Should I Speak My Students’ Language?

Carol at ESL Lesson Plan recently reviewed an article about speaking your students’ language in class and it got me thinking. I agree that overall, it is better to stick to English only, especially as a teacher who has been hired at least in part because I’m not a speaker of the students’ language.

That said, there have definitely times in my own experience when speaking the local language was useful (or would have been useful).

The first beginners’ class I taught was during my second year of teaching in Sarajevo. I already had a fair amount of experience under my belt and was used to teaching only in English of course. The book was organized so as not to require translation, and at the end of the course, the students were extremely satisfied that they had gotten through the course completely in English.

I had studied their language for a year formally, and had nearly two years of practical experience using it, so I can safely say that while I could not have given instructions or detailed grammatical explanations in their language, I could have translated the English they were learning. It was useful for me, if someone had a question or wanted to check their understanding by translating, to be able to just confirm if they’d gotten it right by nodding if they asked in their language.

But in the two-month, 32-hour course, I probably spoke in their language on two or three occasions.

In Chicago, where I taught multi-lingual groups, there were definitely situations where one student just had no clue what to do. The others did, so I don’t think it was just poor instructions on my part; for whatever reason, that one student just took longer to “get” what the others were already doing. In these cases, it might be useful to be able to explain…but in a multi-lingual class this would entail knowing the basics of a wide variety of languages, which, even for a language teacher, is often just not possible.

I’d also add that local teachers – or native English speaker teachers who speak the local language well – are sometimes put in an awkward position: even if they try to teach completely in English, as many schools advertise and run their English classes, students may expect them to translate and come to rely on that. It is much harder (not to mention potentially interpreted as ruder) to say “I refuse to tell you in your language” than it is to say “I’m sorry, I just can’t tell you in your language” – even in cases when it seems clear that doing a task without translating is advantageous.

Ultimately, I think the best answer is somewhere in the middle: I wouldn’t say speaking your students’ language is an absolute necessity or a horrible mistake. If you really need to do it, great, and if you can manage without even better.