When I first tell people that I am an English as a second language teacher, inevitably, they ask, “Oh, what languages do you speak?”
I have taught students from all over the world, speakers of over a dozen different languages, and I can honestly say that I am only fluent in English. How is that possible, they wonder. The fact of the matter is, there is no way that as an ESL teacher in the United States that I can speak every first language of every one of my ESL students. The good news is, I don’t have to. I am a firm believer that immersion in a second language is a perfectly wonderful way to learn any second language. But even though I don’t speak my students’ languages, that doesn’t mean that I can’t draw on the strengths they exhibit in their first language to help teach them English. Using your students’ first languages to help them learn English isn’t hard, and you may find that you are already doing some of these things that make it possible. Read on to find out.
Use Your Students’ L1 for the Class Benefit
Allow First Languages in the Classroom
It may seem perfectly straightforward and logical. By disallowing first language use in the classroom, students will speak more English. The problem with that statement is that it is wrong. When students are prohibited from speaking their native tongue in the classroom, especially during free time, they may feel squelched no matter what language they are trying to speak. Your students may become timid and afraid to say anything, even in English. To avoid this, let students speak in their first language during free time, for clarifying instructions, or when they are trying to put their ideas together. It is unrealistic to expect speakers of the same first language to limit their interactions to English only. Don’t fight against this human instinct. Allow the use of L1 where it helps students increase their performance in English and don’t take it as a personal offense when they speak a language you don’t understand in class. It’s not personal; it’s natural.
Group Students by First Language
Grouping students who speak different first languages together has many advantages in addition to forcing them to use English to communicate. But there are also advantages to grouping students with the same first language together, too. This can be especially helpful in a class with mixed levels. Pairing a student with someone from his own home country, a speaker of his own first language, helps both you and your lower level student. Your student will likely be less stressed when he knows a group member or partner understands anything he wants to say, and low stress is essential for getting your student ready to receive the information you are presenting to him or her. If you are teaching in English, you will probably be giving directions to your students. Lower level students might not understand what you are explaining even though upper level students might, and having students grouped with like first languages gives those lower level students a resource for understanding your directions so they can fully participate in the activity. Putting your students with their fellow LI speakers also gives the lower level student a clue in to mistakes or misunderstandings that can happen specific to that language since his L1 partner can point out the obstacles he has already overcome. Finally, when cultural issues come into play, issues that could cause conflict and misunderstanding for your students, their classmates who have already worked through those difficulties will be able to help their classmates when they are paired with a fellow speaker of their first language.
Encourage Sharing of Language and Culture
Culture permeates our deepest of areas of who we are – our thoughts, opinions, and decision making. Encouraging your students to share their cultures is a great way of getting students to understand and appreciate their differences. And whether we like it or not, language is a big part of culture. So when you ask students to share about their food, past times, entertainment, and others areas of their home cultures, make a point of allowing some of their language to filter in as well. When you allow and even encourage first language sharing during times of cultural exchange, you show that you respect and value the places where your students come from, and you don’t think that English and American culture are superior to their own cultures. That in turn will make your students more receptive to learning English. They will appreciate the cultures that speak English as well as the language itself and will understand that it is more than just a tool for advancing in their educations, business, or other personal goals.
Encourage Responses in First Languages
If you have your students keep a journal, think about allowing first language writing in that context. When I have students journal, my goal is to get them writing. It is not to elicit perfect grammar, spelling, and handwriting. I want students to feel free to express themselves. Later I have them use that writing as inspiration for more formal assignments. There is no reason that ESL students should feel they cannot use their first language in a journaling assignment. In fact, writing in their first language may actually help them solidify the English you taught them in class. This is particularly true if you are teaching content in addition to language instruction. Processing the information you presented in English in class in their first language in a journal assignment will help your students internalize information and vocabulary, and it may also help them get some great ideas on paper that they might not be able to get out in English words and grammar.
For some teachers, banning first language use in the ESL classroom may seem like a good idea, but you can actually use your students’ first languages to improve their English acquisition. It’s simple, unobtrusive, and shows you value their culture and language as you want them to value yours.
Do you allow use of L1 in your ESL classroom?
Why or why not?