Is it good to use a student’s native language in the English classroom?

Is it good to use a student’s native language in the English classroom?

Whether you’re a teacher or a student, this question comes up from time to time and I’d like to be clear from the outset that I believe there is no right answer to this question because so much depends on the learner, their language level, how they learn, and whether or not the learner’s native language is used effectively in class.

I have my own thoughts on it and they are reflected in the way that I teach, but I’m not here to convince you either way. It’s up to you to look at the arguments and form your own opinion about what you want from a language course, or how you want to run your language teaching business.

Obviously there are some things that would prevent you from using languages other than English. The first factor is the teacher – do they speak other languages?

I speak German, but if I’m working with Portuguese, Urdu or Russian speakers who don’t speak German, we only use English in the classroom. For no other reason than the fact that I don’t speak Portuguese, Urdu or Russian. I can still add value and all of the feedback, explanations and exercises are in English.

I can also imagine that in a large class with speakers of multiple languages, it would be unfair if the teacher gave additional help to some learners and not others.

When I flip the situation around and think of my experience as a learner, I was really grateful that my Turkish teacher spoke English as well. If we had only spoken Turkish from the outset, I don’t think I would have made as much progress or really understood why I was doing what I was doing, especially as a complete beginner.

My general rule is that we speak as much English in the lessons as possible – after all, the learners are there to learn English. However, with my German speakers, there are times when speaking German is beneficial.

1. Establishing learning goals, organising, and setting expectations

I do everything in my business. I don’t work in a school that has its own on boarding process, so I really want to find out what people want to learn, what they struggle with, and how I can help them.

Some learners may not be able to express this in English, so I’m happy to have the initial conversation in German. This is also a great way to help people to relax. Many people are nervous at the thought of working with a teacher one-to-one, and some people have never used online software for video calls before. The more I understand about exactly what they want to learn and what they need help with, the more I am able to help. Some learners can communicate all of this information in English without any problems. Others can’t, and if I can offer a way to make that initial conversation easier, I will.

Also, if there’s a problem related to classroom management, expectations, admin, getting invoices paid or lessons arranged, my being able to do that doesn’t depend on the student’s understanding of English if I speak their language too.

2. Helping beginners

People who are more advanced rarely use German in my lessons, but it’s a different story for beginners. In fact, as I don’t use a lot of pictures and visual learning techniques in my lessons, I only teach complete beginners who are German speakers because I want to be able to explain things to them in a way that they will understand. If they are a complete beginner, I don’t believe this will be effective or even possible if I only use English.

As the learner develops, the amount of support in their native language decreases.

3. Saying what you mean

Whilst there’s a lot to be said for finding other ways to explain things, there are times when you want to look up a word. Speakers of other languages need to reach for the dictionary, but I can help the German speakers if they tell me the word in German. This can save time if they were going to look the word up anyway.

This happens less as students become more advanced, and I do give learners a study sheet with new vocabulary – so even if I helped with the process of finding the word, they still need to learn it!

4. Explaining grammar or correcting mistakes

When I do grammar exercises with students, I don’t just want them to get the questions right. I want them to understand how they got to the answer and why it has to be that answer, and not another one.

I’ve had a number of people coming to my lessons because their company paid for English classes at a language school, and the teacher could only speak English. This was particularly problematic when the teacher couldn’t explain grammar rules, or they could only explain them in English. The students couldn’t do their homework because they didn’t understand the concept. This is a problem.

I do explain about grammar rules in English, but if I have to switch to German for the explanation, and then the student understands the point and is able to do the exercises, I’ve achieved what I set out to do. That’s more important to me than insisting that every explanation should be in English.

Some of the problems learners have are caused by big differences in grammar, and if the teacher has an understanding of how things work in the student’s native language, it’s easier to point out what’s different and why.

The same applies to feedback – if something is wrong and the student understands the explanation in English, that’s great. If they don’t, my primary objective is for them to know what was wrong so that they can do better next time. If I can help more by explaining what was wrong in German, I’m happy to take a few minutes out to do that so that it’s really clear and we can move on to putting what the student has just learned into practice.

5. Doing multilingual tasks

I have at least one student who loves doing translation exercises – both into and out of English. If I only spoke one language, I couldn’t do these exercises with students, but I think that there’s definitely a place for them in terms of learning new vocabulary, and thinking about how you communicate ideas in the other language, rather than trying to put together a literal translation of every single word.

Having knowledge of German also means that I can talk about false friends, or help when there really is no good translation for a word or phrase.

It’s also a good way to get students to use material from their everyday lives – what do the lyrics to that song that they like so much actually mean?

6. Checking that the learner has understood

Sometimes, if the only option is to speak English, a student will say that they understood something, because they don’t know how to explain what they haven’t understood. If you let them use their native language for this, you can fix the real problem, rather than having a student leave the lesson feeling unsure about something.

I sometimes use German for listening or reading comprehension tasks when I want to find out what exactly a learner has understood, as opposed to how well they can summarise something in English. If the main aim of the exercise was to understand some spoken English, the best way might not be to fill in an exercise or tell me about it in English, as this just means that they will only succeed if they can create the English sentences to tell me about what they heard.

Although I allow my German-speaking learners to use German in lessons, there are a couple of things to watch out for.

7. Relying too much on the other language

This is a problem, but probably less so for me, because I’m working with fairly motivated adult learners who want to learn. They are paying me for my time, and if we spent the whole time chatting in German, they wouldn’t learn anything. I think it’s certainly something you’d have to monitor if you’re teaching a class of less motivated learners, or people who were there because they had to be, but in general my learners don’t overly rely on it.

8. Taking the easy way out

Sometimes you have to think about what you want to say, then what you can say, and then say the thing that you can say, without all the extra detail that you would add in your native language. You do this less and less as you progress with a language, but it’s definitely annoying at the beginning. You have complex ideas about things that matter to you, and all you can manage is “I think that is a bad idea”.

If you’re working with someone who speaks your native language, it’s easy to fall back into that language in order to explain the complicated reasons for your argument, whereas what they want is a simplified version in English. It’s important to develop this skill, because there won’t always be people who speak both languages to help you out.

When I was learning German, one of the first German speakers that I encountered in the real world could not speak English. She had learned Russian at school. I had no chance of speaking my native language, so I was pushed out of my comfort zone more to try and get the idea across in German. I may have taken the easy way out if I’d had the chance, but that chance wasn’t there. She really helped me to learn.

If the student falls back into their native language all the time, progress will be slower, and if I see this happening, usually a question in English will get them back on track. I rarely have to remind people to try and answer in English because the question in English is subtle enough, but that would be my next step.

Summing up

I will continue to use German in my classes where doing so adds value. If not overused, I think it can really help, particularly with beginner and lower-intermediate students, and I see it as a selling point, when advertising my services to German speakers.

However, if people don’t want any German in their lessons, I respect that, and I’m certainly happy to work with speakers of any language who are past the beginner stage.

So, if you’re looking for English lessons, think about how important it is to you that the teacher speaks your language too. If you’re interested in my lessons, you can find out more about them on my lesson pages. I have information in English and German.

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Kirsty working with students