Learning to Stand on Your Own Two Feet

September 2011

window at the studio
Van Gough's view at the asylum

I was looking out of the window while they were doing some pair work and all I could hear behind me was Chinese being spoken. No English. So I stopped the class and decided to reason with them.

What I’m talking about here is a foundation of SLA pedagogy and I felt that the students needed to know it just as much as teachers do. So I started talking to an imaginary beginner. I said to an empty chair,

“Hello, I am a doctor.”

Then I jumped in the chair and gaped at my peers utterly stumped, scratching my head, saying

“Doctor? Doctor? Shenme ‘doctor’? Wo bu zhidao ‘doctor?’” — This always produces waves of laughter for some reason.

Then I explained: Here I can do two things. First, I can translate and whisper “yishen” in her ear. At which point the student reacts with a big beaming smile and says “Ah, right! doctor — yishen, I know!”

Job done, right?

Unfortunately, no. I wish we could do it this way but if you ask the student in ten minutes, it’s gone again. They haven’t learnt the word. It would be nice if we all could learn a language by reading a dictionary, but it’s just not that easy.

The more conducive technique is to say to the puzzled student, “A doctor works in a hospital with sick people, and a nurse.”

Now you are moving away from an isolated word with no syntax or context to hang on to. The student has much higher chances of guessing the meaning. If they still don’t know it, you can mime what a doctor does, or you can draw a doctor on the board — all the while avoiding the lazy and ineffectual option of translation.

When I did this, all of the students, without exception, understood that it was not just a better way to learn a word but also the perfect way to increase their talking time. If the students so unanimously and unquestioningly agree with me in introducing the rule, then what can possibly be wrong with it? It was now so obvious to them that translation was just too easy.

Oversized stabilizers
The ‘overmonitor’ with poor fluency prefers explicit translation when they should have taken off the stabilizers when they passed beginner.


To emphasise this we played a game of Taboo. This is one of the simplest, most enjoyable, and beneficial activities for language learners. It works as follows.

  1. Pick a student and ask him/her to stand at the front, facing the class.
  2. Write a noun on the board.
  3. Ask the other students to describe the word until the person at the front guesses it.
  4. The person who succeeds in eliciting, now goes up to the front for their turn.

In this way, you get wonderfully imaginative and intelligent associations and descriptions such as

  • A country with many strange animals. — Australia
  • The best friend of Engels. — Marx
  • The first part of the name of the world’s biggest software company and a science subject you studied in school. — Microbiology

Here’s a list for a good game with Intermediate students.

  • Bullet train
  • Bill Clinton
  • Rock n’ roll
  • Solar power
  • Twitter
  • Popeye
  • Kickboxing
  • Yoga
  • Apple pie
  • Sherlock Holmes
  • Korea
  • Geology
  • Canoe
  • Cocktail
  • Desert
  • Badminton
  • Cucumber
  • Manhattan

The list is endless and if no one knows a word then that provides a good teaching opportunity for you. The key is using a word which they should know but may or may not be a frequent fixture of their lexicon.[1] This stretches their descriptive abilities[2] and because they begin in the dark, untangling a sort of riddle, it develops the guesser’s English language transderivational searching skills.[3] In short, it gets everyone thinking in English.

Riddle me diddle
Brain work


Instituting this style of describing around problem words means that students enjoy the challenge of speaking and they get a lot more out of the class. The empirical observation that I have made is that students who avoid their L1 always make better progress than those who don’t.

The antidote to this proscription is that I’m not a Hitler about it. I explain the benefits and get them on board as a peer rather than as an authority. This I believe is the biggest reason for the reluctance among teachers for prohibiting L1. They don’t want to sound like a repetitive pedant and a bully. But I believe this is obviated by simply reasoning and explaining with common sense. If students are on board through their own volition, then backsliding doesn’t happen half as much. They will enforce the rule for you if they have the schema to express the reasoning themselves.

Further to this, of course there are times when L1 is needed or expedient especially at the very lowest and very highest levels.[4] I have no problem with translating individual words where necessary, but knowing where to draw the line between this and full blown discourse is the key to getting the most out of your classes.

Rules are there for a reason. To paraphrase the legendary British teacher, Phil Beadle[5]

Learning can’t happen until certain rules are in place.

Classroom rules set a healthy learning culture in your school as a whole and the rule of disallowing L1 discourse is to me one of the most beneficial rules to have in place if you want to achieve real results in ELT.

1. See Krashen’s Input Hypothsis (i+1)

2. See Swain’s Comprehensible Output Hypothesis.

3. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transderivational_search

4. See The Semantic Translation Method

5. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=88KmvrGQrcI