My Life Untranslated

The Secret Adventures of an ESL Teacher in NYC

Archive for the category “Ask An ESL Teacher”

Balancing English & First Languages in the ESL Class

“I’m curious how you balance what you consider the ‘right’ for your students to speak in their native language with the need for them to learn English. What are the criteria that dictate speaking in their first language versus requiring them to practice English?”

(I blogged about this on my own site in relation to what you wrote). — comment from Photomatt7 on my “Ask An ESL Teacher” post.

Yes, I saw that, and I really loved your post. You really pose your questions in such an honest way, which I appreciate.

Well, before this year, I came at this the way you describe — insisting my students speak English since it’s what they need to practice and school is the only place they really get to practice it. I have since been influenced quite a lot by my linguistics courses, my experiences being immersed in Spanish, as well the kids I have this year. (I have further thoughts that refer more directly to your post rather than your comment here, so I will comment on your blog further).

So, balance. I come at this from a belief that kids learning a new language (a few of my kids have been here for years) need to believe in the value, beauty, and significance of language in general. They need to appreciate the role it plays in who they are, how they experience and interpret the world, and express themselves. On that basis, and on a firm understanding that I respect their first language and am not just giving lip service to it, I feel I must allow them to use their L1 as a key part of that self-expression. This, I feel, opens the door much wider for them to want to learn English and have a positive experience learning it.

To be bilingual, to me, is my #1 goal for these kids — not simply to become English proficient, and that is overall my point of departure. I can’t push them to learn English — it takes, on average, 7 to 11 years to learn academic English and 2 years to learn social language. What I can do is teach them how to learn it.

It is tricky. My main concern is that the vast majority speak Spanish, and I don’t want them to end up segregated from the second largest group of Chinese speakers, and then the Hindi speakers (leaving on Indonesian girl). It breaks my heart when I hear my Indonesian student say she’s forgetting her language. That, to me, is just as important as her learning English. It was great today when I heard the other student say (referring to this girl), that she is learning Spanish, and they were asking her how to say things in Indonesian.

I should also say, and I address this in my “Why the title of this blog” page, I am constantly thinking about what it’d be like to not speak English if I were in China and there were other English-speakers in the class. I think I’d be constantly itching to speak it, on the one hand, and struggling to avoid it, too. Any time I’ve ever spent immersed in a language, it has been distinctly exhausting. It’s terribly overwhelming and I have found myself talking to myself a lot (not out loud!). It’s such a challenge to be *in* another language 24/7, and we’re asking these kids to be in it, think in it abstractly and in academic contexts, etc… I feel letting them speak in their L1 is like letting them come up for air and a sense of relief.

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