You know, something has been bothering me for many years.

 In the late 70s, my newly acquired MA in TESOL/Applied Linguistics in hand, I went to Barcelona, Spain, to teach English. I found employment at a business college.

My first semester there I didn’t speak Spanish. However, while I was teaching beginning- level English in the evening (until 10 or 11 PM, remember, this was Spain), I was studying Spanish in the mornings. Intensively. The teachers were fantastic, the classes were tiny – 2- 5 other extranjeros with me, and the context was there - I was living and working in Spain, I knew what I had to learn, My English students avidly embraced the concept that I couldn't speak Spanish with them and we communicated only in English. They made good progress, and the atmosphere in the classroom was good. They were proud of our ability to communicate.Other teachers (they were all fluent in Castilian (Spanish) and most were fluent in the local langauge, Catalan, as well)  remarked on how my students the first semester would talk to them in English when doing real tasks like registering, taking standardized tests, and so on

By the end of that first 12 or so week session I could get by in Spanish. That was good, of course, for me. However, what was not good was that my students in the second semester class knew I could communicate in Spanish and relied on me to do so whenever they had questions. Actually, they wanted me pretty much to just translate everything. ( I didn’t). However, I did probably provide too much in Spanish because in fact they didn’t learn English as well as my first semester class had. These students -  also beginning level learners - were much less motivated to use English with anyone – because they didn’t have to.

This has bothered me because I do believe in using the native language when appropriate. I think the issue is that, in fact, with beginning level students who are educated in their native language, perhaps they need to be pushed to use the target language more. Maybe the use of the native language with them can be detrimental.

What do you think? When is it appropriate to use the native language? When isn’t it? Is it ever appropriate with highly educated beginningn level learners?

Hope to hear your thoughts on this,

Miriam Burt (SME, Adult ELL CoP)




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Comments (15)

Susie Robinson's picture

  I feel that using the native language of a student is a crutch for the learner in an ESL classroom.  When taking graduate courses, the professors impressed on us to always use the language being taught as the only language in the classroom.  I have found in our program teachers who have heavy accents have trouble sending their students on to the next level.  There are too many words whose pronunciation are incorrectly learned.  The only time I feel aother language is occasionally appropriate is in a Liteeracy level ESL classroom.   Those students have such a far way to go that often receiving a direction in their native language helps.  The problem arises when there are other students whose language is not the one that is being used to give the directions. In summary - using English only is a rule for our program.

Miriamb3's picture

I agree, Susie, about the problems in using the native language in a literacy-level class where there are multiple native languages. On the flip side of that possible issue is the fact that students from various language backgrounds who work together to learn English, acquire content, and solve problems in the ESL classroom must communicate with one another in English and that makes the instruction and practice both meaningful and communicative.

Does anyone out here reading this work in such a classroom: one where the students come from different language backgrounds, countries, and cultures and have no or limited literacy in any language? What have you found that works? What does not?



lea.havas's picture


I teach a Multicultural/language class. I also speak some of my students' languages. I have as a personal rule not to speak the student's language as the rest of the class is multilingual and wouldn't understand and also because I think if the students get use to translations they will not bother to learn by understanding the meaning of the word. I often tell my students that they need to understand the word in context. Ther are many words that mean different things depending of what is being said. For example, the word "like", which can mean similar, but also appreciation for someone or something. As I teach low level beginners, sometimes I have students that struggle. Then, I might use the native language on a private one-to-one, after class moment. Seldom, but I do, use translation in class, and if so, to that particular student only, the same way as when I do differentiated instruction with a slower learner. I'm not a native English speaker and found that it was a lot more useful to learn this way. I also have a student that constantly uses a dictionary to translate and to be true, she has not learn much in the many years she has lived in the U.S.A. The retention of a word is greater if the word meaning is understood, instead of translated.


Abbie Tom's picture

I teach a literacy class in which all but one student speaks Karen. The other students speaks Chinese. I speak neither. I have in the past taught classes in which almost all students speak Spanish, which I do speak. I think it's up to the teacher to communicate in English with pictures, gestures... whatever it takes to communicate. The teacher also needs to take into account what she is teaching. It needs to be simple and concrete (starting, for example, with name, address, age, etc) . I don't speak Spanish when I teach Spanish speakers but I do tune in to questions they may ask in Spanish and answer them in English, often repeating the question in English before answering it. 

Years ago I was teaching ESL in a middle school where most of the kids spoke Spanish. I used English but "heard" Spanish . The only times I spoke Spanish was when kids had disagreements that needed to be mediated. What was funny about that was that they were so passionately involved in their disputes that they didn't realiza I was speaking Spanish. Some of those same studnets much laterasked me if I spoke Spanish. Abbie Tom

Trensa's picture

Many thanks to all of you for the interesting discussion.  I teach ESL near the border of Mexico, so all of my students are Spanish speakers. I speak Spanish fairly well.   I agree with those who restrict using the native language to those times when there is a complete lack of understanding and clarification is needed.  In my first semester of teaching ESL, I made the mistake of relying on translation too much.  It was terrible when my Level 1 students arrived in my Level 2 class the next semester expecting me to explain everything in Spanish!  I vowed not to do that again.  

However, I do find it helpful to use my students' knowledge of Spanish to their advantage.  For example, I regularly give lessons on word identification, specifically focusing on Latin root words. Students soon begin to realize that they can easily identify many 'new' words when reading.  It is a very powerful tool, since approximately 25% of English words have Latin roots!

When speaking to the class, I often write words that I think may be new for my students on the board so that they can see as well as hear the word.  When it is a word with a Latin root, I will write the word and then help them to see the Latin root within.  For example I may write "education,"  then erase the 't' and replace it with a 'c,' thus making it a Spanish word.  Then I write " cion = tion," and explain that adding the suffix 'tion' changes the meaning of the root word in the same way as 'cion' in Spanish.  After a few lessons, I do not stop talking, I just automatically write English words on the board and do "word magic" by writing an English word, erasing (or adding) one or two letters to make a Spanish word--like magic!  It's great to see the smiles of recognition.  Even a word like 'philosophically' is completely demystified when they know that English 'ph' = Spanish 'f' and that the English suffix 'ly' = the Spanish suffix 'mente.'

As you all know, certain grammatical constructions can sometimes seem mysterious or complicated to students.  Sometimes I will compare a grammatical construction in Spanish with the English.  In some cases, the construction is similar and occasionally identical.  When students see that they use the same form in Spanish, the English form seems less strange.  I find that it often helps them remember the construction too.  Generally, I make the comparisons by writing a sentences in each language on the board.  I can often discuss the comparision without translating the explanation. 


Dr. Robin's picture

Miriam-- Some thoughts on using first language in the classroom:   Rebecca Oxford said YEARS ago that effective adult language learning involves a good deal of referencing ideas, words, structures etc. in one's first language.  She also says that sometime it is far more effective and efficient to have students process an idea or rule in their first language and then come back to the English lesson.  

Also, Eva Bernat wrote a very nice piece in something called  HLT  ( Humanising Language Teaching), a publication in Australia, called "Attending to Adult Learners: Affective Domain in the ESL Classroom" (2004).   Bernat maintains that adult language learners fear losing their dignity and not being able to use their native language in the classroom (especially when they are humiliated for doing so with fines and other attempts at preventing their doing so).  

Bernat notes: "...Horwitz & Young (1989) believe that, although the level of achievement for the majority of language students in typical academic settings is disappointingly low, and language teachers cannot change the incoming cognitive abilities of students, the student's native language, or the overall socio-cultural context of language learning and their communities, the affective domain stands out as an exceptional opportunity for the improvement of language instruction. The authors conclude that, it is within the power of language teachers to address the affective concerns of their students, and, that it is essential to do so."

And she maintains:  "- adults feel anxious about having the use of their first language banished. Allwright and Bailey (1991) point to the possibility that banishing the use of the first language in the classroom diminishes learners as human beings because it deprives them of their normal means of communication. In this study, learners reported that one of their major worries is that when forced to use the language they are learning they constantly feel that they are representing themselves badly, showing only some of their real personality, only some of their real intelligence. ESL teachers should realize that allowing or attempting to ban the first language carry (sic) both costs and benefits in terms of language and the management of the learning process. Those teachers who decide to allow the use of the first language will have to exercise judgment as to the extent to which it will be allowed and the functions and purposes for which it will be used."

This paragraph makes me think of a wonderful article that I believe appeared in "TESOL Matters" perhaps ( could be mistaken on this) in which it was argued and shown that allowing students to write in their first language helped them get past the feelings Bernat describes--being unable to show their full intelligence.  This article went on to suggest that teachers have students write about some personal topic in their first language and then work on the English necessary to make those ideas come to life in English.  I have never forgotten what a humane approach to writing for beginning English writers this seemed.

On the other hand, as you experienced and Bernat warns, it can get difficult.   I recently was very frustrated in attempting to run English classes for Spanish speaking immigrants in the small town near where I live in rural Maine.   These persons over and over again complained and worried to our outreach workers that they could not come to class because I did not understand or speak Spanish, and they didn't know how I would teach them and how we would understand each other.    A few who did come took quite a while to get over this fear.   I know from long years in the classroom that one does not need to speak the languages of the students to be able to deliver effective ESL instruction.  And, as you learned, sometimes it is too much of a crutch and students will stay in first language to their own language learning detriment.  

It is a difficult balance that needs to be struck, for sure.  


Trensa's picture

Thank you Dr. Robin,

You brought up several very good points.   Another aspect that I deal with here on the Mexican border is that many of my adult students have limited education in their native language.  In many cases, they do not know or understand the grammar of their first language and so cannot process them and make connections to English grammar. 

In my classes, I use Spanish very little.  I do try very hard to get across the idea that people who are bilingual or multilingual are very smart!  Students need to understand and value the language skills they already have as well as the ones that they are learning. 


Dr. Robin's picture

Trensa-- you sound like a very thoughtful teacher!   I do a lot of work with the very low or non-literate and know exactly what you mean.   I find it is most effective to just build the oral English skills in lots of interesting ways and not intimidate the learners with grammar.  My assistant and I were able to get  across everything we needed to with lots of examples and practice.  I know a very little Spanish (but understand quite a bit) and I encouraged the learners to figure out something in Spanish if they were stuck.  If I said "Bueno!!" to them, they would tease me that there should be no Spanish in the classroom and we all had a good laugh!  But one cannot go to grammar rules with those with very little education, as you know well.  


nmpettitt's picture

Hello, colleagues,

For those interested in reading more research in this area, I'd like to recommend the book First language use in second and foreign language learning, edited by Miles Turnbull and Jennifer Dailey-O'Cain (Publisher: Multilingual Matters, 2009).  A few of the chapters address issues surrounding language choice in adult second/foreign language learning contexts; the chapters that focus on K-12 provide some insight into issues of language choice in general, despite addressing other learning contexts.

I'd especially like to recommend Chapter 9: The impact of pedagogical materials on critical language awareness: Assessing student attention to patterns of language use by Carl Blyth.  Although the chapter's research context was university-level foreign language, it caused me to think critically about sociolinguistic questions related to language choice in my pedagogical materials, the discourses contained therein, how these may contribute to learner identity, and more.

A note of recognition to my former advisor and "always-mentor", Martha Bigelow (at University of Minnesota), for introducing me and my classmates to this book.

Thank you to everyone here for thought-provoking questions and discussions surrounding this issue!

Nicole Pettitt
PhD Student, Applied Linguistics & ESL
Georgia State University

violetalaura's picture

Thanks for recommending the book! I will try to get it! 


Barbara Biba's picture

I am often called on to substitute teach for a low to high beginning ESOL class of 10 students ranging from the ages of 30 - 70 when our volunteer instructor is absent. One is from S. Korea, two from China, one from Russia, two from Syria, one from Guatemala, and three from Mexico. Their education levels range from no education to high school. This is an open enrollment class.  It meets twice a week for 2 hours each session. Students have been in the class from 6 months to 3 years. I always invite new volunteer instructors to observe this class. For all of us who teach ESOL know that despite differences in languages and despite limited English skills, ESOL students build strong relationships. The language used for instruction is English but I do give students opportunities to share their language with the class. For example, if we are talking about the body and it is difficult to remember the word "thigh" in English. I ask the question how do you say "thigh" in Russian, Chinese, etc. I also have them write the word "thigh" in their language on the board. I have found they like to share their language, they are interested in each others language, and they enjoy trying to pronounce words in other languages. I think there is also the possibility that having shared the word in their first language it may help them to retain it. This activity also demonstrates the simalarities between the languages and students can make those connections...for instance the pronunciation of the word concert in English is almost identical in Russian. I found this activity unifies the class.  It often leads into informative conversations for students about the other cultures.

Two resources that I find to be most helpful in teaching English in a mult-cultural low level ESOL class and ... that addresses all language skills at this level... are Longman's Very Easy True Stories and Action English Pictures. The first one provides a bit more of a academic format that adults like and the second provides the authentic language skills needed for everyday life.

Miriamb3's picture

It sounds like you a dealing well, Barbara, with the open entry/open exit classroom that is hard to manage. The fact that there are strong relationships in the class is a good inidcation that something is going right. Having students tell you words in their language is a way also to connect what you are teaching to the student's background and prior learning.

I too, used to used Very Easy True Stories when I taught adult learners in Virginia. The stories are really very interesting and deal with adult issues, which is a definite plus when working with adults!

Can you explain a little what you do with the Action English Pictures?


Miriam Burt





FawnThibodeaux's picture

Do you have an ISBN number for the books you mentioned?  I have a mother and daughter that I am teaching from Russia.  Both are picking up on the language, but would like practice.  I have a The Basic Oxford Picture Dictionary and workbook that I am currently using, but it is a bit juvenile.  Do you have any other suggestions for reading / learning materials?

Barbara Biba's picture

Because the strip stories in "Action English Pictures" (AEP) depict (anywhere) real life experiences I often use them as an informal assessment to find out how much students know.  At the beginning level my primary focus is on providing students with the opportunity to talk. Because this resource does not have print students use their own words as there is no expected pattern and therefore they no longer are concentrating on how to say a word they just use the words they know. The entire class contributes to the telling of the story which builds a strong bond as they learn from each other . In the beginning lesson I write the key words on the board. AEP allows enough space by each picture to write next to the picture. As their skills build we create sentences ...for beginners I focus on simple present. When everyone is familiar with story and they can retell it... for a comp check I dictate sentences and they write the sentence under the appropriate picture or I read a sentence and they show me the correct picture. The strip story is also used for the "w" questions...and to teach or review prepositions of place.  You could describe this as LEA with pictures. For more advanced levels we use AEP for telling the stories in all the different tenses. I have found that in almost every story there are things or activities that students on every level did not have the words or phrases for...This is the resource I tell people who are going to teach in another country to slip into their suitcase.

creding's picture


Thank you everyone for your thoughts and sharing! 

It is very refreshing to hear from active teachers that have experienced first-hand teaching English to a class of students of several native languages. I teach ESL to children and adults and like many of you they come from all over the world. Although I speak a few languages, I only use English in my lessons because it would be unfair to those students whose languages I do not know. I currently teach a few children enrolled in public schools in Las Vegas. They are coming from Asian and Eastern European countries. The dual language teaching / bilingual teaching (otherwise known as Spanish/English teaching) that is pushed in this district can only work in classrooms with the same L1. This is not the case in Las Vegas. It is very sad and unfortunate for those children who do not speak Spanish that the schools have support staff for Spanish speaking children, but no methods or staff to accommodate other languages. What is even more alarming and frustrating is that some of my elementary students come home counting or spelling in Spanish, but they do not seem to show progress in their English. As a speaker of different languages I applaud the idea of teaching foreign languages to elementary students, but not to the detriment of English. 

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