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November 21, 2006

Workplace Issues- Speaking Your Students' Mother Tongue

Hello Readers,

Most schools that I've worked for have strictly prohibited the use of the students' mother tongue (by the teachers and the students) in the classroom. The reasons are simple: the students will start to depend on you speaking their language and will not be motivated to use English, the students will not receive enough input in English, the students will get lazy, etc. However, some people say that...

...there is a place for the use of the students' L1 (first language) in the classroom.

Sheelagh Deller, in her article, "The language of the learner" (English Teaching Professional, Issue 26 January 2003), lists seven reasons why we should use their L1 as a resource:

1. It is useful to notice differences and similarities between the two languages
2. Learners can enjoy material that might otherwise be too difficult for them
3. Learners can develop and produce their own materials, including their own tests
4. Allowing use of the mother tongue can encourage spontaneity and fluency
5. Using the mother tongue can equip learners with the words and expressions they really want and
need in English
6. Using the mother tongue can have a beneficial effect on group dynamics
7. Using the mother tongue ensures that learners are able to give ongoing feedback

Deller also gave an example of a way the students could use their own language in a productive and practical way. She suggested that students are put into groups of three. Student A would be a tourist in Student B's country. Student C would be the interpreter. The students would then carry on with a roleplay, but instead of everyone speaking English, Student B would speak his/her own language, and Student C would speak both English and Student B's language. (Student A would only speak English). Of course, this could only take place in a classroom where everyone in the small group spoke the same L1.

While I think these ideas are valid, I think that if a teacher is going to use another language in the classroom, they need to be very careful. For many students (especially in China), the classroom might be the only place they have an opportunity to communicate in English in a meaningful way. While teachers often have good intentions (eg making the students understand), speaking a few words or phrases of the students language can easily turn into a full lecture. My recommendation is that if another language is used in the classroom, there must be a valid reason for it- each and every time it is used.

In order for the teacher to speak another language in the classroom, I think the following criteria should exist:

1. There is a total breakdown of communication
2. The teacher and students are under strict time constraints and continuing with English would mean that they wouldn't be able to get through everything that they HAD to get through (for example, in a test prep class)

What do you think? Please post your comments below.

Deller's complete article, "The Language of the Learner" can be found online at www.etprofessional.com (a subscription is needed).

Good luck!

Carol Rueckert
Writer, ESL Lesson Plan
E-mail: crueckert@eslemployment.com
Blog: www.esl-lesson-plan.com

"I hear, and I forget. I see, and I remember. I do, and I understand." - Chinese Proverb

*Looking for more articles that focus on workplace issues specific to ESL? Click HERE!

About the author of this entry:
Carol, a native English-speaker who hails from the small town of St. Joseph in Minnesota, USA, and lived and worked in China for more than 7 years. During that time, she worked with students that range in age from three to more than sixty years old. She worked in universities, private language schools, grade schools, international schools, as well as private tutoring. Besides teaching, she also worked as a head teacher, an education manager, and a material development manager. In addition to working on this newsletter, she currently writes a monthly column for Time Out Beijing. Carol is also currently working on her MA in TESOL at the Oxford Brookes University in England. Look for her posts on the ESL-Jobs-Forum discussion boards!

Posted by crueckert at November 21, 2006 03:52 AM

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