Help or hindrance? Use of native language in the English classroom
By Erick Herrmann
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The population of English learners is the U.S. has grown significantly over the past two decades, increasing by approximately 81 percent since 1990. This represents 25.3 million individuals, born abroad and in the United States, who are still developing English proficiency. In U.S. schools, teachers are faced with the challenge of teaching students both academic content and English at a variety of English proficiency levels, from beginners to fluent English speakers.
The practice of allowing students to speak other languages in U.S. classrooms for or during instruction has been a controversial subject. Proponents cite research that the strategic use of native language promotes acquisition of English. Opponents state that students must learn English as quickly as possible to be successful in U.S. schools and society, and that using the native language will delay this process.
Several programs intentionally incorporate a language other than English into instruction. Two-way immersion, one-way immersion, transitional bilingual education, and early and late exit programs all utilize students' native language during instruction to promote bilingualism, biliteracy and acquisition of English.
Research supports the effectiveness of these programs when they are well implemented. For example, the National Literacy Panel on Language Minority Children and Youth found that skills such as reading taught to students in their first language transfer over to the second language. According to Thomas and Collier, students in both one-way and two-way programs achieve grade-level and above-grade-level achievement in the second language, with English learners in one-way programs achieving grade-level standards by seventh or eighth grade, and by fifth or sixth grade in two-way programs.
While bilingual programs remain controversial politically, the importance of speaking another language as a life skill has been emphasized for many years. Students are required in many states to take a foreign language course, and speakers of other languages have been valued in recent years as having an important role in issues around national security.
Outside of bilingual programs, the use of students' native language in the classroom is varied, with some states banning the use of languages other than English in the classroom, some teachers allowing the use of students' native language in student-to-student interactions or teacher-to-student interactions (if the teacher speaks the same language as the students), and other teachers not feeling comfortable with students using a language other than English in the classroom.
Given this wide variety of practice, is student use of native language helpful or a hindrance to their learning academic content and language in classrooms outside of bilingual programs?
To begin considering the question, consider the following scenario: You and a few colleagues have decided to move to a foreign country, one in which you do not speak the language spoken. As part of your preparation, you begin studying the language of the country, researching the culture and traditions, etc.
Once there, you and your colleagues take a local university course that explains the school system, cultural attitudes towards schooling, and other issues related to education in the country. The challenge for you and your colleagues is that the course is taught in a language you do not yet speak or understand well.
Throughout the course, the teacher does his best job to make the input comprehensible, interesting and relevant. You are engaged throughout the instruction and understand, at least at a basic level, the instruction provided. Throughout each lesson, there are ample opportunities for you to turn and talk to colleagues about the content being presented.
During these interactions with your peers, what language are you most likely to use: English or the language of the country/instruction? For most people, if they were asked to speak to their colleagues or friends who speak the same language, they would speak in the language they were most comfortable with and that they know best. In this case, that would be English. When the teacher asks you to share your discussions, you might then attempt to explain, in the language of instruction, what you discussed with your partner.
What may have helped you in this scenario?
The ability to speak to others in English to clarify key ideas such as similarities and differences in the school systems, how the information relates to you and your experience, how the content affects your planning, and other ideas would be a benefit as it would help in deepening your comprehension of the topic. If you are an educator, high levels of background knowledge of the content area (in this case educational systems) would have aided your comprehension. Although there might be new information presented, it would most likely fit into your existing schema and therefore be easier to comprehend and recall.
What may have been difficult in this scenario?
Because you would still be learning the language of instruction, including academic terms, phrases and other vocabulary, along with potentially complex language forms and structures, learning in this environment would be more challenging. Imagine if the teacher did not give you the opportunity to clarify the key concepts, questions and topics before he called on you to share.
In this situation you would have to process the content and language very quickly and attempt to formulate your response in a new language when being called upon by the teacher. As you process information being shared, you would also need to put effort into how you were going to share the information: the vocabulary, phrases and sentences you would attempt to use to communicate. Depending on the make-up of the class, your comfort level, and the support the teacher provides, the classroom may feel like a safe place to take risks in communicating in a new language or it may feel uncomfortable to take risks.
It is normal for us, as humans, to want to communicate with people in the language we know best. It is less cognitively demanding, comforting, and allows us to clarify concepts that may have been confusing or that we have lingering questions about.
The practice of allowing students to clarify or discuss concepts in their native language with peers is an important and useful scaffold in our classrooms. Given the controversy of the subject, what are some of the benefits of this practice and some of the pitfalls or challenges that we need to be aware of as teachers?
Benefits of Allowing Students to Use Their Native Language in the Classroom
There are several practices and strategies that can help students leverage their native language to increase comprehension and achievement. As mentioned, it is beneficial for students to have the opportunity to clarify key concepts with a classmate who speaks the same language. Teachers can provide opportunities for students to do this by giving a prompt for discussion.
Here are some strategies:
Challenges and Potential Issues with Allowing Students to Use Their Native Language in the Classroom
Several questions, concerns and issues come up when considering the use of students' native language in the classroom. Some of these have potential solutions that can be considered and implemented in your classroom.
There are benefits to allowing students to use their native language for instructional purposes in an otherwise English-speaking classroom. Teachers must follow the law while advocating at local, state and national levels for best practices. Where not explicitly banned, teachers must be strategic in terms of when it is appropriate for students to use a language other than English, and when students must practice the content vocabulary and academic language.
In all classrooms, English learners benefit from sheltered instruction practices that help them to learn content while developing English proficiency. Sheltered instruction practices such as:
Erick Herrmann is an educational consultant specialized in teaching English learners, and he runs Educating English Learners. Erick has worked with thousands of teachers across the nation to help them improve their instructional practice and increase academic achievement for all students.