Perhaps as a parent you have sent your child off to English language lessons or you have had the opportunity to sit in on some of your child’s lessons and, to your absolute shock, you hear the mother-tongue or shared language (Polish – in Poland for example) being used. Absolute English immersion is the hallmark of all reputable language schools and the policy of NEVER using the children’s mother tongue is surely an example of best practise! However, the new thinking in TEFL and modern methodologies can justify the occasional and ‘judicious’ use of the L1 and we are going to discuss the reasons for this in today’s blog.
There are a few very sound reasons for using the students’ common mother tongue in a lesson and here they are.
Creates a Sense of Emotional Security
The lower range of Young Learners (5-8) appreciate knowing that their teacher can understand their needs if moments of extreme frustration or feelings of being overwhelmed occur. Imagine if your 6-year-old had a very difficult problem, felt something was unfair or had a tummy ache, would you want the teacher to demand that they try to speak in English to convey their thoughts and then proceeded to console the child in a language that they didn’t understand? I would prefer the teacher simply to say, “We can help you.” or “Please don’t worry.” in the child’s native language in order to remove as much intimidation from the child’s perspective as possible.
If a particular language point is being tackled in a lesson and there needs to be a huge deviation in order to pre-teach or explain a difficult abstract concept to a learner such as: jealousy or what a weeping willow is, it can often be far more expedient to simply say jealousy = zazdrość and weeping willow is ‘płaczący dąb.’ For less relevant and peripheral language using the L1 can save time. There is an argument that this does not promote monolingual thinking, a concept I truly believe in AND also that this robs the student of opportunities for the rich, descriptive language involved in the explanation of words. Though this second point is also true , we are actually talking about using the L1 rarely and strategically when it serves our purpose and saves the lesson from being swamped by excessive deviation.
Sometimes learners simply reach a breaking point after extended periods of concentration and focused language production in the L2/target language and they just need a break. Even as an adult, I, myself have to visit my wife’s family and I am forced to speak and ‘think’ (to the extent I can) in Polish. It is a language I have learned to a rather communicative level, but in the evenings I need a long walk with my wife or by myself for the explicit purpose of NOT having to use Polish anymore. Young Learners have a much lower threshold and they may need a break in order to maintain their motivation and their feelings of accomplishment. I used to divide a two-hour lesson with 6-8 year olds into a 90-minute language input and practice session with a 30-minute crafty bit where the students were freely allowed to speak Polish to each other (not to me). It was a VERY successful experiment where students were given some ‘time off’ and had a chance to build an honest rapport with each other without being punished. One fantastic result was that very often the target language of the lesson – English – was what they used anyway.
Lost in Translation?
Sometimes using the L1 to show young learners what is actually being said in a language can demonstrate that two different languages do not always map on to each other precisely.
In Italian you decide ‘of’ something (decidere di fare qualcosa) Lei ha deciso di andare a Londra.
whereas in English,
you decide ‘to’ do something (She decided to go to London)
In most languages, there are countless examples of these kinds of issues. Using a translation approach may help students to understand things a bit better.
Not all classrooms have students who share the same L1 and sadly English teachers can’t be fluent in every language their students may speak. But when it does happen that the learners all share the same L1 taking advantage of this simple fact shouldn’t be seen as a huge taboo especially when there may be some strong arguments for doing so. Feel free to share your feelings about using L1 in the classroom in the comment section below.