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, but many native speaker teachers make mistakes in the language as well. More importantly, 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.

Code-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?

Just 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)

 

For anyone who will be in Melbourne on Thursday, February 23, there is a free colloquium and lecture on Challenging the Monolingual Mindset at the University of Melbourne. You just need to register beforehand.

So You Know a Linguist…

On behalf of all linguists, thank you Jodie! View more presentations from Jodie Martin

Full Story »

Linguistic Semantics: Language Reflects Ways of Living and Thinking

Anna Wierzbicka is a Polish-Australian linguist who has extensively researched intercultural linguistics, semantics and pragmatics. I have been reading many of her books and articles for my PhD research because she is interested in how language reflects ways of living and thinking, and more specifically, how the lexicon or words of a language can provide […]

Full Story »

Happy Australia Day!

Happy Australia Day to my Aussie friends! Australia Day commemorates the arrival of the First Fleet at Sydney Cove in 1788. The Commonwealth of Australia was officially formed on January 1, 1901, when the colonies federated but this date is not widely known as Commonwealth Day since it is already a public holiday (New Year’s […]

Full Story »

Cost of Living in Australia: My Personal Experience

I was warned about the high cost of living in Australia before moving here, though luckily it is not as bad as I thought it would be. Perhaps it is because I came directly from France rather than the US, but I feel as though the only expense that is very high in Australia is rent. Yet […]

Full Story »

French Books Giveaway: Win a FREE Autographed Copy of Say it in French or Great French Short Stories of the Twentieth Century

My second book published by Dover Publications, Great French Short Stories of the Twentieth Century: A Dual-Language Book, is now available! The original French stories are on the left page and literal English translations are on the right page. There are 15 stories representing authors and settings from France and other French-speaking areas such as […]

Full Story »

Trains and Planes in France and Australia

Traveling by train is still a pretty nice experience in France, and even though Australia is just as big as the US, long-distance train travel across the continent is quite enjoyable Down Under too. I have taken the high-speed TGV and slower regional TER trains in France numerous times, and when I first arrived in […]

Full Story »

Australia to France in December

Traveling from Australia to France always involves a lot of flying (ok, Australia to Anywhere involves a lot of flying), but changing seasons is another big shock that is hard to get used to. I spent Christmas in summer with temps in the 30s C / 90s F and then I came back to the […]

Full Story »

Aussie Christmas Songs

In honor of my first Australian Christmas: Aussie Jingle Bells by Bucko & Champs (they have quite a few funny songs, such as Deck the Shed with Bits of Wattle and Australians Let Us Barbecue) Christmas in Australia by Brian Sutton Six White Boomers by Rolf Harris Christmas Day the Australian Way by Angry Anderson […]

Full Story »

Quebecois Christmas Songs

Some of these are obviously rather comédique rather than folklorique. Enjoy! 23 décembre by Beau Dommage La valse de Noël by Fernand Gignac La toune de Noël by Crampe en Masse C’est Noël, il neige dans ma tête by Paul et Paul Le père noel s’t’un québecois by Les Cowboys Fringants

Full Story »

Search this Site

Why is Jennie no longer in France?

I created this blog in September 2006 when I moved to France from Michigan to teach English. Many of the earlier posts are about my personal life in France, dealing with culture shock, traveling in Europe and becoming fluent in French. In January 2010, I started focusing more on teaching and learning languages in general. In July 2011, I relocated to Australia to start my PhD in Applied Linguistics. Although I am no longer living in France, my research is on foreign language pedagogy and I teach French at the university so these themes appear most often on the blog. I also continue to post about traveling (though now my trips are usually in Australia) and being an American abroad.

Stay Connected

Facebook

Buy My French Books

My Say it in French phrasebook and Great French Short Stories dual-language book (both published by Dover Publications) are available at Amazon.com.

The 2nd edition of French Language Tutorial is now available as a PDF book. It has been updated with much more vocabulary, sample sentences, and cultural information, plus extended vocabulary lists, cross-referenced topics, and an alphabetical index.

Visit the Store to buy the PDF e-book for $14.95 or paperback book for $29.95.

Languages

     

Google Ads