Using Only the Target Language in a Foreign Language Classroom

 

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. 

by Caroline Hazelton