Remember in your high school foreign language classes? Did you speak for about two minutes in the target language and the rest of the time in “L1”, your first language?
Monolingual classes pose special problems. Teachers are obliged to tackle a very strong, natural tendency for speakers of the same language to go ahead and – you guess it – speak the same language together. After all, this has likely been their language environment for their whole lives. Who are we to drag them out of it?
Persuading students to speak only English can be no small challenge, but happily, there are a variety of ways to tackle it, centered on a mixture of carrot and stick, a little inventiveness and constant reiteration!
Start from Scratch
Begin to address the problem on day one, when you first meet the students. This way, we immediately set the precedent of speaking only English together. If we wait until the second week of classes, for instance, the students will already have spent a week establishing an environment in the wrong language, and it will take much longer to bring them round.
Graph It Out
Draw three graphs on the board and explain very simply that the lines represent three students’ rates of progress: a) the first speaks mostly L1 in the classroom and doesn’t practice outside, having made few non-L1 friends; 2) the second speaks 50/50 L1 and has a couple of native speaker friends; 3) the third speaks only English and has a vibrant English-only social life. This is useful for demonstrating an unavoidable truth: students who practice more will achieve more. Those who use lots of L1 only end up getting better at their first language!
Like any kind of training, especially if it goes against the natural grain, establishing a purely English environment takes reiteration and reinforcement from the outset. It may seem strict, but reacting to every instance of L1 might be just the impetus the students need. There are some classes, and some age groups, where this will take longer, but with sufficient reminders, the students will gradually make the change.
You Have Allies
The strongest, or most confident students are very helpful here. If they buy in to the idea early on, you’ll have very useful allies in persuading their classmates to follow suit. You might go so far as to remind them that they are role models for the class; in many cases, the idea that they’d be helping you is itself attractive and persuasive.
“What on Earth is That?!”One colleague of mine reacts to L1 as if she has been shot, with a pretty good impression of being in real pain. It’s a bit silly, but by golly it gets the point across!
After a week or so, I find it useful – not to mention, pretty funny – to deliberately overreact when I hear L1 in the classroom. Exhibiting what appears to be genuine shock, or even jaw-dropped horror, at the sound of this unwelcome, imposter language carries a strong message: this behavior, however familiar it may be, just doesn’t belong in the classroom. Poking fun is useful, too: “Hey, your Chinese is really improving nicely!”, or, “Wait a minute, I’m lost. Which country are we in? Wait... We’re not in Venezuela? So, why am I hearing Spanish? I don’t get it”. One colleague of mine reacts to L1 as if she has been shot, with a pretty good impression of being in real pain. It’s a bit silly, but by golly it gets the point across!
Teach Basic Classroom Language Early
A lot of L1 chatter is actually functional: asking to borrow something, checking the meaning of a word, confirming classroom instructions or homework assignments. Practice suitable English phrases with the students early on in your time together, so that they have no excuse for lapsing back into L1, even for something as simple as, “Can I borrow your dictionary?”
In the last ten years, at least in my classroom, dictionary use (and I’m talking about book dictionaries) has declined to virtually nil. I’ve tried and tried, but the students don’t seem to see the point. Their cellphone may have a dictionary on it (of which more in another article) or they might never have developed the habit of using one. Having one to hand helps to avoid diverting to L1 if the student doesn’t know a particular word. “Hang on... let me look it up,” could be an early phrase they learn.
Keep this super light-hearted, but impose some sanction on those who still don’t play ball. One of my favorites is to paint the tip of their nose green with a whiteboard marker; I also insist on their singing a song or dancing for the class. In extreme cases, I threaten to reduce their grade or to mark them absent for the class. In situations where attendance counts towards the final grade, this can be a very effective method, if a little drastic.
Award points to a pair, team or table of students who speak no L1. Once a team reaches 50 points, reward them with candy or something similar. Students who speak L1 lose their team points. Collective policing can be extremely effective; no-one wants to let the group down.
Extend it Outside the Classroom
Recommend that the students agree that they will speak only English for part of their non-class time. This could be a specific time each day (7-8pm) or a fixed duration (1 hour, measured on a timer with an alarm). You could also ask the students to submit a recording of this period, proving that there was no L1; whether you listen to it or not, it’s a good motivator.
A tendency for lower-level students is to translate new words for their friends. This is very damaging to the learning process, in my experience, and sets a precedent that translation is the fastest, and therefore best way to learn a new word. I use the ‘green nose’ principle, or just look severely disappointed. Either gets the message across!
Note-taking Only in English
Although it’s tempting to make notes partially in L1, I think it best to make English-only notes routine. It practices language much more if definitions are in English, rather than a direct translation, and are accompanied with at least one practice sentence.
Try some games to increase confidence and the students’ own sense that they might not need L1 to express themselves. Taboo is excellent for training students to go around the vocabulary roadblocks they’ll encounter. ‘Just a Minute’, based on an old BBC radio quiz game, requires one student to speak for a minute on a particular topic, without hesitation, deviation or repetition. Success is greeted by massive applause, in the affirmation of the students’ ability to speak at length without any of their first language creeping in.
I’ve seen on countless occasions how helpful it is to knock out L1 from the first day, and reinforce the rule through a little discipline and lots of practice.
Eliminating L1 might be an ambitious aim, but it could usefully be among the learning aims of every classroom in which communicative methodology is used.