Sunday, April 19, 2015

L1 Use in the ESL Classroom

Scott Thornbury has just come out with his latest blog post, "M is for Mother Tongue," in which he delves into the dicey subject of L1 use in the classroom. I'll give you a moment to go read that, then we'll meet back here, okay?

Welcome back.

So where do you stand on that?

Since my stance varies wildly depending on which classroom setting we're talking about, I can only imagine that each group of students out there in the world whom I might have the pleasure of teaching would end up giving me a different perspective. Already I can think of four different scenarios calling for different sets of ground rules.

  • In a LINC 2 class I taught for one term, I found it frustrating when one little clique of students seemed to be using class time to catch up on the latest gossip...using their first language. I was grateful in that instance that our school has an "English Only" policy on which I could fall back, including procedures for disciplining those who repeatedly broke this rule.
  • In my morning class of 12 students from one country and two from another, I have to constantly remind the majority that our time together is an opportunity for them to hear English and speak English. They have begged me to help them with their listening skills, yet they readily lapse back into their L1 when any concept is difficult for them to convey to one another. I have already lost one student because she, as a member of that minority group, simply got fed up with the constant chatter in a language she can't understand. If you've been following my blog, you know the lengths I've gone to in order to remedy this situation.
  • In my afternoon class (ESL Literacy) on the other hand, I have no problem whatsoever with L1 use. In fact, I encourage it. I invite the learners to teach me words in their mother tongues, and I use as much of those languages as I know to make our communication easier and the lessons less stressful for them. (Learning a language and literacy simultaneously is cognitively very taxing, as we can all imagine.)
  • When I was a teaching assistant, I would frequently use my Spanish to help the Spanish speakers understand points of English grammar with which they were struggling.

easel chart with vocabulary words, Chinese characters written by some
I also realize that the degree to which I tend to encourage staying in the target language varies with the activity. In response to my morning students' plea that I help them develop their listening and speaking skills, we often have designated conversation times during which 100% English is strongly encouraged. This is also a "no bilingual dictionaries, no pencils" time. At the same time, you can see in the above photo that our classroom easel chart is sometimes bilingual or trilingual.

To sum up my position on this, it would seem that my approach shifts with the situation. I'd like to think of myself as flexible, skirting dogma in favour of common sense. And while I feel that my having studied ten languages gives me an edge as an ESL instructor and often comes in handy in the classroom, L1 use that takes the students off task drives me bananas.

How about you? Does your school have a policy on L1 use? Do you? How do your learners feel about it?

NB: The students themselves come up with our classroom rules. This doesn't mean they stick to them after voting for them, though.

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