Should ESL Instructors Speak Other Languages in the Classroom?

Eric Dondero R.

I recently taught an 8-month-long Beginner-level ESL class at a college in Houston. It was a very diverse class with students from all over the world. I had a wide variety of Hispanics, including students from Colombia, Venezuela, Central America, Cuba, and Mexico. I also had Chinese, Vietnamese, Arabic, Persian, Russian, Japanese, and African students.

Though I am a native born Anglo-American I speak fluent Spanish. For the first few weeks of the class I translated new vocabulary to Spanish for the Hispanic students. I would then explain the new vocabulary to the other students as best as I could in English.

I thought this method would be more efficient and save us some time. It was not. It only created an atmosphere of resentment and confusion among the non-Spanish speaking students. It also brought me repeated tongue lashings from the school director who was an adamant proponent of English only. I stopped the practice and returned to an English only policy.

But I have since re-examined the issue. Should other languages be completely banned from the classroom?

I have decided that the answer is a firm "no." Banning use of other languages in the classroom creates a "sink or swim" atmosphere. The drop-out rate at this particular institution was high. I could see that in most instances the students who dropped were those who felt lost and confused in an English only environment.

When I started a new class, I resolved to undertake a new strategy. By this time I had expanded my knowledge of languages to include languages from all around the globe. (Today, I am able to speak over 20 languages and can communicate in another 20 more.)

My new strategy revolved around teaching in all the different languages of my students for the first week or two while repeating everything in English. It also included welcoming the students on the first day in their native languages. The Chinese and other Asian students especially were pleased and amazed at the fact that their teacher could speak their native language.

After a couple of weeks, and some pretty stern warnings, I then instituted the "English Only" policy. I had prepared them for the switch. They were very understanding of the importance of speaking only English in the classroom. However, at the same time they had a great appreciation and respect for their teacher, for they knew that he spoke their native language. Further, they knew that if they ever had a serious misunderstanding of certain vocabulary they could ask me for the answer in their native language. I would whisper the answer to them.

This all led to a much more comfortable classroom atmosphere. The result, my retention soared.

So, I now firmly side with the small minority of ESL Instructors who favor utilizing native languages in the classroom. Though, I do agree, it should be for a limited time period, and then after that, only used to clear up a serious misunderstanding of certain vocabulary.

The bottom line is that it makes the students feel more comfortable. They know that their instructor has an appreciation for their native language and culture which leads to a more accommodating classroom and ultimately greater retention.

© Eric Dondero R. 2002

Eric Dondero R. is a Certified Language Instructor and Multilingual Interpreter in Houston, Texas. He is author of the Worldwide Multilingual Phrase Book: Survival Skills for Over 40 Languages.

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