Communicating With Your Students – In Their Language

ESL teachers and specialists are divided when it comes to the issue of knowing your students’ foreign language.

Say you are teaching in Russia and you speak Russian – in fact you were drawn to Russia for your love of the culture and you happened to come upon a teaching job as a way to supplement your income while living there. If your students catch on that you know a good deal of what they are saying amongst themselves during class, they might stop. But they also may embellish their remarks, directing them toward you, and forcing you to either step up the discipline or laugh at yourself and breakdown the student-teacher barriers a bit more. The details of this scenario will depend on the ages of the students, of course.

What also is likely to happen is that you might find yourself giving them the answers in their language, and therefore stealing away the opportunity to reinforce the English word.

One of the most widely-acclaimed foreign language programs in the country is based at Middlebury College in Vermont. Their philosophy, for both their programs abroad and their intensive summer courses on campus, is complete immersion. All students take a language pledge to not speak, write, or even read anything but their language of study. This even includes communication with family.

But because of this, even beginner students rapidly pick up the language of study within 9 weeks (summer courses) or at most one semester (abroad).

As an ESL teacher, if you are speaking to your students in their language, the level of teaching, the level of immersion (as much as is possible in a class period) immediately drops. You might come across classes that meet once a week with a non-native English speaker who conducts the class mostly in their language to teach difficult rules of grammar, and then meet once a week with you, the native English speaker, to reinforce their speaking, listening and reading skills. If this is the case, then you definitely do not want to be speaking their language with them.

In the case of private lessons with one-on-one conversation, it can be fun for your student to explain to you certain terms of their language and culture, and to compare and contrast, but try as much as possible to keep the conversation focused so your student is practicing English and not teaching you his or her own language. Save that for the pub or cafe when the lesson is over.


Sign up for our newsletter!