When you are an English teacher and particularly when your students are absolute beginners, you may find that teaching in English is a real challenge.
How can you teach in one language when your students don’t know any of that language? No doubt it is one of the most challenging situations any ESL teacher will face. At that point, teaching in their first language sure looks like the best option. But before you make the decision to teach English using their native language, you should ask yourself some questions. Here are the questions you need to consider before you answer the English only vs. bilingual instruction question for yourself.
10 Questions to Ask before Deciding on English Only vs. Bilingual Instruction
Are You Bilingual?
The first question you should ask yourself before making a decision between a bilingual classroom and an English only classroom is are you bilingual? The question may seem silly or completely obvious, but if you don’t speak your students’ language, how can you expect to teach them in that language? Even if you are able to hold a casual conversation in a second language, that doesn’t mean you possess the language skills necessary to teach in a professional and competent manner. If you aren’t fluent to a professional degree, bilingual teaching probably isn’t right for you.
How Many First Languages Are Present in Your Classroom?
Let’s be frank. The bilingual method isn’t going to work for you if you have students that speak ten different native languages in your class. The bilingual method is best when used with a class that speaks the same native language. So if you are teaching in the U.S. and have students from all over the world, English only is probably going to be your best bet. If you are teaching overseas, however, and your students all speak the same first language you may want to consider bilingual instruction.
How Old Are Your Students?
A person’s age can have a lot to do with how well they are able to learn a second language. That’s not to say that an adult cannot become fluent. They most certainly can. But generally speaking, younger children have an easier time learning a second language. If your students are five and under, they are still in the period where they can acquire language like a native speaker. English only is probably the best choice for you. Your students will learn English fluently without any formal instruction in its grammar. Children between five and fifteen can still learn a second language like it is their first, but there is no guarantee of how easy it will be or how successful each individual student will be. They may need overt grammar instruction, though some students will likely pick up English easier than others. At this point you will have to consider all the factors that go into an English only vs. bilingual classroom. Once a child reaches the age of fifteen, his language learning abilities become akin to that of adults. That’s not to say he can’t become fluent, but to do so he will have to overcome the same hurdles an adult on the road to fluency will have to overcome. Which also means you will have to consider the same questions regarding the English only and bilingual classroom debate.
How Was Your Class Advertised?
If your class was advertised as either English only or bilingual, it is important that you meet your students’ expectation in this respect. They deserve to get what they paid for. If, however, your class was not advertised as either English only or bilingual, you have more freedom to choose. Often, language programs leave it up to the individual instructors how they teach and what languages they use in the classroom. You’ll have to assess your own strengths and your students’ needs before you can come to the right answer for you.
How Will Your Students Be Using English after Their Language Education Is Complete?
This questions is important since part of your goal in teaching should be to prepare your students for their future language use situations. Will they be in an English only setting such as an American college or university? Or will they be in a situation in which English is used alongside their native language or other languages? Will they have translators available in the future, and are they learning English just to get a better idea of what is going on around them? The answers to these questions will help you determine whether what type of classroom teaching your students would best benefit from. Try to make your classroom experience as close to the real thing they will be dealing with after their education. This will better prepare them for their futures and make the transition from language program to real life language use smoother.
What Materials Will You Be Using in Class?
If you are teaching from a text book for your class, consider how the text is written. Is it an English only text? Or it is bilingual? Sometimes a bilingual text will help students understand English at a deeper level when they have experienced English only in class. Other times, students rely too much on bilingual texts and it hinders their language acquisition. Do you intend students to learn from the text independently? At home? Or will you teach the material and use the book in class? You’ll need to know these answers before you can make the English only vs. bilingual decision.
Choosing between and English only classroom and a bilingual one is a difficult decision.
It doesn’t make it any easier that you have to decide at the start of class before getting to know your students. Asking yourself these questions will help you think through your goals, objectives, and challenges. Then you will be able to make a decision for yourself (and your students) which method of instruction will be best for you.