“But they don’t understand!”

Many an ESL teacher has thought the above, at one time or another.  The question is, what does one do when faced with a class that – apparently – does not understand what one is trying to communicate?  The easiest solution, of course, is simply to translate whatever it was that the class didn’t understand into the general language of instruction (L1), before returning to the lesson in the target language (L2).

As understandable as this solution may be, I strongly disagree with this “solution”.  In my decade of teaching ESL, I have never once needed to speak in L1 with the pupils.  That doesn’t mean it’s always been easy to use only English, but I have two good reasons to stick to my guns and use only English whenever I speak with the children, which I’ll explain here.

Reason number one: “lazy ears”

When a teacher translates new material from L2 into L1, that means the children themselves don’t have to do the work of understanding the material.  In general, I have found that once a teacher starts translating, the ease of translation feeds itself.  The next time the children appear not to understand, the teacher and children remember how well that went last time, and the teacher will resort to translation again and again.  As this pattern continues, the children quickly learn that they don’t have to listen to the target language, or wrestle with the meaning thereof, as the teacher will simply translate things into L1 for them.  Hence, the children run the risk of developing a serious case of “lazy ears”.

Besides this, once a teacher starts translating, he or she will underestimate how often translation occurs during the lesson.  I remember how one teacher I observed resorted to translating during her lesson.  When I asked her afterward how much she thought she’d spoken in each language, she was convinced that she’d only spoken a few words in L1.  When, in fact, she had translated every single thing she’d said, the entire lesson long.

The important word here is that children appear not to understand.  Children often understand a lot more than we teachers give them credit for.  Allowing children to wrestle with the material gives them space to develop their self-confidence in grappling with a foreign language.

Remember: it’s perfectly okay if children don’t understand every single word we say.  Babies don’t understand every word they hear, either, and yet they get along just fine.

Reason number two:  One Person, One Language

When immersing children in a foreign language, it’s very important that their minds be geared toward that foreign language whenever they are in contact with their foreign-language teacher.  That is when the One Person, One Language (OPOL) theory of multilingualism comes into play.  There is loads of research done into multilingual families, and the parallel between familial multilingualism and multilingualism at school is quite simple: the ESL teacher speaks only English with the children, the French teacher speaks only French with the children, and so forth.

The children at my school are so trained to the fact that I only speak English with them, that they begin to believe I really don’t understand a word of Dutch when they speak with them.  After a while, they realise that’s not really true, but they go along with the game anyway, knowing that when they get their diploma, they can speak Dutch with me.  Because then I’m not their English teacher any more.  Until then, however, we always greet each other in English, and they know to expect only English from me.  Always.

The tricky part, then, is how do I manage to make myself clear, using only L2 during my lessons?  This is something I will address in a later post.

In the meantime, please tell me what you do in these situations?  What kinds of tactics do you find useful when children don’t understand?


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