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. 

 

Learning as a Teaching Assistant in Ontinyent, Spain

edgar llivisupa profile photoEdgar Llivisupa is a native New Yorker completing a dual degree in Business Journalism and Spanish Literature and Language. His goals while teaching abroad are to improve his Spanish, test his capabilities as a teacher, and to travel. 

Edgar has been living in Ontinyent, Spain for one school year. Ontinyent is located in eastern Spain near Valencia. He is a teaching assistant at a primary school and will be returning to the same school this September. He enjoys learning Valencian and interacting with the locals. 

Edgar is looking forward to returning for another year. He wants to continue his progress with his students and dive deeper into the Spanish culture and lifestyle.

Meet Edgar 

Why did you choose to come to Spain and Europe? 

“There were many motivations for me to live abroad. Firstly, it had been rare in my life for me to venture outside New York. In fact, I had traveled out of the tri-state area only a handful of times, so I was itching to leave. Secondly, after failing a calculus course I switched my major to Spanish and started taking more intensive coursework. During a literature class, the professor flagged up  the North American Language and Culture Assistants Program. As an American, there was already an innate curiosity to visit Europe. As a descendant of Hispanics, I was also inquisitive about Spanish culture and how much it influenced Latin America. Thirdly, I had a brother living in Madrid. This put me at ease after reading online testimonials from other participants in the program.”

Why did you choose to teach abroad? 

“While I had considered studying abroad in the past, the costs made it seem out of reach. I was never the type to look for grants or scholarships to aid my studies. Alongside that, I would have to pick courses that would grant me credits at my college. Instead, this program gave me the opportunity to work abroad, which made me more comfortable rather than going abroad as a student. I hadn’t considered teaching before, but regardless, I have approached my tasks and responsibilities with an open mind and strived to do my best.”

Have you ever taught before? If not, what were you doing before you decided to move abroad?  

“I’ve never taught before. Rather, I was working very close to home at a pharmacy. It had nothing to do with what I was majoring in, but I wanted some work experience and a reference for the future just in case. Earning my own money felt rewarding as it lessened my dependence on my parents and when I decided to participate in the program, it meant I could start saving for my year abroad.”

What did you think teaching abroad would be like? Where are you teaching? 

“I am an English teaching assistant at a primary school in Ontinyent, Spain, located in the Valencian Community.

I had a feeling that teaching abroad would be extremely difficult as I had no previous experience. And I had been put off it as a career by what my public school teachers had to say about it.

I also had no idea what my students’ proficiency level would be so thank God for the chance to do some homework on them on the Internet. The school’s online blog gave me a great insight into the faculty, the students, and what the school looked like. There were documents on the English classes, their textbooks and other learning materials. I was also heartened to see that the school had recently embarked on a cultural exchange with public schools in Africa. So my arrival wasn’t going to be jarring as they had already opened their hearts and minds to another culture.”

What expectations did you have before you came here?

“I had no expectations coming to Ontinyent. That isn’t to say that I wasn’t looking forward to it. Knowing I had finally made it out of New York meant I was aware that I would have a good time regardless of where I wound up.”

cityscape ontinyent spain

What were your perceptions of Ontinyent during your first year?

“Again, I had the Internet to thank for discovering that it wasn’t amongst the most isolated towns in the region (looking at you there, Bocairent). I saw there was a decently-sized shopping mall with chains like Zara and GAME (an equivalent of GameStop), as well as a movie theater. All of the major Spanish banks were there. And most important of all, there was a train station to Valencia. 

By the end of the first year, I had learned that family is highly valued in Ontinyent. At least once a week, regardless of work or social schedules, the family, from grandparents to grandchildren, will share a meal together.”

What were some of the accomplishments of your first year?

“Moving and living abroad is a big accomplishment in itself with all the changes it has brought  me. I had never lived away from home or on my own before. Suddenly in my own flat, there was no one to clean up, cook, or pay the bills. Those responsibilities all fell on me.

Ontinyent newspaper

Many people had warned me that the town isn’t ideal for young people with few nightlife options or places to hang out. Instead I just traveled to the major cities before returning to the calm of Ontinyent. It was a great balance for me.”

What do you want to achieve for your second year? 

“As much as I strive to plan my life (after all, I first heard of this program three years ago), I have no idea where it is going. This year, I am going to lay foundations  in case I decide to relocate to Ontinyent for good. This includes continuing to study the local language, Valencian, which is a dialect of Catalan. 

I want to attend Spanish language courses. While I know enough to be considered a native speaker, I still lack confidence. So it would help to be more proficient and understand the basic facets of the language. 

Also, while I can assume I did a decent enough job to warrant a warm and lovely “see you soon!” party at my school, I do feel that there is a lot I can improve on. Since I’m returning to the same center, I don’t have to spend the first few months meeting the faculty and students or familiarizing myself with the town. Like I told some of my co-workers, I come back ready to work!”

What advice would you give to other participants about your first year? What are some of the things they must do and some things they must absolutely not do? 

“The most important thing to realize about this program is that it is going to take a while to adjust to living in Spain if you’re not in a major city. You’re not going to easily find foreign cuisine or people who want to, or can, speak English. By the time I acclimatized to living abroad, which for me was around the New Year, I was already at the halfway point of my tenure. Keep that in mind if it takes you longer to adjust to a new surrounding.

Another piece of advice I have, and this is more personal, regards technology. Yes, it makes us all connected but while it is great to talk to loved ones back home, attempt to disconnect once in a while. Enjoy your newfound independence in a different setting.”

How do you feel about your integration into the culture so far? How did you prepare before you arrived? 

“Before my arrival, I explored the town’s tourism website and looked at the traditional dishes, holidays, and festivals celebrated throughout the year. Being in a small town helped me integrate easier than a tenure in Madrid or Barcelona. There aren’t fast-food chains to satisfy my American tastebuds. The stores in Ontinyent close around 8pm. And my town is also multi-generational.

Now that it’s a year later, I can say it was a great change for me. I am happy to be away from New York. Ontinyent was the perfect size for me. Living in big cities can cause anxiety if you don’t have a big weekend planned or spend too much time at home. Choices are limited in a small town. Most weekends entail a simple football match or drinks at someone’s apartment. I appreciated simple living. When I went on trips during vacation or long-weekend excursions, I had a greater drive to explore and enjoy my time away.

Culture Shock Made Easy

Since I am of Hispanic descent, there wasn’t much of a culture shock. The passion for football extended to my family, so I ended up attending a match at every stadium of the eight La Liga teams based in Madrid and Valencia. I was even able to attend the trophy ceremony for Valencia CF’s triumph in the Copa del Rey, the Spanish domestic cup competition.

The lack of a language barrier also made it seamless to fit in. I didn’t have much of an opportunity to stand out as a foreigner. However, with my co-workers and their family and friends, it was always fun to let them introduce themselves in English. I would always follow in Spanish and leave them astonished. It meant I was able to meet everyone in a more personable fashion. They would ask me about my life in New York and how I was adapting. Meanwhile, I would ask them about their life in a small town.

teaching abroad

Looking Forward to a Future in Ontinyent

Alongside that, learning Valencian has helped a lot. Understanding a conversation between two native speakers, saying that I was taking classes, or just switching from Spanish to Valencian continually impressed people. They couldn’t believe a New Yorker was not only interested in their language but was making a serious effort to be proficient in it even as they considered it “useless for my future in the country.” Even today, weeks removed from Ontinyent, I still think in Valencian.   

I had an enjoyable year in Ontinyent, and I’ve met some of the most generous and accommodating people. Because I have traveled around so much, I’ve seen more of Spain in one year than most people I know who’ve had the opportunity to visit in all their years of living in Spain. While I have a hard time measuring how well I’ve integrated into my new town, it has been enough that a few months away is difficult for me. I am eagerly looking forward to my second year.”

An Expat Living and Working Abroad in Ontinyent, Spain

Edgar shares details about his first year abroad living and working in Ontinyent, Spain. He provides guidance for first-year teachers who are just arriving. Expat life is not easy. It can take longer than one expects. After having lived in the Ontinyent area for a year, Edgar feels as if he has made friends at work and started to better understand the language. He is trying his best to learn and understand Valencian and they appreciate his willingness to do so. It takes time. Sometimes expats live abroad for years and still don’t feel a sense of full familiarity within their new home. Edgar plans to try his best in his second year to understand the culture better by perfecting Valencian.

We look forward to hearing more about Edgar’s second year in Ontinyent. Stay tuned for his second update in the late fall. 

by Leesa Truesdell