Mother tongue mirroring

Mother tongue mirroring is the adaptation of word-for word translation in language education. The aim is to make foreign constructions salient and transparent to learners and, in many cases, spare them the technical jargon of grammatical analysis. It differs from literal translation and interlinear text as used in the past, since it takes the progress learners have made into account and only focuses upon one specific structure at a time. As a didactic device, it can only be used to the extent that it remains intelligible to the learner, unless it is combined with a normal idiomatic translation.


Compound words

Compounds can be broken down into their component parts to help learners understand their logic. For example, in German:

Target vocabulary Idiomatic translation Literal translation
Handschuh glove hand shoe
Zahnarzt dentist tooth doctor
Faustregel rule of thumb fist rule
Lehnwort loanword

So ‘loanword’ is originally an exact copy of the German compound, or calque. The term ‘mother tongue mirroring’ can itself be regarded as a calque from German, because it is originally a translation of ‘muttersprachliche Spiegelung’.[1]

Idioms and proverbs

Over and above knowing what idioms actually mean in order to use them properly, learners want to know how they come to mean what they mean. In another example from German:

Target vocabulary Idiomatic translation Literal translation
Kopf und Kragen riskieren stick one’s neck out risk head and collar
etwas auf eigene Faust tun act on one’s own authority do something on one’s own fist
die Hände in den Schoß legen rest on one’s oars put the hands in the lap

Pragmatic formulas

In French:

Target vocabulary Idiomatic translation Literal translation
s’il vous plaît please if it to-you pleases

In Turkish:

Target vocabulary Idiomatic translation Literal translation
teşekkür ederim thank you thanks make-I

In Armenian:

Target vocabulary Idiomatic translation Literal translation
շնորհակալ եմ (shnorhak'al em) thank you thankful I-am


In German:

Target vocabulary Idiomatic translation Literal translation
Ein starker Raucher a heavy smoker a strong smoker
eine Drohung wahrmachen fulfill a threat make a threat true
eine Familie gründen start a family ground a family


Mother tongue mirroring is most helpful for discovering the hidden anatomy of foreign grammars, especially of non-related languages. In Mandarin:

Target vocabulary Idiomatic translation Literal translation
hǎo bù hǎo? (好不好?) Is it good? Good, not good?
nán bù nán? (难不难?) Is it difficult? Difficult, not difficult?

Untranslatable particles such as Mandarin le, meaning 'temporary change of state or situation', are simply inserted in the mirrored version:

Target vocabulary Idiomatic translation Literal translation
wǒ è le. I‘m hungry. I hungry le.
wǒ bǎo le. I'm full(up). I full le.

For more Chinese constructions mirrored in English see Wu.[2]

Generative principle

Making a structure transparent is not an aim in itself but serves the ultimate aim of enabling the learner, in Wilhelm von Humboldt’s words, to make infinite use of finite means (“von endlichen Mitteln unendlichen Gebrauch machen”). In foreign language teaching, this basic human capacity is captured by the generative principle.

In “The awful German language” Mark Twain humorously explained the difficulties of German syntax and morphology by mirroring long sentences in English. Although the main intent is satirical rather than didactic, Twain provides interesting insights into the workings of the German language.

Mirroring is amply used in commercial phrasebooks and computer courses and is a common device in scientific grammars of remote languages, but has been ignored by modern coursebook authors, along with other bilingual techniques such as the sandwich technique, presumably because of the mother tongue taboo, still prevailing in mainstream language teaching methodology. According to Butzkamm & Caldwell,[3] mother tongue mirroring should be re-instated as a central teaching technique, especially when learners are not ready for grammatical analysis. It is analysis by analogy. It is foreign grammar in native words.

See also


  1. Butzkamm, Wolfgang (2002) [1989]. Psycholinguistik des Fremdsprachenunterrichts: Von der Muttersprache zur Fremdsprache. (The psycholinguistics of foreign language teaching. From mother tongue to foreign language). Tübingen: Francke.
  2. Wu, Tong (2010).Open the door to English with your native language: The role of the mother tongue in English language teaching in China. PhD diss. Aachen University.
  3. Butzkamm, Wolfgang & J.A.W. Caldwell (2009). The bilingual reform. A paradigm shift in foreign language teaching. Tübingen: Narr Verlag.

Further reading

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