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A major point of debate for English teachers is deciding what is the right balance between using English and the use of the students’ mother tongue (L1) in the classroom. While most would agree that the more English that is spoken, the quicker the students learn, but arguments have also arisen to justify use of the students’ native language in certain situations. It has often been said that you should use English when possible and L1 when necessary. Before using L1 always consider: Can I justify the use of L1 in this situation? Will it help the students learn more than using English would?
The balance of English and L1 in the EFL ESL classroom will depend on many factors such as the background of your students and your unique classroom situation. Your students will either be from different places, speaking several different languages, or monolingual (all speaking the same L1). When your classroom is comprised of people who speak different languages, you may find that you are familiar with one or more of the students’ native languages. In this situation it is often tempting to translate words and phrases into the languages that you know, but in these classrooms, the teacher’s use of the L1 should be avoided. It is unfair and can be very discouraging for those students whose language the teacher does not know. You will also find that because English is the common language among the students instead of their native tongue, overuse of L1 rarely becomes an issue. While this eliminates the challenge of minimizing L1, an eclectic class forces the teacher to be extra creative in delivering lessons and vocabulary without the aid of the occasional translation.
What about teaching monolingual groups? The role of L1 in the classroom dramatically changes when you are working with people who all speak the same language. Not only will many of them have the same learning background and cultural experiences, but also you will find that they will make the same pronunciation errors and struggle with the same grammar challenges. This fact makes it easier to concentrate on several of their difficulties and do additional work in these areas without leaving other students out of the loop. In a situation like, this you may be able to save a great deal of time by translating a word or two. You may find yourself teaching a group of students at any level, whose previous English classes were given in L1. Here you may start out using L1 and gradually increase the use of English until your students have adjusted. In the very early stages of a beginner’s class, you may find it useful to give instructions in the mother tongue or to discuss the effectiveness of a lesson or activity. In higher levels, you may still find using L1 to be a useful time saver in abstract vocabulary situation. Use caution however, in using a student’s L1 even early on because you could be creating a crutch that may be very difficult to lose as the students progress.
Also consider the disadvantages of having a monolingual group. One of the main obstacles you may face is shyness. Because they all speak the same language, they may be more self-conscious to speak to each other in English. Another problem is that they are likely to all make the same pronunciation mistakes, making it difficult for them to correct each other and possible for you to stop noticing their collective mistakes. Another challenge, especially with young learners, is to stop them from chatting in their native tongue, when they should be practicing English. Be careful, then with the precedence that you set with L1 usage in the classroom. The habits that you create early on may be very hard to break.
Keep in mind that you are one of their best resources for acquiring the language. When you speak English, you provide invaluable listening opportunities and make operating in the language seem so much more natural. Speak English at every opportunity. For example, make a habit of answering questions in English, even when you are asked in the student’s mother tongue.
The most ideal classroom situation is one where students are free to use L1 whenever they want, but choose not to because in their classroom it was normal and natural to speak English, not special or scary. How do you create that situation? First, consider the following most common reasons why learners are reluctant to use English: It is easier to use their own language. They are always corrected when they speak in English. They are embarrassed to make a mistake in front of their peers. They don’t know how to say what they want to say in English. Imagine yourself in the place of those students and ask yourself what kinds of changes in the atmosphere, materials, students, teacher would make using English comfortable or even cool for that student.
It may be helpful to explain the importance of using English and try to get your students excited about the idea from the very beginning. Allow them to negotiate the ground rules for using English and L1 in the classroom. Learners at certain ages are under a great deal of peer pressure and if you can manipulate that in your favor, making speaking English the popular thing to do, you have achieved something that is priceless. Create an English atmosphere. Decorate with English posters and cultural items. Use music and other listening materials to surround your students in English. Make the atmosphere comfortable where speaking English is the norm and where criticism, especially from other students, is simply not acceptable. Respond positively to every effort to use English and spend a lot of time allowing students to express their ideas without correction. “Hear” only English -meaning when students use L1 to pose a question or express an idea, only respond when an effort has been made to get the idea across in English. Sometimes bribery and competition are techniques that can be used for students who are finding it particularly difficult to stop using L1 in the classroom. For example, divide the class into two teams and give one team a point every time someone from the other team speaks in L1. This usually creates only limited or short-term success.
Still struggling to get your students to use English? Here are a few more tips: Make sure that your students have the vocabulary and grammar skills necessary to complete the given tasks. Use pairs or small groups activities so that the anxiety of making mistakes in front of a large group is minimized. Keep speaking activities short; having extra time invites talking in L1. Move around a lot when you are monitoring speaking activities because the students farthest away from you are the most likely to use their first language.
Finally, a great tool to use in the classroom is a L1 problem session. This is a period of time that is regularly scheduled for students to discuss, in their own language, any questions they have about lessons and vocabulary. It can be 10 minutes at the end of class or set on a weekly or monthly basis as needed. Since your students will know in advance, they will really have time to think about any problem areas they may be having. Motivation increases as well. When your students know that they will have the chance to discuss something in L1 in the future, it is easier for them to actually try during activities in English. Most students will be relieved and have a better attitude if you will allow a time and place for L1, rather than saying that there is no place for their mother tongue in the classroom.
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