Should English teachers use the native language in class with young learners?
There is an ongoing debate surrounding this question. It’s been going on for years and I’m sure the end of the discussion is nowhere in sight. A google search on the ‘use of L1 with young learners’ will provide the reader with an ample source of arguments that go both ways. I believe that each teacher needs to find their own answer to this question depending on their style of teaching, the needs of their young learners and the characteristics of their teaching situation. For example, using L1 in the classroom would not be feasible if the pupils did not share the same the native language or if the teacher did not speak it.
Let me start off by saying that I do use the native language (in this case Spanish) in my classroom with my young learners, especially my very young learners (ages four and five). I believe that there are instances when using their native language is beneficial to the pupils or their learning in some way.
Very young children are often nervous and sometimes scared the first few days of class. They don’t know me but they’ve been left in the classroom with me and a bunch of other children that they may or may not know. This can be overwhelming for a little one and getting them to feel comfortable requires a lot of compassionate smiles and hearty encouragement from the teacher. This is when I believe L1 is a necessity. These little ones need to know that the teacher understands them and can interact with them in their own language. It makes them feel secure and helps to lower their affective filter.
I also use L1 when it comes to classroom management. I’ve found that using just five minutes of class at the beginning of the school year to discuss why it’s better to take turns at speaking and raise your hand than having everyone talk at once works wonders throughout the rest of the course. Young learners need to understand what the rules mean and why they should follow them. The teacher can use L2 to demonstrate this meaning but I feel that L1 is more concise. I would rather spend time practicing target language than trying to get them to understand the classroom rules in English.
Using the native language in the classroom can also help develop skills for independent learning. Simple instructions such as ‘Read and match’ or ‘Listen and number’ can easily be explained and demonstrated in L2. I sometimes use L1 to go a little deeper, asking them not only to color the number they see but also to say it in English in their heads while they’re coloring. With pupils who are old enough to read and work with written texts, we talk about how to approach a new text, how to skim for a general understanding and then how to scan when searching for the answers to questions. These are skills that they’ll take with them and hopefully use with even more profiency in the future. All of this can be explained and demonstrated in L2 but, again, using L1 means that we spend less time on the instructions and more time on carrying them out. On a side note, it’s important to remember that young learners have considerably less experience with tasks such as answering questions about a text than adults or teens do. They’re only just beginning to understand the steps involved and the reasoning behind them. I find that using L1 (at least during the first time we try a new type of task) is helpful because it’s one less complication they have to deal with. Once they get the hang of how to do these types of tasks, using L2 to explain and discuss provides enrichment instead of a hindrance.
It may seem like I use quite a lot of the native language in my classroom. I think this is true during the first couple weeks of class when we’re setting up routines and getting to know the course expectations. As the school year goes on, however, I use progressively less L1 in the classroom. Pupils gain a certain base of knowledge during those first couple weeks related to the meaning of instructions and rules. Subsequently, they use my explanations in English coupled with the gestures and miming I always use in order to figure out what they should be doing.
Finding the right amount of L1 to use can be tricky. The native language has its usefulness in the classroom but as teachers, we also need to be careful not to rely on it too heavily. If the teacher always uses L1 to backup their explanations in English, pupils will inevitably tune out the version in L2 and wait for the translation. The teacher needs to be aware of how much L1 is necessary and attempt to limit its use to that minimum.
Whether or not to use the native language in the classroom, when to use it and how to use it are all very personal choices that I believe each teacher needs to decide for themselves. I use L1 at specific times during lessons and for specific reasons: to make little ones feel more secure, to save time and to delve a bit deeper into explanations of instructions and rules. Using the right dose of the native language in the classroom can be an effective tool but it should not be used as a crutch. It’s up to the teacher to find and implement the most favorable balance of L1 and L2 to suit their learners’ needs.
These are my views on using the native language with young learners. Do you agree? Do you disagree? How much or how little do you use L1 in your classroom? Please share your thoughts in the comments section. Thanks!