This page has examples of mother-tongue use in the subject classroom, and its advantages for ESL students.


A major task for ESL students is the acquisition of a large vocabulary. Mainstream subject teachers who themselves know more than one language can help in this process. They can do this by pointing out cognates and helpful mother-tongue equivalents.


A cognate is a word that sounds similar or is spelled similarly in two languages. So, for example, acceleration (Spanish) and acceleration (English) are cognates. English and Spanish have a shared parent language, so it is unsurprising that they have many cognates.

German and English also have a common parent language, and cognates abound. For example: September-September; winter-Winter; garden-Garten; house-Haus; green-grĂ¼n.

Teachers can help ESL students with the acquisition of important general and subject-specific vocabulary by pointing out such cognates when an appropriate opportunity arises.

Mother-tongue equivalents

As well as alerting students to cognates, it can also be useful to point out mother-tongue translations that can help all the students understand subject-specific terms.

For example, if you are a science teacher and know German, you could have a German student in your class say the German word for mammal (Säugetier=suckling animal) and use that to help a general understanding of the term. Similarly with:

  • Sauerstoff = sour/acidic stuff = oxygen
  • Wasserstoff = water stuff = hydrogen
  • Stickstoff = suffocating stuff = nitrogen

If you are a mathematics teacher you could point out:

  • Vieleck = many corners = polygon
  • Mittelwert = middle value = (arithmetic) mean
  • x hoch drei = x high 3 = x to the power of  3 = x3

Or a geography teacher:

  • Halbinsel = half island = peninsula
  • Hochebene = high flat = plateau
  • Meerenge = sea narrowness = strait


Such occasional mother-tongue use can not only help all students learn and understand new terms, but it also validates the native languages and the presence of the ESL students in the mainstream classroom. And even if you know only English, you could ask from time to time what the word is in ESL student's mother-tongue. It may very well be a cognate.

False friends

It is important to be aware that cognate languages such as English and German have the problem of false friends. These are words that are spelled or sound the same, but which have different meanings in the two languages. For example:

  • The German word bekommen does not mean become. It means to get or receive.
  • The German word sensibel is not the same as the English word sensible. Sensibel means sensitive, easy to upset, whereas the English word sensible is the opposite of stupid.

Multilingual teachers can help ESL students by pointing out any use of a false friend.