clearest analogy for what the bi/multilingual brain looks like, and how it works, is translanguaging scholar Ofelia García’s “all-terrain vehicle,” as opposed to a bicycle or tricycle. Cummins argues that bi/multilinguals have a “common underlying proficiency,” that is, a knowledge of the world—as well as academic and thinking skills—that transfer across languages. This means that verbal and literacy development in one language helps rather than hinders verbal and literacy development in others (especially if those languages are related languages, but even if they are not, because if you’ve already learned something in one language, it’s easier to understand it in another).

In fact, positive cross-linguistic transfer (i.e., positive effects that your own language has when you learn another language) probably outweighs negative cross-linguistic transfer when you consider the sheer amount of life knowledge, as well as the fully developed language system, you have at your disposal if you ever want to learn the same concepts in an additional language or figure out anything in the additional language by talking about it with others. However, what is often thought of when we hear “cross-linguistic transfer” are the negative effects, which are likely in the minority (e.g., “non-nativelikeness,” which has nothing to do with proficiency in the additional language, as I explain in this other post). Positive cross-linguistic transfer can mean anything from transferring phonological awareness (if the languages are cognate languages, this actually facilitates native-like pronunciation, and it can also work between L2/L3/L4/etc.), to pragmatic/cultural aspects of language use, to metacognitive and metalinguistic strategies to figure out grammar or vocabulary by comparing it to a language you already know, to simply understanding new concepts in the additional language better.

Even if mainstream Second Language Acquisition research has shown little interest in positive cross-linguistic transfer, and explicitly or implicitly promoted “target-language-only” classrooms, there are implicit references to cross-linguistic transfer in some of the most important SLA theories. Schmidt’s “noticing hypothesis” (Schmidt, 1990) and Long’s “focus on form” (1991) suggests that IF you notice grammar and focus on form, you must be doing some cross-linguistic analysis. This is something only older language learners can do—they may be past the critical period for “native” language learning, but they also have a first language to which they can productively contrast how the new one works; they have the ability to analyze grammar in ways children cannot because young children do not have that level of cognitive development. In studies of “pushed output” (Swain, 1985), Swain explained how older children or youth in a language classroom communicate bi/multilingually to figure out target forms in the language they are learning, improving accuracy and complexity of their output.

Another cognitive theory supporting use of students’ own language in teaching a new language is the famous hierarchy of levels of thinking by Bloom, called “Bloom’s Taxonomy.”

Research on child language learners (Carless, 2002) and adult language learners (Scott & de la Fuente, 2008) has shown that the higher you move up the pyramid in task complexity, the more students use their own language. This clearly has to do with its meditational functions. Even when students gain some proficiency in the additional language, their own language is their best one for mediating, and they will need to draw on this, perhaps even by using multiple languages together (translanguaging): “prior knowledge and the learners’ own language provide a cognitive framework through which new knowledge is constructed and regulated” (p. 291) in talk with others, whether that’s whole class talk with the teacher or talk in group work. We come to this next—i.e., sociocultural theories.

Many teachers have heard of the 20th century Russian educational theorist Lev Vygotsky… a man who died of tuberculosis tragically young, in his 30s, and who figured out the universal process that underlies all learning. Learning of all kinds happens while doing stuff with others AND talking with them about what we are doing (Vygotsky, 1978). This talking drives the learning—the talk not only tells the learner(s) how X is done, but what is happening in front of them as they are doing X (both seen and unseen), as well as what could happen if they were to make various choices. Such meditational talk triggers cognitive activity in learners’ brains; you can see them talking to themselves when they are practicing alone, and soon this process between two or more minds (interpsychological, between teacher and student or between a group of more and less knowledgeable people) gradually becomes knowledge possessed by the learner (intrapsychological). 

If you say you believe strongly in Vygotskian teaching principles and that you try to foster a target language only classroom, consider the contradiction in your teaching philosophy! There is a major limit to the power and strength of mediation if such a language policy is followed. Moreover, when students observe the teacher doing the bi/multilingual mediation, they often re-create it in group work. In fact, they already tend to do this mediation quite naturally in group work (Swain & Lapkin, 2000). Hall and Cook explain: “own-language use may enable learners to work with ‘expert others’ at a level which would otherwise be beyond their reach, thereby working in their Zone of Proximal Development.”

Consider that to adjust talk/instruction to the ZPD, the teacher and/or assisting peers would have to produce some very fine-tuned language use, which is likely only possible in their own language. Therefore, if the teacher doesn’t speak a student’s language, the best way for them to get ZPD input is through helpful peers that do. If you promote a target language only policy, you have only the bluntest of linguistic tools for the most necessary of pedagogical strategies. This is another reason why teachers who are bi/multilingual in students’ language are underrated as “non-native teachers” (even though their use of students’ languages should be judicious and deliberate, a skill to be honed).

But shouldn’t learners get enough exposure to the target language? YES, as discussed above by Edstrom (2006). And this is why the key to using students’ own language “judiciously”—and the key to teaching a language effectively—involves balancing immersion with mediation.

4. What is “judicious” in-class own-language use, practically speaking?

When you use adjectives like “purposeful, “judicious,” and “optimal” to describe own language use/translanguaging/code-switching, these are undoubtedly vague. By the way, this should not be understood as a numerical ratio, like 25%, 50%, or 75%. It’s more a matter of teachers and learners understanding “‘when and why’ the learners’ own language might be used… [even as] new language input and use is ‘maximized’” (p. 293). [Side note: See here for how to do this maximization (i.e., new language input can be rich or poor, regardless of whether there is much or little translanguaging/code-switching).]

Hall and Cook explain that use of students’ language should not be “the chaotic way it tends to appear, despite restrictions, in monolingual teaching” (Butzkamm & Caldwell, as cited in Hall & Cook, 2013, p. 293). Interviewing teachers, Macaro (1997) found that there appear to be three possible sets of beliefs teachers hold, and these are fairly stable: (1) The virtual position—“I use the target language only” (this is a virtual reality since it is not actually based in reality); (2) The maximal position—“I use students’ language, but I feel guilty about this” (so they try to maximize use of the target language and minimize use of translanguaging/code-switching), and (3) The optimal position—“I use the students’ language, and I do not feel guilty about this” (because they know how to do it optimally). In contrast to the others, this last group of teachers knew how to use these linguistic resources to enhance learning at certain points during lessons; the same is seen in this study by Probyn (2015)

Quoting Macaro (2009, pp. 38-39), Hall and Cook state:

It involves a principled decision regarding the effects of not conveying important information simply because this might be too difficult for the learners to understand in the second language—a teacher avoidance strategy. It involves decisions about the relative merits of second language input modification [i.e., just use gestures or say the same thing in different words, still in the L2] as opposed to activating first language connections. (p. 293, my bold)

In other words, this is managing the balance between immersion and various forms and types of mediation. What is optimal use of students’ own language, in 1-2 sentences? I would say, based on this reading: “During moments when mediation (or affective/social/emotional concerns) override immersion. Such ‘moments’ change within a matter of seconds or minutes.” However, Macaro (2009) also said that more studies should investigate to what extent this actually fosters better language learning, as there is virtually no research on this question. 

The language classroom is a space where people are developing into bi/multilinguals with multicompetence (V. Cook, 2002). They must form a bi/multilingual community of practice (Wenger, 1998) which is characterized by ‘mutual engagement,’ ‘joint enterprise,’ and ‘shared repertoire’ [or partly shared repertoires in a class where students speak different first languages]. People are responsible for building the architecture that will facilitate learning; however, the extent to which this works depends on both teachers’ and students’ perceptions of the “legitimacy, value and appropriate classroom functions” (p. 294) of students’ own language(s).

5. Teachers’ and learners’ attitudes

Countless studies have reported teachers’ sense of guilt when learners’ other languages are used in the classroom. Even when they see their benefit, they tend to describe such practices as “regrettable but necessary” (Macaro, 2006, p. 68). While the adjective “necessary” is backed by research spanning psychology, sociology, education, and linguistics (see above), there is no scientific basis to call it “regrettable” (this is just a societal ideology). In fact, teachers have a “moral obligation” (Edstrom 2008), to put students in an “optimal position” for own and new language use (Macaro, 1997, 2009). Fortunately, teachers’ beliefs can change over time—often in favour of more translanguaging and code-switching as they learn to use them judiciously. 

Other factors that impact classroom language practices apart from teacher beliefs include students’ target language proficiency as well as teachers’ proficiency in students’ own language(s). However, any teacher who believes students’ own languages have pedagogical value (a “translanguaging stance“) can design activities that utilize these resources. Hall and Cook review on p. 296 studies that suggest that such teachers do not belong to a single demographic category—foreign or local, monolingual or bi/multilingual. Any teacher can be such a teacher, because becoming such a teacher involves cultivation of judgment regarding “optimal” use of students’ own language(s) and the balance between immersion and mediation. Any teacher can become such a teacher, but to do so, they need AUTONOMY. A translanguaging stance and bi/multilingual pedagogies can only develop “based on the reflections of teachers as professional decision-makers in their own local context” (p. 296). 

On the other hand, there are also the learners and their beliefs and language ideologies. What do they think of own language use? Turnbull and Arnett (2002) and G. Cook (2008) find that there is a relative lack of research in this area—i.e., most research focuses on the teachers’ language ideologies. One study (Rolin-Ianziti & Varshney, 2008) found that most beginner learners of French in an Australian university preferred own-language use for classroom management, possibly because it is efficient and the classroom management phrases are not the phrases under study in the language class. [Funny side note: Ben Rampton (2002) found that in a boring German language class at a British high school, the only things the students learned were the teacher’s incidental classroom management phrases, e.g., “Sit down!” All other German input was meaningless and forgotten, while these scoldings were socially meaningful and the students repeated them to each other both in and out of class.] 

Personally, I would like to see a study that asked learners about their use of their own language(s) in mediation—one that would help them see the value of this if they hadn’t thought about it before.

6. Pedagogical implications

There is still a lot of monolingualism in language teaching, especially in academic subject instruction in English as an additional language, called Content Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) or English-medium instruction (EMI), both in societies where English was a colonial language (e.g., Hong Kong) and in countries where English has not historically been the main or dominant language (e.g., Mainland China) (pp. 297-298).

The ignorance of the dominant educational discourses in these settings is staggering. They draw upon “the old SLA view that exposure and attention to meaning will be sufficient factors for language learning success” (p. 298), even in societies where English is not widely spoken outside the classroom. In these societies, the “younger is better for language learning” hypothesis does not hold true; that is only true when the language being learned is the dominant one in the society (Krashen, Long, & Scarcella, 1979). These educational developments are not encouraging, because they represent a “major extension of English into classrooms and subject areas where students’ own languages previously held sway, and in contexts where the ex-colonial language maintains its dominant position” (Hall & Cook, 2013, p. 298).

Yet teachers can resist by using students’ own language(s) for pedagogical, classroom management, or socioemotional purposes. What this state-of-the-art article has aimed to do is to help teachers understand the theories they need to inform their practical work, particularly the balance between immersion and mediation. Even if the textbooks are English-monolingual and do not contain local content, or are only slightly adapted to the location (i.e., in China, minimal Mandarin translations and linguistic and cultural references serving the dominant group in that country), teachers and students can still draw on their own funds of knowledge to make classrooms more plurilingual. 

First, (1) teachers should discuss with students the purposes of their own language use and its judicious application, for affective or meditational reasons. They can then (2) contrast forms in students’ language(s) and the target language to develop metalinguistic awareness, (3) use students’ own languages to create “higher order” products in Bloom’s taxonomy, (4) encourage each other to study and review vocabulary using bilingual flashcards, and (5) engage in “meaningful translation” activities where getting the message right across languages matters for both learning and social communication—and did you know that “meaningful translation” works even in a very linguistically diverse class?

These activities can encourage “interaction, collaboration” while supporting more traditional language learning goals related to “form, accuracy and individual study” (p. 299). Yes, variations will have to happen depending on the teacher’s language repertoire, learners’ proficiency level (though all learners can benefit from bi/multilingual mediation; for example, advanced learners can learn more deeply by tutoring others bi/multilingually), learners’ age, learners’ “learning styles, experiences, and preferences” (p. 299) and classroom language demographics. For bi/multilingual teachers, they need to do deliberate, judicious pedagogical code-switching to make concepts crystal-clear, especially in CLIL/EMI. [Side note: Here’s a .PDF I made illustrating what pedagogical code-switching/translanguaging looks like in an EMI science class, between languages and multimodal resources.]

The above is obviously a teacher-led discussion in CLIL/EMI, but it should be followed up with bi/multilingual collaborative group work to produce oral and written products in English high up in the pyramid of Bloom’s taxonomy. And as I mentioned before, if teachers model how to do pedagogical code-switching/translanguaging in whole class discussions, students tend to reproduce it in group work to help each other. In addition, teachers who do not share learners’ language(s) and/or teach mixed language classes can also deploy other strategies, which largely involve letting learners lead the bi/multilingual scaffolding and learning practices. 

In conclusion, whatever teachers do with students’ languages, given the extent that they can use them, “‘they help to establish the presence and relevance of learners’ own languages in the classroom’ and the reality of a bi- and multilingual world” (G. Cook, as cited in Hall & Cook, 2013, p. 299).


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Published by annamend

Assistant Professor in the Department of Linguistics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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