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

    Should learners be allowed to use their native language (L1 or mother tongue) in English ESL classes? This is a huge debate among educators and many language teachers do not allow L1 to be used in their classes, but it depends on the age and proficiency of the students. A too-strict No-L1 Rule sometimes ignores the benefits of the limited use of L1. In this article, both sides of the debate are examined, and tips given for the improved use of L2 (English 2nd language) in the classroom.

    When to allow native language in ESL Class

    As an ESL teacher for the past 16 years, I look at both sides of the debate in this article. Why students shouldn’t use their native language (or L1), and, on the other hand, when do students benefit from limited use of L1 in an ESL class? Lastly, I give some tips on how to get students to use more English in class, including the No-Shy Rule.

    Reasons why L1 shouldn’t be used

    A general rule in most English classes is that students shouldn’t use L1 during class time. It could range from a casual “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 in 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 a rule about using L1 in class. Many teachers and language institutes apply a strict English-only rule. Other teachers have special times when students are allowed to use their native language, or as a general rule, they must use English unless they are translating something for a friend, or when explaining an expression.

    Whatever classroom rule you use regarding L1 in ESL class, make sure that it is applied consistently and remind students often. Using English in the English classroom should become second nature.

    When can students use L1 in ESL class?

    Giving instructions to young learners with low English proficiency can be very difficult, so using L1 (their native language) to explain, clears up uncertainty learners may have.  Note that we should teach basic commands and class rules in both English and L1 when first starting to teach a class, but with new words and instructions students may have trouble understanding, and in that case, it is more efficient to use L1.

    Grammar concepts, vocabulary, and expressions are much easier and quicker to explain in L1 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 conscious links between their native language and English. Understanding the similarities and differences between their own language and English 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. It helps to engage students and gets them to pay more attention in class.

    ‘It Depends’ – my opinion on using L1

    My opinion is: “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, allow the use of the native language sparingly. If, as a foreigner, you have some ability in the L1 of the students, keep the 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 allow the limited use of L1 when it is useful, funny, or necessary, but English speaking should always be the main goal of English class.

    Tips to get students to speak more English

    Use the following tips to encourage 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 group activities, so that the anxiety of making mistakes in front of a large group is minimized.
    •  Keep speaking activities short; having extra time invites them 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? Not with friends, because they talk without fearing mistakes.

    The No-Shy Rule

    A big rule in my ESL class is that no one is shy. I encourage them to think of themselves as a different person when they come into class – They are an English talking machine! Just talk, talk, talk.

    How do you get your students to use more English in class? Please post your comments below.

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