Six contexts in which we may not want to use the target language

A few weeks ago, an American educational guru gave a talk to some colleagues of mine about target language use in the classroom. She was categorical – reportedly – about the fact that teachers should talk in the target language ALL of the time. Although, I can see some benefits to this practice, if teacher classroom talk is carefully planned and executed (so as to include specific linguistic features one aims to model and/or recycle), I do believe that the positive impact of masses of fronted classroom talk on L2-language development overall is overrated by many.

In what follows, I will not discuss the advantages or disadvantages of 100% or less target language use by the teacher, as it is a topic that has been debated to death. Moreover, frankly speaking, as far as I am concerned, whether teachers should use or not the target language when they talk to their students should not even be an issue, as in my view teachers should talk as little as possible and limit their L2 use in the classroom solely to instructions and to very basic structural explanations. It is the students who should do ALL of the talking, in the context of learner-to-learner interaction involving meaning negotiation or more ludic activities such role-plays, find-someone-who, board games, etc. A study by Jones and Jones (2001) commissioned by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority in England found that one thing that put student off was listening to the teacher speaking in the target language for long periods of time.

However, since lessons in which a significant amount of time is devoted to fronted teacher-to-student/class communication do exist, I thought it would be helpful to at least point out six contexts in which, in my opinion, there are strong enough reasons for target-language teacher talk to be ruled out or drastically minimized, as it would have negative cognitive and/or affective impact on the learners. The reader should heed the following caveat before proceeding: the typical foreign language classroom I will be referring to, here, is a classroom where the four language macro-skills, Listening, Reading, Speaking and Writing are given more or less equal emphasis and where teacher contact time amounts to 3 o 4 hours maximum a week and where grammar is taught explicitly. Hence, if the reader espoused teaching methodology is TPRS, C.I. or any other methodology rooted in Nativist theories of language acquisition, my discussion may not be particularly relevant (apart from Context 1, below, I guess).

These are six scenarios in which teachers should not use the target language in fronted communication with individual students or the class as a whole.

Context 1: With absolute beginners, when teachers do not have near-native command of the target language pronunciation

The best French teacher I have ever met is an Irish lady by the name of Gillian Bruce, for whom French is the least strong language (English and German being her dominant languages) and whose accent is good but not near-native. You do not need to be a target-language native or near-native speaker to be an excellent L2-teacher. However, when it comes to teaching absolute beginners, unless we do not lay much emphasis on accurate pronunciation as a long-term goal of our teaching, language instructors who do not have near-native to native target language pronunciation should refrain from producing masses of aural input.

The reason is that during the early stages of L2 acquisition there is a perceptual mismatch between a given target language sound we hear (as uttered by a native speaker) and its internal representation in our brain. Why? Because our brain, in order to try and make sense of it, automatically matches it with the closest approximation it can find in Long-term Memory, i.e.: the nearest equivalent in the languages we know. Hence, if we are monolingual L1 English learners, when attempting to imitate the French uvular trill /R/, we shall depend on our first language ‘phonological system’ to reproduce it and will pronounce it as ‘/r/.

Consequently,  if our teacher’s first language is the same as ours and s/he pronounces certain sounds with a fairly marked English accent, we will continue to rely on our first language phonological representations and our brain will not feel the need to try and create new revised more target-language-like versions (efferent copies) of those sounds. If this is not corrected early on, after some time, we will fossilize those sounds and carry them for rest of our lives with us in unmonitored speech.

Context 2: When one is teaching challenging grammar points

When we perform a task in a foreign language we are not highly fluent in, we experience some degree of cognitive deficit compared to when we carry out the same task in our first language. Such deficit will be higher, the lower our level of proficiency. It goes without saying that when, as teachers often do, deliver an explanation of a challenging grammar structure they should preferably do so in the students’ dominant language(s) in order to prevent cognitive overload and facilitate understanding – and, ultimately, learning. This applies to oral feedback on error, too, obviously.

Context 3: When one wants to otpimise learning time

I strongly belief that in most curricula MFLs are not allocated sufficient contact time for languages to be learnt effectively. Hence, time has to be used as productively and efficiently as possible. Using solely target language to explain a relatively complex learning activity you want the students to engage in (e.g. a board game, an inquiry based task, a simulation or the use of an App, etc. ) can be considerably more time-consuming than doing it in the learners’ dominant language(s) – and one wonders whether the proficiency gains the learner gets from passive exposure to the kind of target language used in task briefs actually justify this practice.

During my teacher training (PGCE) one of my supervisors told me off for not explaining the instructions for a complex communicative task I was staging in my lesson in the target language. In all earnest I had practised it in the target language at home and I had calculated that it would have taken me at least ten minutes to explain it to my students without a word of English; not to mention that I would have had to produce props – a waste of valuable teacher time for just a one-off learning activity. After listening to her ‘lecture’ on the importance of target language use in the MFL classroom, I asked her if she was absolutely confident that the students would have learnt more from me talking (giving instructions) for 10 minutes in the target language about how to perform the task or from having 10 more minutes (learner-to-learner) talking time. She said she was not 100% sure but that was not the point. MFL students need to get used to the teacher speaking in the target language all the time. It is a must – was her final line.

Context 4: When one feels one might ‘lose’ a few students in the process

I have observed many lessons in which a fair number of the students could understand what the teacher was saying but several others seemed lost and looking quite anxious. Is it worth to engender learner anxiety just for the sake of a dogma (i.e. target language at all costs!) or in the belief that they have to learn to cope and will eventually adapt and understand? When I worked in England I witnessed many cases in which students did adapt and loved to hear their teacher talk 100 % TL all the time; but I also came across many who – with exactly the same teacher – did not learn to adapt and kept complaining all year long about the 100 % target-language-in-the-classroom policy until they became completely ‘switched off’ as a result. Affective/Cognitive empathy with our students should be crucial in determining our course of action and we should be prepared to negotiate with our students when and for how long the target language should be used if we identify serious issues with our practice.

Context 5: When providing affective feedback

I am a near-native speaker of English, have lived in England for 15 years and have been working in a British international school for 10 in a country whose official language is English. Still, when someone praises me in English it does not feel as good as when I am praised in my mother tongue (Italian). I have asked many of my students who are mostly fully bilingual if they preferred to be praised in the target foreign language or English and the vast majority said that it felt more authentic in English. This was particularly true of my L1 English students. It would be interesting if colleagues investigated the validity of this hypothesis of mine with their own students and fed-back.

Context 6: When you know you are going to translate it into English anyway a few seconds later

This is a more common scenario than one may expect. Not much point talking to the students in French or Spanish if you are then going to translate it into English – especially if you do not challenge the students to show their understanding of what you said. Some students will pick up on that and after a while they will not try to understand your instructions/questions in the target language and will simply wait for the translation.

In conclusion, I do believe that teacher talking-time should be reduced to the minimum. Learner-to-learner interaction should be emphasized. When teachers do engage in fronted talk to the class they should ensure their target language input is gauged to the appropriate level even at the risk of sounding artificial (caregivers/parents do that with children all the time in first language acquisition). The contexts I outlined above are only but a few in which I believe the target language should not be used, but I have been told by a few people that my blogs are too long…

Ultimately, our decision to employ the target language or not should not be based on dogma but on the persuasion that our elected practice is going to significantly enhance learning.

4 thoughts on “Six contexts in which we may not want to use the target language

  1. How would the students learn how to pronounce words correctly in the target language if we (teachers) do not talk more. Student-to-student learning is effective when learning about maths or a mother language; but, when it comes to a new language, I think heavy teacher’s presence in all dialogues and demonstrations(how to say the word accurately) is a positive element.

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