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.


Should native languages be allowed in English classrooms?
  • 1. Yes
  • 2. No

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:
  • Summarizing what they just read, heard or learned: Teachers prompt students to share with a partner important details about what they just studied or read. For example: "Tell your partner three important details from the text you just read."
  • Discussing background knowledge and experiences: Students can discuss experiences they have had that relate to the topic in some way. For example, in relation to the American Revolution, students might discuss the following prompt: "Talk about a time when your parents or caregivers told you to do something, and you really didn't want to do it. How did you feel about that? What did you do in that situation?"
  • Brainstorming: Students discuss, or write, ideas around a particular subject.
  • Quick-writes: Similar to brainstorming, students write as much as they can in a short amount of time about a particular subject or topic.
  • K-W-L: The K-W-L chart lists what students know, want to know and learned about a particular topic. When implementing the K-W-L, students can discuss or fill in the K-W-L in a small group with peers who speak the same language, and cart their responses. If an instructional aid or parent volunteer who speaks the native language(s) of the students is available, he/she can assist in this process.
  • Reading materials: If reading materials are available to students in the native language, reading them may help to build background, increase reading skills or clarify concepts.
  • Homework and home-school connections: Students can share what they are learning or learn about cultural perspectives in relation to the content through discussion with family members. When students' home language and culture is validated, it benefits students' social-emotional well-being, and can instill confidence and nurture risk-taking when speaking in English.
  • Cognates: Teaching students to recognize cognates is a useful skill that aides in comprehension. Depending on the students' native languages, there may be many cognates that students may recognize through practice and word analysis.

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.
  • State laws, district policy and/or school culture do not allow for use of the native language in the classroom: Some states such as California and Arizona have laws that regulate the use of languages other than English in the classroom. Similarly, some districts have explicit policies on this topic. If this is the case in your state or district, educators must follow the law or policy while advocating for best practice. In the case of school culture or tradition, consider beginning a conversation on the benefits and challenges of students using a language other than English in the classroom.

  • "How will I know the students are talking about what I asked them to talk about if I don't speak the language they speak?" This is a legitimate question many teachers ask when considering this topic. Consider the scenario that was given earlier. In general, when people are asked to talk about a specific topic during instruction, they will talk about that topic. I suggest being very explicit and clear in the prompt: "Discuss three important points about." You will find that when a specific prompt is given, students will discuss the prompt.

    Listen to students as they are speaking. You will hear a general lull in the noise level at some point. This is an indication that people have finished discussing the topic and are beginning to discuss other topics. In addition, listen to the English-speaking students in the class. As they begin to finish their discussions, they will begin talking about other things. Students speaking other languages will do the same.

    In any language, if students are off-topic or speaking about something inappropriate, you will often see them look toward the teacher to see if s/he knows they are discussing other things. You may also have other students who serve as "informants" with the look on their face or body language. Subtle clues in students' facial expressions or gestures can often signal to you that they have moved on to discussing topics not related to the classroom content. If additional accountability is desired, teachers can assign a task for when students finish discussions such as having students write three important facts on a whiteboard or journal, or completing a sentence frame.

  • If students are not speaking English, they are not practicing the vocabulary, academic language, grammatical structures, etc. that they need to learn. Teachers should think strategically about the purpose of a given activity or lesson. The development of academic language and vocabulary should be a priority in every classroom. Coupled with this, students need to deeply understand the content they are learning.

    There are times in classroom lessons, such as in the examples given above, where the clarification of concepts, links to background knowledge, etc., are of greater importance at the moment than practicing using academic English. This is not to say that students would never use English. On the contrary; when students are asked to share what they talk about, they will need to do so in English, as it is more than likely that the teacher does not speak all of the languages the students speak.

    There will certainly be occasions where the purpose of the discussion or writing is to explicitly practice the key vocabulary and language of the topic. Teachers should be explicit as to when students are able to discus in their native language, and when they are asking students to explicitly practice with the key vocabulary and academic language of the content area. To accomplish this teachers can color-code times on a daily agenda, or utilize a sign or signal that indicates when using a language other than English is appropriate.

  • There are limited resources available for students who speak other languages. At times, program materials are provided in other languages for students. Certain reading programs, for example, have stories available that have been written or translated in another language. Some teachers have bilingual books that students can access in their classrooms or school libraries.

    These materials can be a benefit to students, but can also pose some potential challenges. Students may not have been educated in their native language, and so accessing high-level content materials may be difficult. Just as English-speaking students need instruction to access textbooks written at their grade level, students who speak other languages may need support including vocabulary development and reading skills development in their native language to be able to maximize the benefit of materials written in their native language.

    Also, the teacher or school may not have materials for each of the languages spoken in the classroom. In these situations we do the best with what we have. It is better to provide materials to students if we have them than to deny any student access to materials just because we do not have similar materials in every language spoken in our classroom. In these cases, it is beneficial for us as teachers to continue to work with parents and the community to continue to build upon our resource libraries.

  • There is only one student that speaks a given language in the classroom or school. There are times when this situation arises: A family moves in that speaks a language that no other students in the school speak, and that student is in our class. While the opportunities for this student to speak to others in their native language may not be existent, we can still allow them to write, at times, in their native language. Brainstorms and quick-writes are examples of times when this may be appropriate. Technology can also be used to record student speech or writing for translation.
Concluding Thoughts

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:
  • Providing comprehensible input during instruction
  • Building in student-to-student interaction opportunities to build oral fluency and for clarification and processing of key concepts
  • Linking to students' prior experiences
  • Building background knowledge
  • An explicit focus on developing academic English
All of these practices benefit English learners in particular and each student in general. The strategic use of students' native language should be considered as an important and useful scaffold and instructional tool.

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.