In a previous post, I talked about how learning Arabic helped me build rapport with my students and manage behavior problems. L1 use in the ESL classroom is not ideal; however, I have found that working with a large class of mixed-ability students in a compulsory educational setting under a singular, prescriptive curriculum has made my Arabic studies all the more vital to my success in the classroom.
About the Author: Greg Askew completed the TESOL certification with OnTESOL in the United States and has been teaching English in the United Arab Emirates for the past 10 years.
Within government schools in the UAE, mixed-ability classrooms are the norm. Sometimes with upwards of 30 students in each class representing a broad range of ability levels. It has been the case with all of my classes since arriving in 2010. Additionally, most students tend to lean more heavily towards the low beginners, with just a few from higher ability groups.
This makes it incredibly challenging to differentiate when working under a prescriptive curriculum that privileges a more advanced level of proficiency and an assessment regimen not modified to assess students at an appropriate level. For this reason, Arabic has become a vital tool for me in supporting the needs of my weakest students. For example, sometimes the inclusion of a select concept in Arabic within my instruction will trigger awareness in my weak students and aid them in maintaining a foothold in the content of the lesson.
The TESOL certification I completed with OnTESOL has prompted me to approach using Arabic with my students very circumspectly in order to foster as much authentic communication in English without leaving my least proficient students far behind. The Communicative Approach does allow for some L1 instruction; however, keep in mind that your ESL students will not feel compelled to try to communicate in English if you use too much L1.
This year I teach a smaller, well-motivated group of high-beginners to mid-intermediates and the lessons are conducted exclusively in English. In my other classes, I differentiate my use of Arabic based on student proficiency and learning behaviors. The least proficient tend to be the least motivated and the most problematic in terms of behavior; for this reason, I provide them with more Arabic support in my oral and written instructions. More advanced, more motivated, and better-behaved students receive less L1 support according to their ability.
Understanding Learning Challenges in the UAE
By studying Arabic, I have become much more aware of the ways in which the grammar, syntax, and usage of Arabic can interfere with my students’ ability to accurately and effectively communicate in English. And also how there is a certain predictable logic to the errors that they make. Including one that can be exploited to enhance my students’ learning.
In other words, my Arabic studies have provided me with an invaluable tool for informally assessing and reflecting upon my students’ language production. Which then informs how I present, scaffold, and exercise different language skills in subsequent lessons. For example, I had a student recently who inverted the relative positions of adjectives and the nouns they modified, saying things like ‘book my’ or ‘a car beautiful’. The syntax here, even in the case of the possessive adjective, reflects Arabic syntax. Which is interfering in the correct production of the English language.
Even having a beginner’s understanding of Arabic grammar would allow an ESL teacher to identify the nature of the interference to correct the error and tease out the source of the interference with the student. In the case of the student mentioned above, his language-learning disposition involves applying grammatical and syntactical rules from Arabic to his use of English, which in this case is causing the error.
Having learned this about this particular student, I can offer more targeted instruction and practice in the grammatical concepts posing the most trouble. And of course, help those students forge the conceptual bridge from their understanding of Arabic grammar to their English studies so they can more self-consciously avoid such mistakes in the future.
As noted, the use of the students’ native language is problematic in the Communicative Approach primarily because it lessens the onus on the students to work to understand and communicate in the new language. Further, many ESL teachers may not find learning their students’ language a feasible prospect due to time constraints and their own language learning dispositions, among other legitimate factors. What I have presented here has been my own response to the challenges of my current teaching job in the United Arab Emirates.
That being said, I hope I have demonstrated that any effort to learn your students’ native language can have significant benefits when:
- negotiating a relationship of respect and cultural awareness in an environment where the importance of English isn’t a foregone conclusion,
- addressing classroom management issues, many of which are compounded for EFL teachers due to the challenges faced by their students,
- supporting and differentiating for a broad range of abilities and learning dispositions, and
- assessing and reflecting on student learning, especially in the identification of L1-L2 interference.
Yet perhaps the most important reason to try to learn your students’ language is gaining a greater sense of empathy on the challenges and triumphs your students experience as English language learners. It’s a hard road, but the rewards with a little perseverance can be exhilarating. In my experience, the use of L1 can help you become a better ESL teacher and, more importantly, help you survive your first year teaching English abroad.