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.
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.
In this way, you get wonderfully imaginative and intelligent associations and descriptions such as
Here’s a list for a good game with Intermediate students.
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. This stretches their descriptive abilities
they begin in the dark, untangling a sort of riddle, it develops the
guesser’s English language transderivational searching skills.
short, it gets everyone thinking in English.
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. 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
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