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Avoiding Chinese in the ESL classroom


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As someone who hasn't yet graduated from university and so hasn't gone through formal ESL training, forgive me for not yet knowing the mainstream teaching techniques that such a course would teach - that said, I'm doing no more than preschool teaching and private tutoring.

This is already clear to me for higher level students, but imagining for a moment that all one's students speak a single native language, for low level learners I can't quite grasp why there is such a strict idea of never using their native language (L1) in class. I can only offer my experience learning Chinese and tutoring experience as my point of view, so I'm writing this in hope of someone explaining better for me.

To clarify, I understand that in general L1 should be kept to a minimum and certainly not used as the primary communication in class. A few reasons I often read are that it discourages the learner from looking up words or grammar points in their own dictionaries, and that learners should be encouraged to learn through explanations in the second language and not translation. But doesn't looking up words in dictionaries or grammar points in books count as translation anyway? When I was a beginner Chinese learner I would learn vocabulary and grammar points through explanations in English. It would be pointless to present me with a Chinese explanation at such a level. Whether the teacher explains to me or I look it up, either way I'm using my native language.

Obviously a learner should always be weaned off their native language as their level gets higher, just like the New Practical Chinese Reader series switches to Chinese grammar explanations by book 5. I know learners can grasp the meaning of new words and concepts through a teacher's miming and careful explanation, but at the same time this can be a slow process. When I was learning how to use 把 in Chinese, I understood it clearly after reading my textbook's English explanation, and from then whilst it took practice of course to master, I didn't need any more reassurance of its meaning. On the other hand, when our class teacher began teaching it in full Chinese, it took far longer for the class to grasp and most resorted to looking it up in their own time. Our level at that time simply wasn't high enough to understand the explanation in Chinese and most of that lesson was spent asking questions and making mistakes. Understanding that 我把我的护照丢了 means "I lost my passport" didn't take too long, but explaining how that example is different to saying “我丢了我的护照” is different. Whether or not the difference is big enough to merit concern, students will be curious to know why the 把 sentence might be used in place and when.

It's not at all that I expected said teacher to explain in English given that we were a multilingual class, it's just that from my experience it was far quicker and less troublesome to learn concepts, especially grammar, through English explanations in the textbooks I used. Using Chinese explanations is great - when you're at the level to understand them. "Immersive" it may be, but it's an exercise in patience and frustration for a beginner relying solely on L2. It never hurt me relying on English for grammar explanations up to NPCR book 4 or 5, it made my quicker in my opinion.

I'll try not to drag this on much more. My last point has to do with preschool children. Now an English-only classroom is a good idea, but I've always believed a line should be drawn between the content being taught and other classroom language such as discipline commands. For young children who've been studying for a while, most respond well to English commands such as "sit down", "stand up", "be quiet", etc, but this requires a period of learning beforehand supported by gestures. Learn they may from gesture-only enforcement, but from my experience young children learn to respect me far more quickly when I tell them first in Chinese and gradually wean them off and onto English, and having them understand quickly is important as young children can occasionally be difficult to teach even when you have very set and engaging procedures to quieten them down, and time spent drilling kids in classroom vocabulary takes away from time learning the actual curriculum. Yes, your teaching assistant is there for that, but sometimes he/she'll be busy or you may not have an assistant. I do not use English for anything more than the aforementioned, but still I form much better bonds with my young students if they know I can help them with something they really cannot grasp and know I understand them when they have particular issues.

I'm not trying to push the idea that it's better to speak Chinese much of the time when teaching Chinese students, I'm asking why it's so inappropriate, as not having had formal training there's clearly something I'm missing. I don't understand what the issue is when a teacher uses it with low level students to explain certain grammar points, or a word that when understood at least on some level by the whole class will allow them to move on to more content or open more detailed explanation on using said word.

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It is perfectly possible to teach all in L2 but I definitely agree that it's not always desirable and yes, I've never understood why it's sometimes seen as taken as a matter of faith that everything must be in L1.

I remember years ago coming across the idea of allowing small groups of students -- sometimes -- to prepare a collabarative task first in L2, then give then a minute or two to run over everything in L1, before returning to L2: just to iron out any inefficiencies and misunderstandings. And this was a spoken English class, rather than anything grammar-heavy. It gave the weaker students confidence that they hadn't missed stuff and weren't about to make fools of themselves.

Of course there are good reasons to stick to L2 for long periods of time, or for entire classes. Focussing for 90 mins in a foreign language is obviously a useful discipline to get comfortable with.

The best reasoning I've heard behind the "classroom-immersion" idea is this: if you accept that there's a "use-it-or-lose-it", battle for brain-space going on inside your head, then L2 faces a huge battle trying to claim brain-space and neurons, and it probably needs to claim them from space currently occupied by L1. If you are using L1 all the time then that strengthens L1 and makes it harder for L2 to take over those neurons. But an unbroken period with no L1 at all might make L2's conquest easier.

Personally I think avoiding L1 makes more sense for students living in the L2 country than for those who will be spending 22 hours of their day in an L1 world.

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I think most teachers will, when it makes more sense and you've got a monolingual class and you speak that lingo, use L1 to a certain extent. I would very rarely if ever speak Chinese, but if I heard one student say "Oh, does he mean XX" then I might nod, or ask him to quickly explain to the rest of the class. So i would understand L1, but not speak it. Or I might use L1 to explain something to one student while everyone else is doing something else. Etc.

A lot of TEFL theory comes out of universities and schools in English-speaking countries, where there won't be a classroom L1 - you'll have L1a, L1b, L1c, and so forth. In practice I'm not sure it's the taboo its made out to be, and when it is, it's quite likely because that particular teacher only speaks English.

It's a slippery slope though, once a class knows you speak Chinese and will use it if they're struggling. Half of them will not try to understand as they know they'll get the Chinese in the end, the other half will pretend to have not understood for the combination of confirmation and amusement they get when you use Chinese. It gives the students more license to use Chinese among each other, and a less-conscientious teacher may use it to avoid having to construct the clear and simple explanations that should be stock-in-trade.

If you're teaching young kids though, anything goes. L1. Threats. Pepper spray.... The look on a Chinese 6-year-old's face when they realise that this strange entertainer who has been inexplicably left in charge of the class speaks Chinese and is therefore a real person who might be able to communicate with the real teacher is a beautiful thing.

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  • 10 months later...

The so-called 'theory' is a laughable attempt to brush over the inescapable facts. 99% of TEFL teachers, fresh off the plane, are monolingual English speakers. They cannot speak the language of their chosen country so they use English exclusively. The TEFL industry therefore conjures up a theory that teachers should use English exclusively. Because that is going to happen anyway. The theory depicts an inherent weakness as a strength and so the TEFL cash cow is preserved and everyone is happy.


Obviously I'm referring to teaching younger learners and novices (which, in Asia, is practically everyone). Advanced classes, by contrast, should be taught in English.

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I avoid English in class as much as I can, but I find sometimes it's needed.


I could spend about 5 minutes trying to explain a single word or concept in English and just confuse them with more and more words they don't know...


But I find it much more practical to give them the occasional difficult to explain word in Chinese so we can move on to more interesting things and quiz them about the word later.

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Posted 28 February 2014 - 09:11 AM


I avoid English in class as much as I can, but I find sometimes it's needed.



Erm, Yes! Exactly!

While researching some new teaching techniques I decided it would be advantageous to teach my students without using any English at all.

However, I cannot share the methods du《UNRECOGNISED DATA ENCODING》


** Never admit failure or defeat, even when it's really obvious **


It was probably those admins modifying my posts to make me look bad anyway ^_^

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Yeah, we do that a lot. Mostly to each other though. 


As I've said, I'm not opposed to the odd use of L1. But before doing so, I think you should ask yourself if you're doing this because it's really necessary, or because you either haven't thought properly about how you're going to explain something, or if you're teaching something that is above the class's level, or if you're letting yourself get dragged off plan by random questions from students.*


*which is sometimes ok, but stuff's on your lesson plan for a reason. Or at least it should be. 

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