Should ENGLISH learners use their Native Language in English Class? | Mother Tongue in ESL Class

Using Native Language in English Class

Should English learners be allowed to use their native language or mother tongue in English class?

Hi, my name is Eric, an English Second Language Teacher with 15 years experience, a Masters in Education and currently working at a university in South Korea teaching English to Korean students.

In this video I will share why students shouldn’t use their native language (or L1 from now on), benefits of using L1 in class, my personal opinion and some tips on how to get students to use more English in class.

Let’s get started!

Why English learners shouldn’t use their native language in English class.

A general rule in most English classes is that students shouldn’t use L1 during class time. It could range from “try to speak more English” ~ to a strict, outright ban on any other language apart from English.

The common sense behind this is that students should focus on learning English rather than rely on their own language – but obviously there are many other reasons why we should limit the amount of L1 on the ESL classroom.

Many students are very shy or self-conscious about making mistakes, so will obviously choose their native language over struggling to communicate in English. I have found it often in class where my Korean students will happily use Korean for pretty much the whole group discussion if I didn’t intervene.

By allowing them to use Korean (in this example) you might be giving them a crutch that is very difficult to let go of.

Another challenge, especially with young learners, is to stop them from chatting in their mother tongue, when they should be practicing English.

Consequently, there should be rule about using L1 in class. Many teachers and language institutes apply a strict English-only rule, some teachers have special times where students are allowed to use their native language or a general – use English unless you translate something for a friend or explain an expression.

Whatever rule you use make sure that it is applied through class and remind students often. Using English in the English classroom should become second nature.

Next, let’s look at why allowing students to use their native language in English class, is a good thing:

Giving instructions to young learners can be confusing, so by using L1 to explain, clears up any confusion learners might have. –  I will point out that we should teach basic commands when first starting class, but sometimes students forget and in that case it is more efficient to use L1.

Grammar concepts, vocabulary and expressions are much easier and quicker to explain if you have the translation handy. There are ways around this like an inductive approach – Where you give students examples and allow them to establish the theory. But it all depends on what you as the teacher believe to be the right approach.

Another reason why teachers should allow L1 is because learners make a conscious link between their native language and English. By understanding the similarities and differences between their own language and English, it gives them an appreciation for both.

L1 is an important resource in second language acquisition. Learning another language should add richness to students’ lives; it should not devalue their own language and culture. 

A good technique is to ask students what the equivalent to a word or expression is in their own language, once they answer another student in class that might not have known, learns something new.

“Jimmy, what’s the Korean for taking a nap? Natjam. James, natjam hajima!”

Finally, from a teacher’s perspective, communicating with students in their mother tongue seems to improve teacher-student rapport. They see you as an ally, someone to help them. You model ideal language use and it adds a bit of mystery when students hear you speaking their language, especially if you are a foreigner – that adds intrigue. Hey – whatever engages your students and gets them to pay more attention in class.

My opinion on using L1 in the classroom

My opinion is that “It depends”. As a language teacher your goal is for learners to speak as much English as possible. If students know that they can fall back into their native language, they will do use it because it is comfortable.

They will take advantage of being able to use their mother tongue because it is easy and they don’t feel awkward or shy. Therefore it is important to create a class environment where it is okay to make mistakes when speaking English. The ultimate goal should be on improving English, and to do that they have to speak and make mistakes, no matter how awkward it might feel.

So, use native language sparingly – Only if it is funny – to Keep students on their toes and curious about your ability. Ask them to translate words or phrases and with very low students, ask a friend to quickly explain it to them if needed.

It also depends on the level of your students – With younger students you can be more lenient and with older students more strict. It’s also important to prepare them for success. So when they have to do a certain project or assignment – Pre-teach vocabulary and phrases to support them.

Make sure however to lecture them at every opportunity on their goals and the use of English in class. You don’t want to be oppressive or make them feel restricted in class, but they should understand that they will not improve if they don’t practice English.

So use native language whenever it is useful, funny or necessary, but English speaking should always be the main goal of English class.

Some tips on getting students to speak more English in class:

Make sure that your students have the vocabulary and grammar skills necessary to complete the given task.

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 to talk in their own language.

 Move around a lot when you are monitoring speaking activities because the students farthest away from you are more likely to use their first language.

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.

Lecture students about the effectiveness of speaking the language. I always tell my students that shy students are very slow to learn English because they are too afraid to make mistakes. Think about their friend that is really good at English: Is he/she too shy to speak? No, they talk without fearing mistakes.

Also, the rule in my class is that no one is shy, they are not a person when they come into class – They are an English talking machine! Just talk talk talk.

So, did you enjoy today’s video? How do you get your students to use more English in class? Put your idea in the comments below. I’m Eric from Etacude, and I’ll see you next time!

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