Early in my teaching career, I was asked at a language school in Moscow not to reveal to my Russian students that I had any knowledge of their language. The program director, a veteran teacher of many years, and the school director (who paid my wages) insisted that by hiding this fact I would successfully create an English-only classroom and promote better language learning. My behavior at times felt like acting, but I complied. Luckily, after some time this no-tell, no-speak policy relaxed and I found it very helpful at certain moments to make use of my Russian. I was able to talk with parents who escorted young learners to class, and I was more effective in handling inappropriate behavior of my teenaged students. (A quick reprimand in Russian could put a stop to foul language.) Particularly with my adult learners, I felt I was able to earn their respect by showing that I had not only gone through the process of learning a foreign language, but I had made the effort to learn their language and their culture.
And yet there is an argument for establishing and English-only policy, right? Case in point: Before my experience at that language school, I worked for an agency that arranged private lessons. One of my clients was a wealthy businessman who picked me up in his chauffeured BMW. In retrospect, I know I did him a disservice by chatting so much in Russian while we drove around in his car. I should have increased his comfort in speaking socially in the target language. When it came time to switch into English for our lesson, it was awkward for him to make the transition. Developing his English skills was more important than improving my Russian. I could have given him confidence in his English outside the context of our lessons. After all, what is a classroom? It’s more than the four walls that surround a teacher and her student. It’s every opportunity that teacher places before her student.
When I moved back to the States, I had to rethink my approach to teaching students whose native languages I had knowledge of. I don’t speak other languages in the classroom, but I acknowledge the occasional translation by a student: “Oh, yeah. In Russian we say…” or “We have a word like that in Portuguese…” I do this with caution, knowing that too much help can create dependency on translation, not to mention the fact that in a group setting students whose native languages I don’t know can feel left out in more than one way. Privately, I will always appreciate the insight that knowledge of foreign languages gives me. I better understand the challenges particular students face when learning English grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation. I also know them better as people when I catch comments or snippets of conversation made in their native languages in and out of the classroom. I don’t hide my language studies – they really aren’t that impressive, but even my not so successful attempts at learning some languages usually meet with students’ pleasure over the fact that at least I tried.