Universidad Columbia

Teaching Business English to English Learners and The Use of the Mother Tongue

Publicado el por Departamento de Comunicación

Teaching Business English to English Learners and the Use of the Mother Tongue


Gerhard E. Roux

Universidad Columbia Del Paraguay


Author’s Note

Comercio Exterior, Sede 25 de Mayo



In the Business English language classroom the use of the students’ mother tongue, is an actuality that exists in many of today’s classrooms around the world. Allowing the use of the students’ language in the Business English language classroom is an issue which receives lots of attention and differences of opinion from modern day English language teachers. A great number of teachers agree that the learner has to be exposed to the Target Language in a meaningful way through interaction with the teachers and the classmates. However, bear in mind that learners should not be given the correct information at all times. They have to try to discover how the new language must be applied. The success of this depends a great deal on the individual teaching techniques. To find the perfect teaching method for every English language teaching class is just not possible. To totally remove the mother tongue form the language classroom is not the agreed opinion of all English Language Teaching teachers. Most

Keywords: English learners, second language acquisition, mother tongue


Teaching Business English to English Learners and the Use of the Mother Tongue

A great number of studies have been conducted regarding the use of the mother tongue in the English and Business English language class. These focus on the existing level of the student’s English skills, different communication methods, and the frequency of the use of the mother tongue. Unfortunately contradictory results are often suggested within this research because not all teachers share the same beliefs.

Linguists have observed that since languages are constantly subjected to change due to its flaccid state, one cannot exclusively claim that they speak perfect English or any other language as of that (Choroleeva K., 2012). Even native speakers cannot be considered to be experts regarding their mother tongue. The foreign language of choice for most Paraguayan students is English. The hard truth is, however, that even after spending sufficient time and effort in learning English, it has been noted that students usually have inhibitions when it comes to expressing themselves in the foreign language. Students still use their native language when speaking or writing. This is probably due to the methods most students use when learning a foreign language. Instead of learning for oral communication, they learn to gain reading proficiency in a foreign language or for the sake of being scholarly (Dralo, 2012).

Most learners apply knowledge from their native language to the second language and this transfer can result in both positive and negative results. Positive transfer happens when the meaning of topics that are transferred is in agreement with the native speakers concept correct usage. Negative transfer occurs when they do the opposite and this causes errors. Negative transfer is more likely to happen when the there are very big differences in interpretation between English and Spanish.  The similarities and dissimilarities in word meanings and word forms affect how quickly a learner can acquire a foreign language (Odlin, 1989: 77). The method used in teaching foreign languages in most educational institutions is Grammar Translation. The exercise given to students is mostly that of translating disconnected sentences from the English language into Spanish and the other way round. Little to no attention is given to how words should be pronounced (Dralo, 2012).

The foundation of ESP (English for Specific Purposes) is not a familiar subject-matter. For learners to succeed, they need to be proficient in reading and writing. There are many arguments, about how much the mother tongue affects the acquisition of a new language. This has caused a divide between groups that are for monolingualism in the classroom and those that are against it. Butzkamm (2003-2005), as cited in Suntharesan’s research paper ‘Role of Mother Tongue in Teaching English to Tamil Students’ remarked, “ The international dominance of English native speakers who find absolution in the dogma of monolingualism when they cannot understand the language of their pupils, together with the cheaper mass production of strictly English-speaking in the Anglo-American mother country, constitutes one of the reasons behind the sanctification of, and the demand for, monolingualism in the classroom.” Here, Butzkamm supports the use of first language in the classroom as it is a useful tool which can be used to explain difficult grammar. L1 can also be used when giving instructions which learners might not be able to understand in English, and for checking understanding, especially when using complex contexts (Suntharesan 2012). The use of the first language provides students with a sense of security that enables them to learn with ease and in comfort. With texts that require higher proficiency, learners are advised to first read the text in their first language, then in the second language to better understand the concept (Suntharesan, 2012).

Translation is important at the intermediate and advanced levels. Translation from English to Spanish and Spanish to English helps understanding between strangers and it is an important social skill. Teachers of foreign languages are aware of the importance of translation in language classrooms since all students, whether good or bad at comprehending reading or listening materials, mentally translate the material from L2 to L1 and the other way around (Odlin T, 1989). 

Arguments about what the best way to learn a second language is and what the best way to teach a second language is, continue to emerge. Brown (2000, p. 14) maintains that: There are no instant recipes. No quick and easy method is guaranteed to provide success. Every learner is unique. Every teacher is unique. Every learner-teacher relationship is unique, and every context is unique. Finding a perfect teaching method for every ELT classroom seems impossible, so Brown (2000: 14) advises teachers to adopt “a cautious, enlightened, and eclectic approach”. Other ELT professionals also promote informed eclecticism in the classroom (Breen 2001, p. 315, Lightbrown & Spada 2006, p. 34), recommending a variety of activities and tasks to meet the needs of a diverse group of learners.

With this outlook of open-mindedness on how to learn a language and on how to teach it, it appears unwise to discard any method without careful consideration.

Total removal of the mother tongue form the language classroom is not the general consensus among English language teaching practitioners. Many admit the mother tongue has a role to play (Nunan 1999, p. 73, Carter 1987, p. 153, Brown 2000, p. 138, Dornyei 1995, p. 58, Holliday 1994, p. 7).

The Teaching of Grammar

The teaching of grammar is a controversial term. One school of teachers or linguists asserts that the most effective way to develop competency in the second language is through the process of "acquisition", that is through meaningful interaction between the Spanish and English, and that the formal teaching/learning of grammar is detrimental to optimum acquisition because it focuses the learner's attention on the form rather than on the meaning. Another school of pedagogues or linguists asserts that grammatical competence is communicative competence and therefore must be taught and learned formally.

A growing movement among language teachers believes that in working towards grammatical accuracy does not mean sacrificing fluency" (Celce-Murcia p. 406). "Grammar", says JosT Rubia Bacia, 1973, "is not language; it is an explanation of language" (p. 6). The student acquires language through usage, and grammar through formal learning. Grammar cannot be substituted for language; when one tries to do so, the result is "an abstraction that exists in a vacuum. It has no reference" (p. 6).

Standard English is the acrolect (the variety of speech that is considered most suitable for formal occasions) of well-educated native speakers of English. Yet, English presents a large diversity of dialects, Standard English being but one variety. Some linguists thus speak of "Englishes" (McArthur, 1992, p. 355). To what extent does British English differ from American, Australian, or South African English? Are these differences significant in terms of mutual comprehension in today's "global village"? English speakers and writers cannot have recourse to an English language academy as is the case of the French and the Spaniards, for example. The academy of English is composed of all the people who speak English - English of all flavors.

Taking into account the vast diversity of English and Spanish spoken and written in the world, one becomes conscious of the fact that a cross-linguistic comparison would constitute an undertaking of more academic than utilitarian value. "Even discrete bilingual speakers such as Spanish-speaking or Spanish-English-speaking children may have been reared in different linguistic cultures; thus, for example, the Mexican-American, the Central or South or Cuban-American, and the Puerto-Rican American--all speak somewhat different dialects of Spanish" (Adler, 1993, p. 125).

The concept of speaking grammatically correct has been called illusory. Lado, 1957, stated that "We mean by grammatical structure the systematic formal devices used in a language to convey certain meanings and relationships" (p. 52). In this sense, grammar goes beyond "usage", because usages differ in their communication power.

A very common mistake for students learning Business English is the omission of the “subject” when writing or speaking. This mistake happens because the subject in Spanish isn’t always necessary. In English, of course, it definitely is necessary. For example in Spanish you say: “Es importante estudiar todos los días.”However, when they translate this to English, many people say, “Is important to study every day.” Instead of saying: “It is important to study every day.” In English, you must always specify the subject. Students have to be trained to include the subject. To train their brain and their mouth to get used to saying ‘it’ or any other subject, is of course another matter.

A very difficult aspect of learning English is the lack of rules. The confusion with adding ‘the’ or not adding ‘the’ is always problematic for Spanish speakers because using ‘the in Spanish is very common. For example if we were to talk about children and adults in general, we would say, “Los niños están más interesados en la tecnología que los adultos.” Although this is correct in Spanish, if we say in English: “The children are more interested in technology than the adults.” It has a different meaning altogether. In the Spanish sentence we are talking about children and adults in general, but in the English sentence we are referring to two particular groups of children and adults. To have the same meaning as in the Spanish we must say, “Children are more interested in technology than adults.” In English ‘the’ is generally only used for specific things.

Prepositions are probably one of the most difficult parts of the English language for many learners. Students have to accept the fact that learning languages is a gradual process, and they have to learn prepositions one step at a time. Memorizing Prepositions is not the answer. They are different in English and Spanish and by learning all the prepositions from a list is the worst thing to do. One way to teach these is to provide listening, reading and visual material where the students can listen for prepositions and identify them in articles they read.

Pronunciation Problems For Spanish-Speaking Learners Of English

A strong Spanish accent can cause considerable strain for the listener and seem somewhat harsh and flat. More importantly, Spanish speakers often have listening comprehension far below their other skills. English teaching lessons in most Spanish-speaking countries tend to focus much more on reading and grammar than speaking and listening, and so pronunciation work will both help redress the balance and be considered worthwhile by students.

Vowels:  Short and long vowel pairs

Perhaps the single biggest pronunciation problem for Spanish speakers is that their language does not have a distinction between short and long vowels. They often stretch all vowel sounds out too much and confuse pairs of short and long English vowel sounds like “ship” and “sheep” both in comprehension and speaking.

In common with most learners, Spanish speakers find the distinction between the very similar sounds in “cat” and “cut” difficult to notice and produce. Perhaps more importantly, they can also have problems with the two closest sounds to an “o” sound in “not” mentioned above, making “boat” and “bought” difficult to distinguish.


Words written with “b” and “v” are mostly pronounced identically, making this perhaps the most common spelling mistake in Spanish. There is also no distinction between the first sounds in “yacht” and “jot” in Spanish and which of those two sounds is perceived by English speakers tends to depend on the variety of Spanish spoken (this being one of the easiest ways of spotting an Argentinean accent, for example). There may also be some confusion between the first sound in “jeep” and its unvoiced equivalent in “cheap” (a common sound in Spanish).

The “ch” in “cheese” may also be confused with the “sh” in “she’s”, as the latter sound does not exist in Spanish. The difference is similar to that between “yacht” and “jot” mentioned above, being between a smooth sound (sh) and a more explosive one (ch), so the distinction can usefully be taught as a more general point. Alternatively, the “sh” in “sheep” may come out sounding more like “s” in “seep”, in which case it is mouth shape that needs to be worked on.

Spanish words never start with an “s” sound, and words which are similar to English tend to have an initial “es” sound instead, as in escuela/school. This is very common in Spanish speakers’ pronunciation of English as well, leading to pronunciations like “I am from Espain”. Spanish speakers have no problem producing a hissing sound, so the secret is to have them make the word directly after that “ssss” and then practise reducing the length of that down to a short initial “s”.

Unlike most languages, the “th” sounds in “thing” and “bathe” do exist in Spanish. The problem with “bathe” is that the sound is just a variation on mid or final “d” for Spanish speakers and so some work on understanding the distinction between initial “d” and initial “th” is usually needed before it can be understood and produced in an initial position – in fact making the amount of work needed not much less than for speakers of languages entirely without this sound. The problem with “thing” and “sing” is different as it is a distinction that exists in some varieties of Spanish and not others, meaning that again for some speakers practice will need to start basically from zero.

Some speakers also pronounce a final “d” similar to an unvoiced “th”. “d” and “t” can also be a problem at the end of words, as can “thing”/“think” and sometimes “thing”/“thin” or even “ring” and “rim”. In general, Spanish consonant sounds vary more by position than English consonants do.

Although a “w” sound exists in Spanish, it is spelt “gu” and can be pronounced “gw”, sometimes making it difficult to work out if a “g” or “w” is what is meant.

As a “z” is pronounced as “s” or “th” (depending on the speaker, as in the two pronunciations of “Barcelona”), a “z” sound does not exist in Spanish. However, perhaps because not so much air is produced in a Spanish “s” I find that this version rarely produces comprehension problems.

Although a Spanish “r” is different from most English ones, it rarely causes comprehension problems. However, the English “r” can seem so soft to Spanish speakers that it is sometimes perceived as “w”.

The Spanish “j” in José (similar to the Scottish “ch” in “loch”) and the English “h” in “hope” rarely if ever cause communication problems, but is perhaps the main thing to work on if students are interested in accent reduction. An English “h” is like breathing air onto your glasses so you can polish them, and students can actually practise doing that to help.

Number of syllables

Particularly when it comes to final consonant clusters in English, Spanish-speakers can suffer both from adding extra syllables (e.g. three syllables for “advanced” with the final “e” pronounced) and swallowing sounds to make it match the desired number of syllables (e.g. “fifths” sounding like “fiss”). With words that are similar in Spanish and English, they can also often try to make the English word match the Spanish number of syllables.

Word stress. Trying to make Latinate words in English match Spanish pronunciation is also true for word stress. There is also a more general problem that Spanish, unlike English, has a pretty regular system of word stress.

Sentence stress. The English idea of unstressed syllables and weak forms being squashed in between stressed syllables doesn’t really exist in Spanish. This can make it difficult for Spanish speakers to pick out and point out the important words in a sentence.

Intonation. Spanish speakers, especially males, can sound quite flat in English, and this can cause problems in formal situations and other times when polite language is needed (especially as Spanish speakers also have other problems with polite language such as over-use of the verb “give”). (Alex Case for July 2012).

Looking at this overview of common errors for Spanish speakers learning English, it is obvious that native language plays a large role in second language learning. In the classroom, the teacher will, undoubtedly, encounter many more errors than the few presented here. However, it is always important to understand how grammatical differences, among others, influence the language learning process.


It seems clear that the advantages of using the mother language in the teaching of English outweigh the disadvantages. Using English to explain English grammar structures to learners of English as a second language, especially to beginners, makes no sense, since they will not be able to grasp the meaning.  Adult learners, contrary to children, have a want to understand the reasoning behind certain grammar rules. Unlike children, they do not just accept that, “that is the way it is used, no explanation necessary”.  For adult learners, without receiving an explanation in the mother language, their doubts remain, and if not addressed, they lose interest. There is a fine line to follow, and the teacher should take decisions based on the level of understanding of the particular group of students.


Brown, H. D. (2000). Principles of Language Learning and Teaching. 4th ed. New York: Addison Wesley Longman.

Breen, M. P. (2001). Navigating the discourse: on what is learned in the language classroom. In Candlin, C. N. & Mercer, N. (eds.) English Language Teaching in its Social Context. New York: Routledge. Pp. 306-322.

Carter, R. A. (1987). Vocabulary: Applied Linguistic Perspectives. London: Allen and Unwin.

Dörnyei, Z. (1995). On the teachability of communication strategies. TESOL Quarterly, 29: 55-84.

Holliday, A. (1994). The house of TESEP and the communicative approach: the special needs of state English language education. ELT Journal, 48/1, 3-10.

Coe, N. in Swan, M. & Smith, B. (1987). Learner English: A teacher's guide to interference and other problems. Cambridge University Press.

Del Pilar García Mayo, M. (2007). The acquisition of four non generic uses of the article the by Spanish EFL learners.  System, 36(4).  doi: doi:10.1016/j.system.2008.08.00

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