How Much Native Language to Let into the Classroom?

Ben Slavik recently observed a teacher in Denver who kept her students active and engaged for an entire hour without any use of English (her students’ native language) or any blurting by students. He was impressed and wrote an article about it. One of his suggestions was that we make “No English” a rule for our students.

Other teachers pointed out that we can hardly reprimand our students for speaking English when we ourselves are the major offenders. They maintained that there is little blurting from students when the teacher herself respects the “No English” rule. What then followed was a discussion of how much native language to accept in a classroom.

Several people recognized that a lot of the use of English in their classrooms came not from pupils but from teachers. Some were even honest enough to admit that they used English to establish relationships, to let students know that they are interested in them as persons, that they often give themselves a few minutes to stop being the teacher and to just chat with their students. There was a lot of soul searching and wondering how justified this use of the native language was.

I participated in the discussion on both sides of the question and probably left some people confused about where I stand. In the course of my career, I’ve moved back and forth on the subject. Today I have a goal of using 95% English, unless we are reading. When reading I help my weaker students translate the passage, which I consider checking for comprehension, and then we can switch back into 95% or more in the target language. I feel that these students need the reassurance that they have understood the passage before I can discuss it with them. With more advanced students I ask them do the reading at home, I help them with words they don’t understand, translating when there are fine nuances that are difficult to get across any other way, and then we discuss the meaning of the passage in the target language.

Some of the teachers argue that we should aim at 100% in the target language. I used to agree with this. I had a French teacher and a German teacher who practiced the immersion method back in the sixties and it worked well for me. However, I was a highly motivated student, willing to play the game and guess at meanings which could be ambiguous. Many of my classmates felt extremely frustrated in such classes and soon stopped making any effort to understand what the teacher was trying to communicate. Today when I meet teachers who insist on not using the native language at all, I understand the urge to counter legacy methods when there was/is far more English than anything else in foreign language classrooms in the States. Yet I wonder if they are not throwing the baby out with the bath.

When I began teaching in French public schools, the official instructions were to speak only in English (my students’ target language). So, except for occasional grammar explanations, I conducted my lessons in English, but soon found it necessary to handle discipline problems in French. When you tell a student to either start behaving or to go talk to someone in the office, you don’t give them the chance to say that they didn’t understand you. And sometimes I just wanted to let them know that I was actually a perfectly normal, rather likeable human being and could crack a joke in French. As time went by, I found myself using more and more French in class. The students liked this, of course. All students love to see teachers go off track.

I eventually realized that my use of French was not always necessary or even intentional. I often seemed to just slide into it. So I set myself a rule: I would only speak French when I had announced to the class in English that I was going to speak French. “I’ll say this in French.” In this way, at least I made sure that it was a conscious decision on my part. By obliging myself to stop and think about whether or not it was really necessary to use French, I avoided getting side-tracked. I also modeled the behavior I wanted from my students, that of using French to communicate only when it was absolutely necessary.

When TPRS entered my life, the goal of being 100% comprehensible helped me to use less French, because there was no need for lengthy grammar explanations and my students felt much less frustration when I was actively trying to be sure that they understood everything I said in English by speaking slowly and using simplified vocabulary. Their increased comprehension meant that I felt less tempted to speak in French in order to communicate with them. To stop blurting, I made Ten minute deals with my students. We had a timer and when the class went for ten minutes with no French, they earned points towards a reward such as watching a film in English with no interruptions from the teacher. Later I raised the ante to fifteen and even twenty minutes. With some classes we could go a full hour with no French. Those classes always seemed a little bit magic.

The use of the native language is not inherent or necessary when teaching with TPRS. While it is true that TPRS teachers usually establish the meaning of new structures with the native language, there are TPRS teachers of ESL who don’t speak the native languages of their students. They simply use gestures, visuals, or familiar synonyms to establish meaning. It’s true that many TPRS teachers check for meaning by saying in English, “What did I just say?” The student translates what was said into English and the lesson goes on. If there is no shared language, the teacher needs to assess comprehension differently, but this can be done by watching their eyes and questioning to verify that everything is understood. So the use of the native language is simply a short cut that many teachers use. Few teachers of TPRS/CI find it difficult to stay in the target language for 90-95% of the class period.

Still thinking about the recent discussion on Ben’s blot, I received a message from a teacher in Japan who explained that in his school most of the English teachers speak little or no Japanese (and the ones who do understand and speak Japanese are instructed to act as if they don’t). These are teachers who have little choice. Their classes are 100% in the target language. Since it is possible, I wondered, shouldn’t we all be doing the same?

Yet, personally, I find a limited use of the native language to be extremely helpful. Not only for the reasons mentioned above, establishing meaning, checking for comprehension and reading, but also, occasionally, to teach a life lesson. Susie Gross, one of the early and very influential users of Blaine Ray’s method, said in a workshop once that when she felt that there was something that needed to be said to her students, she would tell them to close their books, and they would have a discussion in English about life, about things that may be more important than learning to speak another language. Not often, but occasionally I too use French to make a point about something that seems important to me, more important than my planned lesson.

Today, I look on teaching a class 100% in the target language as a goal, that I sometimes reach, but not every day. And when 5% of our class time is in the native language, I don’t stay awake about it, if the use of French has helped acquisition. Eric Herman wrote a useful summary of the blog discussion, citing the valid reasons for using the native tongue from time to time, and concluding that each teacher had to make her own decisions based on her particular class, students and situation.

There are superb riders who do not use a saddle or stirrups, who ride bareback. They maintain their seat easily because they are centered and balanced with the horse’s movements. The American Indians, having no saddles, were great horsemen out of necessity. I see the ESL teachers and the teachers in Japan in a similar situation. They become adept at teaching without using the native language, out of necessity. Saddles make riding much easier, just as sharing a common language with your students makes teaching easier, but it is possible to do without and those who ride bareback are extremely skilled.

As for me, I try to ride as if I had no saddle, staying in place by being centered and balanced, attentive to my horse’s movements and needs, but I’m very glad that those stirrups are there when I hit a bump. I can use the stirrups to get back in place and then continue riding as if I had no saddle.

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