Using Only the Target Language in a Foreign Language Classroom

by Caroline Hazelton

caroline hazelton teaching ESOLHow did a Southern, non-Hispanic begin her bilingual journey in an English-only rural town? 

Solo español,” replied my Spanish 2 teacher who spoke to us in almost no English right from the beginning.

How have I taught nearly every grade level of Spanish/ESL ever since for seven years?

Only in the language that I am teaching… with some exceptions. I’m here to challenge you both with experience and science for using the target language (the language you are teaching) as much as possible in your classroom. And believe me, you can use it a lot more than you think you can.

Why only the target language?

Learning to listen and speak a language occurs the same way babies learn to talk. They listen to in the language constantly, with images and context to teach them meaning. Then, after hours upon hours of exposure, the babies are ready to speak. As their brain develops, they are able to form more complex phrases, sentences, and ideas as they age. Our second languages are learned in the same way. Our brains absorb grammar through repetition. they absorb meaning through context created by situations and visuals. Finally, they absorb pronunciation through constant exposure and confidence via experience. Because we “acquire” language (that is, to soak it up through the ability to speak and listen, then in our ability to write and read in it), we cannot teach language in the same way that we teach other subjects. We must mimic a caregiver teaching a child to speak.

Enter the language classroom. In the case where the teacher and students both speak the students’ first language, many teachers do not speak in the target language. They do this to get through the lesson faster, to avoid frustrated students, or to build rapport with students. Other times, they simply do not know how to teach in the target language. As a result, you see students who have textbook knowledge of the target language but who are unable to communicate in it.

Remember Phonics?

abc PhonicsWithout appropriate communication in the target language, students haven’t developed an ear for how the language sounds; they haven’t learned enough vocabulary in natural context nor have they developed the confidence to speak the target language. Additionally, students don’t have the opportunity to form an identity in the new language they are trying to learn if they aren’t being exposed to it or being forced to use it — they rely only on their original, or L1, language/identity. Finally, if they don’t see how they are able to communicate in the target language they lose motivation. They feel as if they aren’t learning it. However, a student who is forced to speak the language feels that they are actually learning.

I speak from experience. It started in my high school Spanish 2 classroom where my teacher uttered not a word in English for two hours a day, five days a week. The instructor spoke in an incredibly simple way. He would not answer anyone in English, and only in Spanish. He spoke with gestures, dramatic emotions, and cognates. 

Speaking From Experience

By the end of the semester, I (Caroline) had not only studied Spanish, but could actually speak basic Spanish. I learned more in that semester of high school Spanish alone than I did in any other community college course I took. In those courses, the instructor used a mix of Spanish and English. They missed opportunities to give their students the true ability to communicate in our second language. After moving from my small town to attend a state university to study Spanish and second language acquisition (SLA), I saw more examples both as a Spanish and SLA student of why teachers should use ONLY the target language.

I speak as a teacher. When I speak in the target language at first, I see students of all ages initially very frustrated. I ALWAYS have students who are hesitant to learn the language and resist. However, I insist upon only using the language I am teaching. I have seen their progress. I have seen students score higher on proficiency tests than their level indicated that they would. Ultimately, I have seen my resistors eventually change their ways. 

Success in the Classroom

Every semester, I have ESL (English as a Second Language) students who request to join my class because I insist on using only English. As a university instructor, students have changed or added majors and minors in the language I taught. My students have returned to me bragging about how they asked their counselors to speak to them in their target language. Some of my ESL students took jobs in English. I have taught China’s brightest professionals that they STILL have more to learn because they could only communicate in English and realized that they couldn’t as they wished. Finally, I have had a student upon student thank me at the end of every semester. 

So, How Do You Teach? 

Be your normal teacher self… in the target language. Notably, you are not going to speak like you would speak to native speakers. Aim for a much slower, simpler pace with tons of visual clues to help convey your message.

You first have to speak in the simplest way possible. For example, “We’re all set, so could you please hand in your papers?” becomes “pass the papers.” In the beginning classes, use gestures, gestures, gestures. In intermediate classes, say, “Please pass the papers — we are finished! Thanks!” I suggest sticking to a handful of common requests or words that are most repeated in the target language or in a classroom setting. 

Change Your Expectations

You’ll also have to change your expectations according to the natural stages of language development and to what level of communication each level can reasonably do in the language they are learning. You should try to have low/beginning students listen as much as possible. They should respond non-verbally until they have the confidence and the feel for the sounds of the language to speak. Even then, it will be very similar to a child learning how to speak — first with one-word phrases, then two, etc. From knowledge I’ve gathered from my graduate studies, the development of language is the same for everyone in terms of language stages and whether it’s a first or second language.

Once your students get past the low/beginning stage and into intermediate or high/beginning, they can start to communicate basic needs. The goal now is to increase their confidence in the language. Have students speak in small groups and with yourself as the teacher as much as possible. You should require that all communications with you and their classmates be in the target language with some exceptions so students can make the most of every opportunity. 

Because all teaching is about creating meaning, you need to try to provide as much context for language as possible… visuals, gestures, and culturally authentic material. Creating meaning is important because you want to be teaching at a level slightly higher than the students’ current level. This way they are challenged and can advance forward in an attainable way. 

first language puzzle

So, When Is the First Language Okay?

You never want students to lose their identity. Therefore, I have found that when students (particularly in ESL courses) are speaking about their native countries, idioms, or cultures, the use of their mother tongue is powerful. Plus, some words don’t quite translate the same.

You also have to recognize that speaking a second language requires more brainpower from students. If you want them to do some higher-order thinking that they don’t have the language skills for just yet, you might allow them to use their first language to think through the task, then use the second language once they have the activity mastered. 

Criticisms of Only Teaching in the Target Language

One criticism that gets mentioned of teaching only in the target language is that you don’t want students to miss out on important information — and I agree. For beginning students, you don’t want them to miss out on key information, so I think it’s okay to FIRST say the information in the target language. If, after multiple attempts to clarify their understanding they still don’t understand the concept, it is okay to use their first language. However, just explaining the concept in the first language immediately takes away the opportunity for growth.

I have also seen the usefulness of translation, despite what current language teaching methods (the communicative method) say. When I’m teaching grammar, second-language students often literally translate the grammatical rules of their first language into their second. It can be helpful to compare the differences. I also run into the issue when teaching vocabulary that while it’s better to reply with a synonym or image to stay in the target language, sometimes there is no image or similar word that students know, so a translation can be handy. 

Knowing these situations, my rule with my low/intermediate students is “Only English… except during grammar activities, cultural celebrations, group projects, or if you ask special permission.” 

A Conclusion About Using Only the Target Language in a Foreign Language Classroom

By purposely speaking only in the target language to students, we make language an acquired ability instead of a memorized subject. With careful exceptions, we can also respond to our students in a sensitive way. 


TESOL in the United States Versus TEFL Abroad

by Caroline Hazelton

TESOL in the United States

I’m an English as a Second Language teacher (not to be confused with an English as a Foreign Language teacher) and I have chosen to remain stateside in America. When I first announced the intentions of my career, I was completing an internship in Guatemala. My teammate replied “Why stay in the States? You’ll lose the adventure.” For those of you considering a career in ESL, here’s why I choose to teach English as a Second Language in the States versus teaching English as a Foreign Language abroad.

What’s the Difference?

First, let’s take a look at the difference between English as a Second Language (ESL) and English as a Foreign Language (EFL). It’s all about (as a real estate agent might say), “Location, location, location!” The difference lies in what the majority of a country speaks. If I’m in an English-speaking country teaching English, I’m teaching ESL. However, if I’m in a non-English speaking country as an English instructor, I’m teaching EFL. Both have distinctly different purposes. For example, one learns English to live and survive while the other learns it for vacations abroad/communicating with foreigners. Both are used interchangeably at times but are vastly different in purpose.

But now, let’s get to the answer of what my teammate asked me while we were in Guatemala: “Why?”

Why stay in America to teach English?

English as a Second Language (ESL) and English as a Foreign Language (EFL)

Here’s my story. Here’s my “because” to that teammate’s (and possibly your) “Why?” These reasons are not for everyone, but rather that of my own.

I find working with immigrants to be of great purpose that I can fulfill.

Nine years ago I taught my first ESL class to a group of Central American immigrant women at an inner-city mission in Texas. After an entire summer of using my gifts of language and teaching to meet their needs, I found a career that I forever wanted to be part of because there was a purpose that I could fulfill. I meet people with stories of horrors beyond our privileged American first-world-problems-self can dream of, but they have found refuge in our homeland. I watch their English grow, and opportunities open for them. Plus, I get to teach about my home. I get to be the “know-it-all guide” of my beloved homeland – and it’s rewarding. I never stop feeling blessed whenever I’m teaching ESL students because I can give them part of what they need.

The flexible hour possibilities of ESL leave time for a family or a second job.

TESOL in the United States students

In addition to being a language buff, I’m a wife to a successful scientist and mother to two young children. At this moment, I can’t work a full-time job due to my family responsibilities. ESL classes are held in the evenings for students employed during the day, so I can stay home with my children but still do what I love. ESL classes are also held in the mornings or afternoons for housewives or international students. I can always pick up more hours as my children get older. Additionally, the part-time commitment to ESL allowed me to work a “main job” as a Spanish instructor before my second daughter was born. I look at my life teaching ESL part-time while still having ample time at home with my 1- and 3-year-olds plus supporting my husband and his career and I think, “Man, I’ve got it made in ESL!”

You experience the world without the unknown.

English as a Foreign Language (EFL)

I’ve always had a deep love for foreign cultures, so it shocked me when my months overseas during undergrad left me lonely and miserable. In personal experience, I’m more of a short-term tourist than a long-term visitor abroad. Yet I cannot stop learning about cultures beyond my own. That’s why I love ESL – you experience the world while enjoying the familiarity of your own nation. I am able to enjoy other countries simply by teaching a class! Nonetheless, there’s always room to hop on a plane (we are headed out to Polynesia in April for my husband’s conference!) should I want. 

Things to Point Out

I wanted to wrap up this post by a few pointers:

  1. I did not address the growing popularity of English as a Foreign Language online learning platforms as a flexible option. In fact, I teach on one right now.
  2. Remember that EFL and ESL still follow the rules laid out for second language acquisition. The difference is the curriculum (suited for different audiences and needs) and motivation (ESL students have more at stake than EFL students).
  3. Although I wrote about teaching immigrants, there is no “one size fits all” student in ESL. You see immigrants, visiting scholars, international students, visiting tourists, refugees (different political classification than immigrants), etc.

Guys, don’t worry about losing the adventures of teaching English abroad – in ESL the world comes to you. ESL is for us language nerds who need to be doing humanitarian work or for that person who loves other cultures but needs to stay in their home country. And with good reason – the current political climate of our country loves to build walls. Go rogue. Don’t build walls, but tear them down in ESL.

Students in Guatemala

Student Success While Teaching Abroad

by Leesa Truesdell

morgan-yearoutMiracles start to happen when you give as much energy to your dreams as you do your fears.” – Richard Wilkins

Sitting down with Morgan Yearout two months after our initial interview, I observed an even more confident and relaxed person. She is clear about her role as a teacher and happy with the work she is doing. Furthermore, she cares about student success more than others.

In our first talk, Morgan was candid about how highly she valued the leadership role she last held at a corporation. I wanted to find out more about her thoughts with regard to her previous position and her new auxiliar position in one of Madrid’s secondary schools. I decided to ask her a follow-up question about her role at Hilton after our initial conversation.

You mentioned in your first interview that you were a Senior Manager for Revenue Management at Hilton Worldwide. Your job was to train and develop new team members to be most effective for their careers with Hilton.

Do you think working with adults in a corporate environment was more difficult than working with high school students? Why or why not?

“I think there’s a lot of overlap whenever you are in a leadership capacity, whether it is in an office or at a school. At the end of the day, you have to gain people’s trust in order to better understand what each person’s motivations and strengths are and successfully challenge them to be better. It’s all about creating a safe environment by exercising emotional intelligence. For example, practice understanding and not judging, use active listening skills, positive reinforcement, and have difficult conversations when needed.  These things have enabled me to develop strong working relationships no matter what the environment is. Therefore, neither scenario is more or less difficult, it’s all about perspective and doing the best you can with the interactions that you do have.”

What is a typical day at your school like?

“Most of my classes are English, Science, or Art. In English classes, I prepare the full lesson plan but collaborate with the teacher in case there’s a certain topic that they wish for me to focus on. During art class, I simply help with classroom management and speak to students informally as I move throughout the class. In science classes, I usually read part of a chapter, supplement the lesson with a discussion, or facilitate a test-prep discussion.

Several examples of lessons that I prepared and facilitated include: types of American food; Bob Dylan, nobel prize winner; USA national parks; USA national monuments; Myers-Briggs personality testing; presentation skills; homework/education comparison across various nations; diet comparison of the USA versus Spain; culture comparisons between the USA and Spain; how to craft a personal statement; environmental discussions regarding the “Plastic Age”; the obesity epidemic across the world; comparison of Obama and Trump’s inauguration speeches; how to read nutrition labels; and how to establish S.M.A.R.T. goals.”

How many people do you work with (auxiliars included) and how many classes do you teach?

“I work with six other auxiliars and I teach 18 classes (including the one-on-one conversation class with the secretary).”

student success while teaching abroad

Communication in the school and outside of school:

Are you forming working relationships with coworkers?

“Yes, I have been so blessed to have teachers and auxiliars that love their job and are passionate about ensuring student success. The auxiliars have a monthly luncheon but also meet up sporadically throughout the month, which is great! I did Tapapies with one of the teachers I work most closely with and plan to have dinner together again before the year ends. There is definitely a mutual appreciation and respect amongst the auxiliars and teachers.”

Are you forming bonds with students?

“Yes! It was really reiterated around the Christmas season when two classes gave me handwritten notes thanking me for my assistance in the classroom and letting me know they have appreciated getting to know me! Other students have offered their food, made art projects for me, or simply say hello to me in the halls and ask me about my life.”

Does the school foster the creation and maintenance of these relationships inside and outside of the classroom?

“The school doesn’t really have extra-curricular activities like the USA. Students join sports clubs and language schools off-campus so I don’t see the students outside of class unless I randomly run into them at the gym or in the metro. Within the classroom, I choose to engaged thoroughly with the students because I genuinely care for them and student success. I get students to tell me about their day, weekend plans, vacations, and life in general.”

How do you prepare your lessons for each class? If you don’t plan lessons, how do you prepare for class?

“I always talk to the teacher about the class content for the week to see if I can supplement it with my presentations. Student success is very important. I have an immense amount of autonomy in choosing my topics. Also, how I want to conduct a class. For my Bachillerato classes, I solicit the student’s input so that I can ensure those classroom discussions are relevant and engaging for them.”

Do you work at a bilingual school? What does that mean to you? What does that mean according to the Comunidad of Madrid?

“I work at a bilingual school. Essentially all classes aside from French, German, Math, and P.E. are taught in English as far as I know. The classes that I assist with are conducted in all English by the teacher and myself. The only time English teachers don’t speak English occurs when clarification is required for the lower-level English speakers. I believe that my school is in line with the requirements of a bilingual school based on the Comunidad de Madrid.”

What standards are the classroom teachers using to measure the performance of their students?

“I am unsure since I am not directly involved with the students’ preparation for the English proficiency tests this year. It is my understanding that those students taking the exams need to do well in order to maintain the reputation of the school and the teacher.”

students learning abroad

Does your school have a set of shared goals and expectations for what knowledge and skills will help their students succeed?

“Not that I am aware of. I presume so, however, these haven’t been communicated to me. “

What have you learned most about yourself since your arrival to Spain both in the classroom and out of the classroom?

“I haven’t really learned much about myself per se. I have become more comfortable with myself in a public speaking capacity. Before, I used to feel ridiculously anxious for presentations, so much so that I would avoid them like the plague. In college, I’d sign up for the introduction and conclusion slides…

Otherwise, I continue to be impressed with my ability to embrace ambiguity. In terms of expectations from me in the classroom and developing ideas for presentation topics so that’s lovely.”

What are your new goals and/or modifications to previous goals in the new year?

“New goals?! Hmm… mainly just experience more of the local culture i.e. I did a walking tour, doing the caves under Plaza Mayor, museum dwelling, rooftop bar adventures, and café exploring. Time is flying so fast so I really hope to make the most of my time here by continuing to foster important friendships and host family relationships.”

I am also scheming more grand adventures! As of right now, I have Venice for Carnaval, Bordeaux, Belgium, Spain day trips, a Croatia solo trip and some other potential master plans that I´m keeping in mind. My ability to speak Spanish is not where I would like but I will continue to try. My biggest goal for the year is to break even with the money I make versus the money I spent making this dream a reality.”

Student Success and Willful Personality

Knowing her willful personality and seeing student success, I know Morgan will always do an amazing job in whatever she puts her mind to. In future interviews, I look forward to looping back with her. I cannot wait to see what she has taken with her from this experience, and especially to see where she is headed next.