Student Use of L1 in an ESL Classroom

On Twitter, @englishcomp (Jim Burke) posted a link to Ways of Motivating EFL/ ESL Students in the Classroom, which caught my attention because I was just thinking about my own students and their interactions in their group projects as we finish up this summer session, and thinking about how motivated they are to finish and to do a good job. Looking at the article itself, it’s geared toward a different type of classroom than mine; the issues of motivating students to learn English in the first place, and pedagogical methods for doing so, are not problems I face. I teach Professional & Technical Writing for multilingual writers, in a university setting. These students are already in the States to study at an American university, and they have to achieve certain TOEFL/IELTS scores to matriculate, so from that point forward it’s all about ensuring that they’re learning the material, not necessarily English per se. That’s not to say we don’t talk about academic writing in English, or grammar rules, or idioms and so forth—we do, but supplementary to the core material.

The part of the article that caught my attention was the brief section on using the L1 in the classroom, and how that is a question “which most divides EFL/ESL teachers, whether they are for it or against it.” In my particular situation, and the type of classes I teach, I am for it, because doing so is increasing these students’ skill level in other areas: listening, synthesizing, translating. I preach to them that their multilingual abilities are incredible skills to put front and center on their résumés. Some students in my class have four or five languages in which they are fluent: Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, English is a common configuration. When I tell them those skills are some of the most important that they could have, as a new college graduate, they are usually a little taken aback because I think they’ve had other instructors (including other English instructors) who tell them to be “more American” or tell them “you’re in America, speak in English,” and here I am telling them to embrace the many language skills they have.

Luckily, I can back up what I say with real-world examples from my own life. For a year in the 90s I was the documentation localization manager at Sun Microsystems, in the Globalization Engineering Group (that might not have been what it was called—it was the group that handled all Asian software localizations for Solaris 2.7). I tell my students how I worked entirely with Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Thai engineers (among others) to get the job done. I’m able to explain just how these skills can be used in the workplace and used to their advantage. Not only is it good information for them to have, but it also ends up to be a confidence booster for them. I’ve gotten the impression that my international students have had more than one occasion in their academic lives in the States when they were made to feel incredibly inferior by native (and typically monolingual) English speakers. I hate that.

Some of the arguments against use of the L1 in the classroom (summarized nicely in the article) include the concern that “students will become dependent on it, and not even try to understand meaning from context and explanation, or express what they want to say within their limited command of the target language.” This is true. It is a concern. My classes (both the structure/content of the class and the students in it) aren’t likely to foster that dependency; most projects are independent, and in-class group work usually results in multilingual groups (a Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese student in one group, for instance) such that their common language is English.

The article also points out some benefits of using the L1 in the classroom, and some of these are benefits I’ve seen and hope I foster in my classroom: to clear up misunderstandings, and to increase translation skills. I am not always the most polished speaker; I am notorious for using really stupid examples when I have to make them up on the fly. Just the other day, I was trying to explain a part of a process, and I was not doing a very good job. I saw many looks of confusion, not because my students have tremendous difficulty understanding English, but because their English instructor was doing a lousy job of explaining something. One student actually managed to figure out what I was trying to say, turned to her friends, and explained it in (I think) Cantonese. They all nodded their heads, in that “oh that makes sense” kind of way, and I turned to one of them and asked her to tell me (in English) how the other student had explained it. It was indeed a beautiful summary, and so I just repeated to the class the English translation of the Cantonese summary of the poorly-explained thing in English. And then I pointed out that was an enormously valuable skill to have: both the ability to summarize and translate, but also to know when something is unclear, and take initiative (in any language) to do their best to make it clear. In other words, I said that it’s people with skills like that who will advance in business.

When I taught this particular class at WSU during a regular semester, I included an actual translation project; I haven’t done that in the summer session courses because of the compressed time frame. While true that the students used their L1 “officially” in an English class, they also wrote a lot about their translations—in English. They prepared a translation report, which explained in detail the rhetorical choices they had to make while translating, because one-to-one translations were rare. They learned a lot about English, about the business and communication requirements of a translator, and they learned a lot about their L1 as well.

Those are all winning situations, as far as I’m concerned. I could never have an “English only” policy in the classroom, and I will continue to do my part to promote L1 use when it leads to skill acquisition, understanding, and communication.

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