"Use of Students' First Language in the ESL Classroom."

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As ESL teachers, we're bound to pick up some of our students' first language - no matter what it is - but I don't think it helps to use that language in class. During the time it takes for the teacher to mime, draw stick figures, give examples, or use the desired language, the students are more likely to be interested and to interact than if the teacher just gives them the translation. Maybe it's harder work for the teacher, but I think the student will be more likely to remember the new word, phrase, idiom, or whatever.

Using L1? I have done it and I have avoided doing it. With a mixed language class, it's easy - you don't and the students don't expect you to speak 6 or more languages. Based on my experience of both choices, this is the best option, even with a mono-lingual class. The students are there to learn communication strategies in English, and giving them translations or explanations in their own language will deter them from becoming independent learners.
Having said that, of course, the real life situation we find ourselves in will not always allow this. Often you are under pressure to achieve something in class and using the student's own language is the easiest way to do this.

However, I am going to venture the opinion that if you need the student's L1 to explain a word or an activity, then you are trying to do something too difficult for them. The students really need to learn to use dictionaries, to negotiate meaning and to guess - itself not easy for some students. They also need to choose between these strategies sensibly. Asking the teacher or a classmate for a translation will block this process.

If you do make recourse to your knowledge of L1 in class and would like to stop, you may have to do more than simply stop or even tell the students you are stopping. You will have to provide an alternative, which will probably involve English - English or bilingual dictionaries. You will then need to train the students to use these efficiently. Secondly, present new vocabulary in a way that itself teaches the meaning. There are good books that do this.
Thirdly, any activities, games or grammar points should be illustrated by example/modelled by the teacher rather than explained.

Taking the L1 avoidance one step further, I even avoid explaining words, activities and even grammar rules in English. The idea being that I don't need to practice speaking English - but the students do. Cutting down on TTT [teacher talking time] is essential for effective ESL teaching and even a few seconds explaining a word is cutting into the time available in class for the student to actively do something, with no guarantee of any benefit from the explanation.

If you are not careful you will soon be doing all the work! It is not your job to work in class. You do your work before class, in class you direct, guide and help the students to work.

Does use of L1 in your ESL classes help the students to do more or less work? Distinguish carefully between product and process here.

This is an important question and it is useful to have input from teachers on all sides of the debate.
Andy, UK.

Wonderful topic. My current viewpoint is that a judicious use of L1 has too many benefits to be discounted. At the beginner and very lower levels, acknowledging the student native language builds cultural bridges, fosters mutual respect, keeps english in perspective for the students, so they do not discount their native language. Their pride and self esteem is extremely important, and must be kept intact. They will fall back upon their native language instinctively, as any of us well know who have acquired a second language ourselves. So, set the role model for them, and demonstrate a bilingual ability which can at least explain parts of speech, spelling and punctuation basics. And then progressively, wean the foreign words completely out of the classroom. I firmly believe use of native language enhances learning, so much so that I would almost, but not quite, be willing to advocate it for beginner classes. Another point I might make is that while non-native english speakers are studying English at tremendous rates all over the world, native english speakers are not doing the reverse. Therefore, I consider it somewhat selfish to refrain from allowing other native languages into the classroom. While english may indeed be the international language of politics and commerce, there is too much lost comprehension in the conversation when esl speakers communicate in english. My vote is definitely FOR 2nd language in esl classrooms. Thank you.
David Paullin, Uijongbu, S. Korea

I see nothing wrong with using L1 sometimes in class, and even doing translation exercises once in a while. ie:read a sentence in their language and have them translate it. I've used it several times and they seemed to enjoy it. However I don't believe in doing it too much. The trick is knowing how much is enough. I also don't use it in upper level classes, they should have enough grasp of English by then so as not to need it. The problem with this approach is that you really have to know their language well enough to KNOW what the correct translation is or you may wind up giving them false ideas. I've heard time and time again from teachers who say you should only use English in class. But I give this example: If I want to say "que quisieras?" in English I say "What would you like?" it is far easier to give the Spanish equivalent than to try and explain what would means. Just my thoughts anyway.

I've been a student of Chinese in Beijing and must say that an occasional word in English from my teacher did wonders not only to communicate a concept that would have taken much time to explain but also in reaffirming me as a speaker of another language. A lot of our Spanish-speaking students need more than just English words and definitions in the classroom--they need affirmation in a society that although claiming all men are created equal, somehow views them as being "less than." Used with appropriate discretion, I believe the occasional use of the speaker's first language can be very beneficial
VVZ - Illinois

Dear friends, of course that an English teacher should use only the target language.so, if not, we won't be able to teach any kind of students. I know (and many times I've felt like doing it!)that teaching using the student's native language makes things easier and more understandable, but our job is to make students understand without translation, that's why there are a lot of visuals and other kinds of teaching materials. At the beginning of a course, it has always been difficult for students to understand, but I've seen that, little by little, they can understand and use the language without thinking in Spanish, so they have more fluency. Thanks a lot for reading my opinion. Best regards to all the English teachers.
Sofia, Mexico

I teach English in an industrial type high school in Japan. The focus of this school is not English, therefore the level is very low. My Japanese is awful, but I'm slowly learning. I think that when my students hear me slaughtering their language they are less afraid to make mistakes themselves, which is good. I think that if I were fluent the effect would be lost, but as a fellow student of language I think its alright. In my opinion the more my students can relate to me the better!

I teach English in Japan as an assistant teacher. For me personally, speaking a lot of Japanese in my English classes is not really a problem as my students speak more English than I speak Japanese. However, many of the teachers i work with have very limited English skills and use a lot of Japanese during their lessons. I understand that they are not able to explain some things in English, but for a second language lesson, a lot of the first language seems to be spoken. On the other hand though, I don`t think that it`s always beneficial to only speak English during an English lesson. I am taking Japanese lessons and we are only allowed to speak Japanese during our lessons. Most of the time this is fine but sometimes it is hard to understand fully when you cannot clarify things in your own language. It would be great if we could find a balance between the two so that the students benefit more and enjoy learning English.

I have found it beneficial to use the L1 in certain situations to create a bond with beginners and pre-intermediates. However, I have found it very detrimental when used as a teaching tool (especially at these levels). I sometimes, switch to a bit of L1 (Danish) during a break or if a student has a question after class that he/she cannot explain in English. It seems to me that the students enjoy having this safety net, however, I feel it particularly damaging using the L1 during lessons especially when dealing with an L1 and L2 within the same language family because there are so many false cognates that students tend to over generalize, miss nuances and even, at times, blatantly mistranslate. On a personal note, I think it also makes for lazier students. :-)
Jesse-lee, Copenhagen

My idea is that L1 should be used as little as necessary. What I want to say is that according to my experience as Head of the English department, if teachers get used to using their own language in classes they have the tendency of liking it more that the foreign one that they are supposed to be teaching.
Marianne O'Farrell

I am a student and it was very interesting for me this argument. Sometimes, it is good that our teacher talks to us in our first language so to stop confusion in a vocabulary word or something. But we know that we shouldn't use our first language and we get the advantages of to not do this if we stay in English. So, in conclusion, I think our teachers must stay with English. You have an expression I learnt last week...no pain, no gain! It is perfect for this discourse. We might not like it but it does us good very much.
Maria, Bolivia

I teach a group of 60-70 year old women who have been studying English for at least 20 years. We speak 95% in English but often they fall into German when they are looking for the right idiom translation or to express some righteous feelings. When they vent in German I often wait until they catch their breath and offer an opinion in English. Since their English is better than my use of their language they often go back to English. With older adult students,especially ones that are intermediate to advanced, I found it is better to allow this give and take. With younger, more inexperienced speakers, this would not be beneficial.
Linda McClellan

Yeah, I agree with Linda. The age thing makes a helluva difference I find. I don't think you can come down on a group of oldies as much as you could with a rabble of teens either. I have a class of older students and sometimes they just go off on one...and you just have to go with the flow somewhat. Let them do their thing and then they'll come back to you alright. It is too stressful to get too anxious over the whole 'student language' thing..they are paying the money, aren't they. If I was in any other line of work and someone came to me and spent a third of the time doing something else, but I was being paid, don't think I'd mind that much.
Carl, Wisconsin

I speak the L1 language of students but in my experience, this has sometimes given me the advantage of "easier teaching" in class while taking away a valuable learning experience for the students. Making it "easy" for the student is not the best thing for them. I no longer speak the L1 language in class but have instead filled the classroom with eng-eng dictionaries and thesauri. It certainly takes much longer for the Ss to grasp the meaning of the foreign word/passage but they retain this information if they've gone through the sometimes tedious procedure of locating its meaning by themselves.

In my current situation, teaching multi-national classes in Vermont, U.S.A., speaking anything but English in the class is clearly not fair. The majority of the students are actually Japanese which I speak fairly well having spent 4 years there. But if I speak any Japanese, what is Giorgio from Pisa or Carla from Argentina or Mikkel from Copenhagen to do? Sit there like lemons and wait for the Japanese section of the class to finish? Don't think so. When I was in Japan, it was very tempting to speak in the students' language and it is natural to give in to this temptation every now and then...but I knew deep down it was wrong :-)
Jon, US

You must understand how it is more difficult for me because my student know that their first language is also my first language! You cannot say to them, as an American or Australian can, 'Oh, I don't understand what you are saying to me, sorry!'. So my students will ask me questions in Italian and expect answers. The parents put pressure on me too to speak to their little pieces of gold in Italian so they at least can follow the lessons. It is difficult but in some way, we fight through and enjoy ourselves.
Beatrice, Naples, Italy.

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