The Language Dilemma:Is it all right for the teacher to use the student’s native language?

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.


7 Comments Add yours

  1. Lana Cezzar says:

    Thank you, Jennifer, for sharing your insights into a very important problem for any bilingual ESL teacher. I’m a native speaker of Russian and find it very helpful to give a brief translation or some explanations in dealing with grammar while teaching adult Russian students. After all, it is impossible to irradicate the psycholinguistic mechanisms of the native language from the process of second language acquisition.
    I also have a question for you, Jennifer, concerning publishing ESL textbooks, in particular, copyright issues. While writing an ESL texbook, the author usually uses a lot of texts, photos, pictures, etc. from different sources. How does copyright work in this case? Can you tell me about your experience with this problem or refer me to some resources? I will greatly appreciate your help.
    Lana Cezzar

    1. englishwithjennifer says:

      You’re right to mention psychological factors. Sounds like you have developed an appropriate and realistic approach in the English classroom in terms of allowing some use of Russian.

      As for copyrighted material, it can be costly to use original material. Often adapted material (that is, texts based on authentic sources) is the solution. It’s budget friendly and still integrates “real” English. Does that help? If you’re interested in publishing, you could contact publishers and submit a proposal. Networking is always important…for many reasons, and that includes the opportunity to meet people who can help you get published. Are you able to attend the annual TESOL convention or another similar event? Good luck!

  2. Lana Cezzar says:

    Thank you, Jennifer, for your reply and advice. Does the author still need to pay certain amount in case he uses adapted material or makes adaptation himself?

    1. englishwithjennifer says:

      With adaptations, you simply cite the original source and author.

  3. Marco-I says:

    Hello Jennifer.
    Yes, the use of two or more languages in a classroom can be a problem since students might become too dependent on the teacher’s help.

    I don’t have any in-classroom experience (just one hour at some high school students, supervised by my professor), but so far I’ve been tutoring privately students from elementary to high school and I have always used both languages to teach. Do you know why? During my studies, whenever I got to provide immediate translations, I realized that it took me several seconds to come up with a proper translation from source to target language. That was why I had always been working with Italian and English separately. For instance, when I think of a “red chair”, a red chair appears in my head with no reference to my own language. I don’t know to what extent that is a good thing, since I am not living in an English-speaking country. Therefore, especially because I need quick interpretations at present, I’m trying to make Italian and English (and viceversa) work in parallel. Unfortunately, when I get to read texts, I understand them as if English were my native language and make big efforts to interpret them.

    Warm regards,

    1. Thank you for joining the discussion, Marco. I think when you work one-on-one you can tune in very well to that individual’s needs. In any case, you need to set parameters. That’s for you and your students to decide and agree to. How much of the first language (L1) is too much? When I was studying Japanese, sometimes there were questions I had, but I couldn’t ask them in Japanese. I didn’t have enough language (L2) to do that. I appreciated the intent of the Japanese-only rule in the classroom, but I requested an opportunity at some point during the week to ask questions in English if our doubts weren’t resolved during the course of our regular lessons.

      As a learner acquires more of the L2, the need for explanations in the L1 should decrease. Right from the start, it’s important to hear instruction given in the L1, and that’s what I’ve done with my student in the YouTube series for beginners. However, you will hear me say a quick word or phrase in Russian on occasion. One pattern I’ve used is to allow her to ask a quick question in Russian, and I’ll respond in English. The more we get them to think in English, the better it will be for them. We want them to be at that “red chair” phase, as you describe it. I say it. You see it. No translation. 🙂


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