Native Speaker Teachers and Use of the First Language in the Classroom

Around the world, there is a conventional thought that foreign languages should only be taught by native speakers and that the students’ native language should be banned from the classroom. This is especially commonplace among English as a Second or Foreign Language schools which tend to exclusively employ native speakers of English, even if they have absolutely no experience or training in language teaching. However, this is mostly done for reasons related to money, prestige and prejudice and it is not, in fact, supported by linguistic research. Imagine any other business where you could teach someone else to do something in which you have absolutely no knowledge or success. How can you teach someone to speak a second or additional language when you do not speak a second or additional language yourself?

Or knowledge, or expertise, or degrees…

Only hiring native speakers and denying use of the native/first language (L1) only serves to undermine (and insult) multilingual local teachers and contradicts numerous studies showing the benefits of using the native language to learn a second or subsequent language. I certainly feel insulted when people say they will not learn languages from non-native speaking teachers because I am a non-native teacher of French. I am fluent in the language and have years of teaching experience, as well as several degrees and publications, and yet because my native language is not French that somehow makes me inferior to native speakers with no experience or education in teaching. In many ways, I actually prefer non-native speakers as teachers because then I know they have gone through the same experience as me in learning the language and they know the mistakes that I am likely to make and how to avoid them. Many people do not want to learn from non-native speakers because of their accent or the fear that the teacher will make mistakes, most of the input in the foreign language needs to come from authentic sources of language use rather than from the teacher anyway.

This problem is more rampant among English classes since English is taught much more often across the globe, but the prejudice remains for all languages. And it leads into the second issue of banning the L1, because if the teacher is monolingual then he or she cannot resort to another language in the classroom. Yet second language acquisition research provides no reason to ban the L1 completely from the classroom, and there certainly exists research to support that using the L1 is more effective for certain aspects of language learning – such as explaining grammar or tasks, disciplining students, translations for ambiguous words, etc. Of course, there are limits to how much the L1 should be used as the amount of input in the second language (L2) is extremely important. But the L1 does indeed help in learning the L2 and creating connections between the two languages. As there is some overlap among languages in the brain, it can be impossible to “turn off” the L1 when using the L2. Code-switching and constantly moving between languages and cultures is entirely normal – it is not something to be banned or looked down upon.

The success of immersion programs has been used as the rationale to support banning the L1, and even though teaching non-language courses in a foreign language can improve language learning, many immersion programs do not ban the L1 completely. In fact, much of the research on immersion programs show the importance of adding an L2 to an L1 instead of replacing the L1 by an L2. Unfortunately it happens all too often that the opposite of research reported in the popular press immediately becomes wrong. We are too quick to assume that evidence for an idea also means evidence against the competing idea. Yet nothing is ever that black and white. The success of a few immersion programs should in no way imply that non-immersion programs are a failure, especially when there is no evidence for it. And thanks to research on code-switching, the cognitive benefits of L1 use, and L2 language exposure (input alone does not suffice – it must become intake), many scholars have softened their position to agree that the L1 should not be banned completely.

Bilingual kidsCode-switching makes me smile

Language students should always be thought of as developing bilinguals or multilinguals, rather than two or more monolinguals. The monolingual native speaker model that is portrayed in essentially all pedagogical materials (as well as by hiring monolingual teachers) presents an unattainable and impossible goal for language learners. When you learn a second language, you are no longer monolingual and by definition, you will never be a native speaker of another language. So why is that the model that we teach to students?  I completely agree with Carl Blyth when he notes the irony of “using monolingual speakers as role models for learners striving to overcome their own monolingualism.” We need non-native and multilingual models and teachers of the language because that is exactly what the students are and what they will become: non-native and multilingual.

Students should never be denied the opportunity to use their L1 in any type of learning, especially young students who haven’t even completely acquired their native language yet. Allowing the native language in school has many benefits, yet there still exists “English Only” attitudes that only help to deteriorate students’ cognitive abilities. Recent reports of students being punished for speaking their native language – such as Menominee in the US or French in northern Belgium – are worrying because they bring back horrible reminders of Native American boarding schools and the Stolen Generation. Students should certainly never be made to feel as though their language is bad or wrong, because if their language is undesirable, then what about the culture linked to the language or the people themselves who speak the language? Are they undesirable as human beings as well?

English Only ZoneJust say NO to lack of empirical evidence!

Fortunately researchers have started calling for a more bilingual or lingua franca approach to teaching English which focuses on context and learner needs, which really should be applied to all languages. Ideally the teachers are multilingual and multicultural, who know the language of their students and have some knowledge of the particularities of the varieties of the language used throughout the world. When talking about world languages, we tend to think of English, Spanish, French, Arabic, etc. but every language consists of varieties depending on where and how it is used. For more information on lingua franca teaching, World Englishes: Implications for International Communication and English Language Teaching by Andy Kirkpatrick is a great introduction.


Other books I like to re-read on this topic include:

Australia’s Language Potential by Michael Clyne

Second Language Learning and Language Teaching by Vivian Cook

First Language Use in Second and Foreign Language Learning edited by Miles Turnbull and Jennifer Dailey-O’Cain (especially chapter 9 by Carl Blyth)

  • I know that when I taught English in Italy, I relied heavily on the grammar I learned when learning Italian. You just learn English without really remembering the grammar that came with it so when a student asks ‘why do you use that tense in this case’ I could use my Italian grammar training to be able to answer the question. I also used my Italian to translate words that were untranslatable by context or body language. It kept the class moving along. Cynthia

  • Nice principled statement on a topic that never seems to go away. Grosjean also has interesting things to say on bilingualism and code-switching/mixing. No doubt there are principled arguments in support of “NS” teaching also, but I do wonder, in my weaker moments, if part of that case (obviously the weaker part) stems from (usually) English NS teachers’ aversion/inability, call it what you will, when it comes to learning the L1 of their students… No doubt many honourable exceptions to that generalisation!

  • The question of not using L1 in the classroom is one that I’ve had strong feelings about for years. It seems totally illogical for a teacher not to use L1 in situations where otherwise there would be confusion, when even my classes of little French 7 year olds were automatically applying their knowledge of their native language to help them to learn English.

    The point about monolinguals not being good role models for language learners is an interesting one too. It happens all to often in schools that teachers, instead of  promoting intercultural understanding and tolerance, all too often, explicitly or otherwise, assert the superiority of one language or culture over another.

    It makes me happy when academics confirm what I like to believe 🙂

    • I’ve been coming across a lot of ideas that I’d already been thinking about because of my experience in teaching/learning, and yes, it is nice that scholars confirm them!

      Intercultural comprehension and communication is pretty big in Australia now. I’m glad they’re attempting to move past the dominant variety of a language and be more egalitarian with varieties and cultures (even if a lot of textbooks have a lot of improvements to make…)

  • Sotto

    I am totally agree with the writer about the native speaker techer. Some native speakers, who are from different regions use different regional accent that is not good for students as they can also learn the regional accent. Non native speaker learn the language approprietly and explore the language in various ways. So, Non- native speakers seems more eligible in teaching than non-experienced native speaker.

  • Ehc16e

    I agree with you, as long as the teacher is really well trained and has spent enough time in the country the language of which he/she teaches. I’m French, living in the US, tutoring French. One day, I had a student coming for extra classes with me. I was horrified to see that the assignment he received from his American French teacher was full of mistakes, on some very easy grammatical points. A few weeks later, same thing, from another teacher of the same school!
    I used to teach English in France myself, and I was horrified when I discovered one day that I had taught the wrong pronunciation of a word to my English students – I had definitely not spent enough time in English speaking countries at the time.

    • Adequate teacher training is an aspect that is often overlooked, I find. Unfortunately some teachers may just not have the level of language needed to teach it.

  • The way I look at it is classrooms, whether taught by a monolingual native, multilingual native, or multilingual non-native, are not a great way to learn a language and should usually be avoided (that depends though). 

    You and I also have very different ideas on how language behaves.  I do not have a degree in linguistics (in my opinion, I do not need one to have an opinion), but when I read your sentence, “…but many native speaker teachers make mistakes in the language as well,” my first reaction was “impossible.”  I never look at language as incorrect or correct but really just variant.  We all have been taught this prescriptivist idea throughout our lives that there is correct language and incorrect language, and the form you use determines your intelligence which is very ignorant in my opinion.  If a native speaker makes a “mistake” well then I want to learn that “mistake” so I can understand them, and the fact that native speakers are making that “mistake” means it is correct.

    I definitely think there should be a standard that speakers of different dialects can fall back on when talking to each other, but we need to get away from this idea that there are mistakes and correct language that only intelligent people use.

    • Classroom learning does have its place for certain people who need the extra motivation or help (and I’m not just saying that because I teach French classes.) Some students really do need a classroom setting in order to learn.

      I am not a prescriptivist either and do not agree that language should be thought of as correct vs. incorrect but in the classroom where the standardized form of the language is taught (and which exams are based upon), there is a notion of correctness. Every style of language has its purpose and everyone *should* think of it in terms of appropriateness but the reality is that many people have misconceptions about language and will, in fact, think of others as uneducated or plain wrong if they use a variant that is not socially acceptable.

      I try to present all forms of language in the classroom so that students see the value in every variety and can understand all users of a particular language. But they do need to know the standardized form as well and how it will be perceived by native speakers if they do not know it.

      When I said that some native speakers make mistakes as well, I mean that they are not using the accepted standardized form (such as I seen instead of I saw) that is used for most communication, especially in writing. But even though it would be classified as a mistake in that context, it would be appropriate in other situations for certain varieties.

      • Thanks for the clarification!  I agree and/or respect everything you just said.  You are a very level-headed person, I find.

  • Agreed, I never liked the idea of total immersion, had a terrible experience with it at university.  Allowing the L1 just speeds up the acquisition of the L2, that’s it, that’s all it does.


  • josema6

    Interesting article to me, since I have always considered that it is important that the teacher of a second language is a native speaker of that language.
    It is not only because of the accent (and probably the grammar, although as you say it may be worse than that of a non-native teacher) but also because of the culture itself. A point you haven’t dealt with. Languages are linked to culture and culture to languages. Even if a native speaker makes grammatical mistakes, these are part of their culture and  this way we could learn a bit more about the culture related to the language (which may help us in the long run to “master” the language itself).
    But as you say, it is not black and white, not to speak about research conclusions, which I didn’t know about and seem to support non-native teacing.
    Probably the ideal teaching would be having a native teacher and a non-native one.
    The native may teach us “good accent” (although a non-native could get a native-like accent as well, over the years), and as i said before somehow convey part of their culture. 
    Grammar probably can be equally taught by non-native speakers since it is something we always have to work on and a non-native teacher may have it very fresh (as a result od their working and focusing on it).
    And non-native speakers may have the “advantage”, as you very correctly say, of having had to go through the same process. This may result in a better psychological approach to their students.

  • The ulitity of native speakers lies in the fact that they can teach you how to say things naturally, but that doesn’t automatically make them good teachers o even experts in their grammar.

  • linguophile

    Intereresting article. As second language teachers, we are sometimes faced with students whose affective filter is very high because they do not understand certain instructions in or what is being said in the L2. The research shows it clearly; the best atmosphere for L2 learning is one free of anxiety, one which is relaxed. Some things are just too complicated to explain using gestures. For example explanation of certain grammatical concepts. I think that even if the ultimate goal of the teacher is to use only L2 in the classroom, at times, reverting to the L1 is necessary or perhaps helpful and will not impede fluency-building. If the student realises that value is placed on his or her language he will be more accepting of the L2. This is especially so in the case of younger learners who have been learning the language for a few years. With prek or even Kindergarten using the L2 exclusively in class is easier as at that level they’re learning pretty basic elements. The use of only the L2 may enhance comprehension but not necessarily oral production. What we seek ideally is a balance.