16 April 2014

All teachers lie (or "The myth of the target-language-only classroom")

So last time I was talking about the danger of  the philosophy of answer-in-sentences, but I mentioned the English-only-classroom in passing.

It's a commonly stated goal that we, as teachers, should be aiming to use only the target language in the classroom, and that we shouldn't be introducing "translation". In the guidelines of my school, translation is marked down as a "last resort".

However, most teachers kid themselves on. In a heterogeneous, mixed-mother-tongue class (foreigners studying in an English-speaking country), obviously you can't use the students' mother tongue as there is no other shared language, but once you go into a homogenous class, translation becomes a matter of course. I've observed other teachers doing it, and I've even had advice from teachers that has thrown in translation as a completely standard tool. (EG. a former boss in Spain who insisted that he taught in English only told me that the best way to correct Spanish kids saying "one car" instead of "a car" was to say "uno coche?" thus demonstrating that "one" was explicitly a number. He was completely unconscious of the dichotomy of philosophy vs practice.)

When I've witnessed this in observed classes, what I tend to experience is a careful, elaborate explanation of a task or grammar point in consciously graded English, followed by a very quick, concise summary in the students' native language. How are we to know whether it's the difficult-to-understand English or the exceptionally easy mother-tongue instruction that they're learning from? Common sense, perhaps? It strikes me as obvious which one would be more effective.

I've had three full-time jobs in different foreign countries, and in all of them, I've walked in and been told to pretend I don't know anything about the local language, and each time I've tried to do so. It has never worked. It's not a question of how well I grade my English, either -- it's simply that you cannot and will not stop the stronger students translating for the weaker ones, which means losing control of the classroom (particularly when the students doing the translation have failed to understand themselves). This translation problem is even more serious in a mixed-mother-tongue class where a large subset of the students already share a common language, where there is a large heterogeneous immigrant population (I'm told there are a lot of South Americans in Italy, for example, and they would have to learn Italian.)

An English-only classroom presents a huge psychological barrier, as the students see themselves as unable to communicate with the teacher. English should be a means of communication, yet we present it to our students in such a way as to make it an impediment to communication. That can't be right, surely....


Anonymous said...

EFL classes have always perplexed me with this concept of English only. I guess with unlimited time, and some type of natural language approach whereby you teach the most common 2000+ words by such methods, and then use those to define subsequent words, one could make this work.

Even with the obvious disadvantage you mention and the idiotic insistence on no translations, such a heterogeneous class composition makes it difficult to see how a teacher such as yourself could even make translation work well while at the same time making any meaningful progress in the language.

Surely classes such as these cannot really be effective except as part of a wider program of the students having books and other material from the internet where translation is done, i.e. a commercial type of course (if it exists) plus EFL classes as an adjunct.

Even if all that was done was to provide the text of each EFL lesson in digital form so students could run it through google translate (as bad as it is often), that surely would accelerate their learning.

I am surprised that other countries don't make the same commitment to language teaching on the net that Germany has with their wonderful Deutsche Welle site, truly the best collection of foreign language learning material on the web.

Nìall Beag said...

There's a lot you can do to kid yourself on that something's working when it clearly isn't. For one thing, you can look at all the students who do succeed in the classroom and use them as "proof", but you have to ignore the fact that these are often the ones who've done the most study previous to the course, so they're benefiting from practise of pre-taught materials, rather than actually being taught something.

In fact, in the EFL classroom, the practice of "eliciting" language from the students at the start of the lesson makes this foreknowledge of the material pretty explicit, yet we can still let ourselves ignore it.

During my CELTA course, one of the students we taught during teaching practice, a young Basque guy, was making great progress. He was going home and reading grammar books and dictionaries and doing lots of exercises. I pointed out to one of the trainers that he was doing basically the opposite of the classroom lessons outside on his own.

"Yes," was the reply, "That's what they should be doing."

But we weren't telling them that they should be doing that, or showing them how to do it successfully, so how were they to know...?