On the Road with Gary in…Austria

Using the native language in the classroom?

Money on the table! or Let me put on my baseball cap…

After the heat in the Gulf in October (see my last post) I was in much colder Austria (my first time there, by the way, and the 59th country I’ve visited for Cambridge ELT) earlier this month, based amidst the mountains in lovely Salzburg while travelling by train to Linz and St Poelten for events in those cities as well as one in Mozart’s hometown.

I was doing a talk on teaching and learning grammar—but have already written about that in a previous post (cf. On the Road with Gary Anderson in Slovakia: Deductive/Inductive… Seductive/Productive Grammar; Cambridge Grammar and Vocabulary) so thought I would write about a matter that came up during the breaks for (strong) coffee and (delicious) pastry at the events in Austria. It’s a question that I get asked often by teachers: What about using the native language in the classroom?

For example, here’s what a teacher in Romania wrote to me after we met at a conference in Bucharest at the start of the school year: Came back from school to drink a hot tea. It was tiring today because some students were upset with me as I talked only in English and they couldn’t understand all the lesson. I refused to explain in Romanian. They know that I speak Romanian, but we were in English class! What do you think about this? Was I right?

Well, there is no ‘right’ answer as it depends on the class and also of course on you the teacher who is the manager of his/her classroom. But if you’re teaching a monolingual class—and you speak their language—you have an advantage as a speaker of the same language as your students. Still it seems to me that a teacher shouldn’t overuse the native language. However, no reason to waste, say, five minutes trying to explain a word or expression in English when you could maybe just give students an explanation in their native language—or, even perhaps better, have one of the students do it. On the other hand, you don’t want them to get into the habit of having everything explained in their native language either.

You could employ what I call the ‘baseball cap’ approach. Let me explain. I remember two of my fellow teachers at the American Center in Paris when I was running the language program there before I joined Cambridge ELT and where the classes were made up of almost strictly monolingual French speakers. Now both of these teachers spoke French. But they had different approaches to the use of the native language with their students. One of them never allowed French in the classroom and if one of the learners spoke in French then he/she had to ‘put a franc on the table’ (this was before the Euro). NB: that money was saved for the end-of-term class party.

The other teacher, from San Francisco, would allow questions and queries in French. But when the learners requested, he would put on his black and gold Giants baseball cap and answer or give an explanation (congratulations to the Giants, by the way, for winning the World Series of baseball this year!). Then when he took the cap off, the class went back into the target language, English.

So the idea is that you have a hat or some object that you put on or pick up for short periods when you talk with the students in their native language—but when you take off the hat or put down the object, then they should understand and agree that class is in English because…well, it’s an English class.

What about you? How do you dose the use of the native language in the classroom? Are you more of a ‘money on the table’ or ‘let me put on my baseball cap’ teacher?

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One Response to On the Road with Gary in…Austria

  1. Marie-Régine Botteldooren says:

    Here is my own experience : In my classroom there is a poster on the wall : it says : in the language classroom we speak English.
    Each time my students can use English, I point at the poster ……

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