Many ESL instructors implement an “English Only” policy in their language classrooms, and there is a strong rationale for this policy.
Obviously, we want our learners to take advantage of every opportunity they get. This is to develop their language skills, and the language classroom is a controlled environment where there should be a focus on using English as much as possible.
Practice Makes Perfect
In addition to the language learning activities planned by the teacher, students will have many other incidental opportunities to practice their communication skills in English.
For example, students talk to classmates about the weekend. They discuss how to proceed with an assigned task, or ask a classmate about a grammar point.
Often, the ESL student’s first instinct is to revert to L1 (the speaker’s mother tongue) for these interactions because this requires very little effort in contrast to using English. But language teachers know that every opportunity to use English, no matter how “small,” is an opportunity to practice and develop second language skills.
It can also be very motivating for students to discuss this rationale and encourage them to help each other stick to English in the classroom.
Consider The L1 Situation
Are there times though when the use of L1 might be appropriate? In other words, can the use of L1 have a positive role to play in the ESL class? Or should it just be avoided at all costs? You need to consider your own teaching situation, but here is some food for thought.
Consider the level of your students. Advanced students should be able to carry out almost any language task in the target language of English.
While these students still lack some vocabulary, they usually have the strategic competence to compensate. And are able to communicate their message effectively without reverting to their first language.
For beginning students, however, more complex classroom instructions may present difficulty and take up valuable class time.
In these cases, a quick translation by the teacher or a student can avoid further confusion or frustration, and more efficiently allow students to get down to the task of language learning at a level of input that they can work with.
Such a policy would probably be most appropriate in a beginning level classroom where all students share the same first language.
Learning English Requires Exposure
Students most often rely on translation when they encounter an English word they do not understand or recognize.
The problem here is that students may feel that they are learning vocabulary by finding a translation for the word and quickly get into the habit of relying on translation only.
This habit in fact leads to very little learning and retention of vocabulary. To acquire receptive knowledge of a new word, students need to revisit and study that word several times.
Learning to use the word productively requires even more knowledge and exposure, far beyond what a translation can provide.
In courses where vocabulary learning is the main goal, students need to learn that although translation can be helpful for quickly confirming or disconfirming their word knowledge, it can not be their main strategy for learning new vocabulary.