Teaching in a school in a non-English-speaking country will usually mean that your classes all speak the same first language (L1) ie it is a monolingual class. Monolingual classes have been given a bad rap, but they just need to be better understood to realise the benefits.
To start with the negative:
- Many teachers feel that in the English classroom only English should be spoken. To me, this makes about as much sense as using one colour to draw a picture: possible, but more difficult that it could be.
- If teachers don’t speak the same language as their students, they may feel outnumbered or out of the loop (Nothing like 20 teenagers giggling and whispering in French to make you check for an open fly or spinach in the teeth).
- There’s the idea that speaking English all the time is the best way to learn to speak English. Nice theory, but not being able to explain what you don’t understand is not easy, nor fun.
The problem with this thinking is the classification of the L1 as Enemy Number 1. Learning a language does not need to be an all-or-nothing endeavour, we should be able to use whatever means possible to get to the final goal.
So let’s look at the positives:
- Using the L1 can be a quick and simple way of ensuring the students have understood instructions (obviously only if you understand the instructions in their L1).
- Translation can be a more effective method of vocabulary explanation. It’s no use explaining a word using more difficult words.
- Seeing parallels or differences between their own language and English can help with comprehension and memory.
- L1 explanations can allow stronger students to help weaker students, saving time and teacher energy.
- If all your students speak the same first language, chances are they make the same mistakes and have difficulties with the same sounds or constructions, which makes your job easier.
- Most importantly for me, it shows the students that they should value their language, even though they want to be able speak English.
As teachers, we are preparing our students to communicate in the real world. In the real world, communication takes place haphazardly, dynamically and, often, multilingually. So why would we want our classrooms to be any different?