How much of the students’ native language should you speak in class? L+1 is the key

I cover this in the Ninja Training Course, but I figured I’d cover it here too as it is a popular question! ย For example Itzel just wrote in from Mexico to ask:

In your opinion how much of the students’ native language should you speak in a classroom? I teach english in Mexico and I know Spanish as well and I find myself talking to the students a bit more Spanish than English, but I have been told by my teachers this method will never get them to learn English..what do you think??

peraperaHi Itzel,

It’s not so much how *much* of their native language to use, but at what *level* it is at.

The general rule is to use English at “L+1” i.e. the English level of the students plus a little bit. If you need to use English that is too complex they will shut off and you will have attention problems.

So game instructions, motivation talk etc. that areย higher than L+1 should be in their native language.

Ninja Tip: Although always simplify things if you can, ย Einstein said “If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.โ€ ย ๐Ÿ™‚

And of course any English that you have learnt in class (i.e. L-1) should always from now on be only in English. (And pretend to not understand if they say this material in their native language! Be *very* strict on this, it’s one of the golden keys to success!)

As the students improve, their English Level (L) will get better and better so you can use more and more English.

But in the beginning it means a lot of the class will be their native language.

Some schools advocate teaching only in English – the so called “English Showers” But this is just like a regular shower, you have to do it everyday otherwise you’ll stink! ๐Ÿ™‚

And also some schools insist on only teaching in English because it keeps the students’ levels low so they can keep selling them lessons for longer. ย (I’ll leave the moral side of this for you to decide!)

So to get the kids learning lots, keep the English L+1, use their language for things higher than this, and pretty soon you’ll have a class full of English with near 100% comprehension and attention!

Be genki,


P.S. ย Ninja Tip 2: ย If you constantly find yourself needing to say the same phrases in their native language over and over again, then add these phrases to your curriculum so from then on you can say it in English.

P.P.S. ย  If you don’t know your students’ language yet, and are staying in country for more than 3 months, then you have two options, either “get by” or “get fluent” ย personally I’d go for “get fluent,” it only takes a few months and will be the single biggest thing you can do to improve your quality of life overseas. ย Plus you’ll be a rockstar role model in the eyes of your students! ๐Ÿ™‚

P.P.S. ย  Ninja tip 3: ย I was very serious about being *very* strict with not using the local language for English you’ve already covered. ย When I do video reviews of lessons I very often catch even great teachers saying things like “Yes” or “You next” or “Very good” in their local language even though the kids have already know these words. ย Try videoing your own lessons and you’ll see many instances like this I think! ๐Ÿ™‚

Richard Graham

Hello, I'm Richard Graham. When I was a kid I found school to be sooooo boring... So I transformed my way of teaching. I listened to what the kids were really wanting to say and taught it in ways they really wanted to learn. The results were magical. Now I help teachers just like you teach amazing lessons and double your incomes!

13 Responses to “How much of the students’ native language should you speak in class? L+1 is the key”

  1. Martin Wenzel

    This is a very complicated subject that I keep bringing up at the school I work at. I am by no means fluent in Chinese and I remember in my training for TEFL and specifically for this school that I, the foreign teacher, should NEVER speak Chinese (let the Chinese assistant translate when needed). The “immersion” path can work of course, but how many of us have learned a second language that way…and with only three “immersion” hours and not really immersion at all.

    I agree very much that the English should be spoken as much as possible at the school…ESPECIALLY things the kids have learned. Unfortunately, the Chinese staff who all can speak English to varying degrees rarely challenge the kids to speak or understand English outside the classroom. A common complaint from parents is that the kids can’t speak to random foreigners on the street in English. Well, I have a hard enough time getting them to speak English at all OUTSIDE the classroom in the hallways (except for those extremely awesome kids sprinkled throughout who just LOVE speaking as much English as they can).

    Again, much of the struggle for me is realizing how a Genki style class would be much more useful in getting the kids to a higher speaking stage, while being stuck teaching with a book that is presenting a lot of complicated grammar. I’m amazed sometimes how quickly the kids can speak on a topic I present through Genki (just as a ten to fifteen minute warmup at the beginning of class). I did the “What do you want to be?” (Regular and Halloween), and we sang through the song once or twice and then I asked each kid what they wanted to be and they could answer with a full correct sentence and seemed far more interested. The official lesson plan for the class calls for me to teach a list of ten irregular past tense verbs, but at this point I just get bogged down – hard to get them to talk about past actions specific to the list.

    Anyways, as I’m learning Chinese, there are a number of words and phrases that I know, so to CHECK the kid’s understanding of vocabulary or a sentence, I ask them how to say it in Chinese. This is invaluable since the class materials are often vague on meanings despite pictures. Concepts do not always translate well to picture flashcard form. For example, we have a flashcard for OFTEN which shows a kid going to the hospital. I asked the kids what they thought OFTEN meant, most said HOSPITAL in Chinese (even though we learned hospital as its own word before). The flashcard really did not help.

  2. Martin Wenzel

    I’m really starting to think that many of the problems with the school I work at (kid’s leaving at a steady rate, with fewer and fewer kids joining) have to do with the lack of speed and focus of the English learning. It is so bad that the school leader changed the salary system for the teaching assistants. Each teaching assistant is responsible for certain students (those that are members of the classes they assist). If in the next six months they three or more students leave their combined classes FOR ANY REASON, the TA is stiffly fined and yelled at. One of my TAs lost three students, all from my classes, within the past week! One just can’t make it to class, her mom just had a baby, her dad is busy at work, so she has dropped out. TA’S FAULT….??? Last year, nearly a whole class left and went to another school when our school hiked up the tuition. Word of mouth convinced the parents that this other school was cheaper (not by much — and they only have Foreign Teacher contact ONCE a week) and better (the kid’s are gaining and using useful English quickly – the exact definition of what is useful is fluid with Chinese parents. Our school leader often says the kids need to be able to sing English songs because that is the standard – ABCs more important than being able to answer and ask questions in a conversation).

    Admittedly, as a franchised school that is based on a specific set of materials, it is very hard to just change. The content of the materials only go up to about 12 year olds level. The school wanted to retain the advanced students, so our boss opened up a New Concept English class (Chinese gold standard for English learning or something – so very dry, boring, the kids look sad and demoralized). The program is designed for a CHINESE teacher to teach. So our glorious leader tacked on a one hour a week conversation class complete with zero goals, materials, etc, and dumped it into the laps of teachers with no desire to build an entire class with no support from the school.

    Talk about a missed opportunity. First, could have used Genki to solidify the kids speaking confidence and conversational skills. Second, could have gotten an age-appropriate textbook series that foreign teacher to teach. Many great series out there. Teach the grammar and phonics and have multiple activities contained in the books to use the new vocab and grammar.

    It is just very interesting right now to be working for such a reactionary boss who just copies what everyone else is doing hoping to stem the loss of students to the surrounding schools who are doing different things. Stealing ideas piecemeal and not really implementing them as well as the other schools isn’t going to solve the problem.

    Glad to be in my own classroom, with a degree of freedom to keep my kids happy, though it is frustrating to lose students who comment that it is the school’s material and methods and not at all the things I’ve added that are causing them to leave.

    Hmm, just blabbing about stuff now, right?

    Speak as much English to your students as possible. They will pick up the stuff they need to know, even without you making it a POINT in your lesson. It seems that the FIRMEST vocabulary and grammar is the stuff the kids learn by repeated usage (game terms like “throw the dice”, “go again”, etc)

    And learn their language. First, you get a better sense of where they are coming from…how to explain things. Second, you can eavesdrop and catch mistakes in their understanding when they are doing homework or talking to the TA about some English point. Third, as you are learning, you can have them teach you while checking their understanding.

  3. Rebekah

    When I teach, I target one new instruction or question (above and beyond the curriculum) every 2 sessions. One of the first few sentences I’ll teach them, for example, would be, “Do you understand?” Of course the first time I teach them, I’ll have to translate. Then each time I use it thereafter, I’ll check by asking a random student what it means in the students’ language. I carry on that way till for 2 sessions (counting the 1st time I teach them) then I move on to another phrase, say, “Do you remember this?” (usually showing a picture)
    I find this very effective because the students learn simple instructions from day one and by and by they can understand a lot of instructions in English, beyond their curriculum!

  4. Jaynie

    Thanks SO much for this Richard.
    (Big thanks to Itzel for asking the question)
    It has really made me think…..

  5. Martin Wenzel

    Yeah, I just keep it natural. I don’t really dumb down the way I speak during class as some other teachers do. I find that this way the kids pick up a lot more useful phrases and speak aforementioned phrases with more fluency rather than saying each individual word and syllable in an unnatural fashion. I can’t stand hearing another teacher saying “FAM I LY” when speaking to a kid or teaching them the word with a flashcard…just say “FAMILY” or in my case “FAMLY”…that way they say the word naturally not in dummy speak.

  6. Mark Armstrong

    Hmm…this is a tough topic.

    In recent years I’ve gone through a bit of a sea change about the use of L1 in the classroom. In my early years teaching I was made to believe that for a variety of reasons the native speaker should NEVER use the students’ L1 in the classroom, under any circumstance. I was even instructed to pretend not to know any of their L1. It’s almost as if we would irreparably damage their chances of ever learning English. I’ve even heard of schools not hiring/or dismissing native teacher who could speak the L1, but I suspect this was an urban legend.

    I later realized this way of thinking was actually unhelpful and actually hurt (or at least hindered) the relationship with SOME groups of students. When I got a little more independence of control over my classroom, and with some experimentation, I started using L1 to everyone’s benefit.

    With my low level students I use L1 to explain and cement new concepts into the heads of the children, but then like Richard said, I expect the children to remember what we’ve learned and from then on only say those words or phrases in English. With these students I can gradually reduce my use of L1 to almost nothing, and by that time the students rarely need it. Although I will occasionally ask them to tell me what some English word is in their L1 to ensure they are on the right track.

    It’s time efficient. If I can explain what something means in 5 to 10 seconds in their L1, and then move on, to me that’s a better use of time that spending 5 to 10 minutes trying to get them to understand in English.

    Use of L1 is also a good way for the children to learn to trust me, as most have rarely learned from a foreign teacher before. Hearing their own familiar language come out from my mouth is a way for them to realize that I am not such an alien from a distant planet. Many parents have also told me they find it quite comforting knowing that there are no communication barriers with their children, contracting what many managers have insisted upon.

    Anyway, as long as your use of L1 has a purpose and you are trying to gradually reduce your students’ dependence on it, then I think you should have no fear of using it.

  7. David Stanton

    With teaching in Vietnam , its very hard to learn the local language , with Vietnamese having over 6 tones and changing vowel sounds by using dipthongs, Vietnamese is written in English but with over 40 different vowel sounds it makes it difficult to learn , for example the simple word Bo can mean beef, a persons name , a dead horse , just by changing the dipthong above the vowel.But I`m here to teach them English , not Vietnamese , here we have TA`s who help us with any problems with the students not understanding anything.
    In English we can change the stress for a word , but it doesn`t change the meaning.

  8. Richard

    Thanks everyone for the comments!

    @David: Do give it a try, the tones take a while, but it certainly can be done and will have a huge impact on your life there! ๐Ÿ™‚ You can do it!

  9. Martin

    I re-read your original post again and the bit about the shower I didn’t remember seeing before, but it makes sense. The ALL-English approach is GREAT…if it is done EVERY DAY…Most of the young students at the school I am at only have 3 hours of class (1.5 hours, twice a week)…and the older students only have class once a week for 2 hours. Definitely not an every day shower.

  10. Julia Feste

    Hi, thanks Itzel for the question, thanks Richard for the answer, and thanks everybody else for the comments.
    I started talking to my kids in their native language – English – when I realized how much time I lose explaining my games/ activities first in English, then waiting for my TA to translate it into Chinese… whereas I can explain it myself. Plus that clearly creates a strong sense of connection with my kids that I didn’t have when I only used English, and we all – kids, TA, me – started to enjoy the class much more.
    My situation is as following: I work in a kindergarten in Beijing, I have 5 classes a day, from 10 to 30 kids depending on the class, from 2 to 4 years old, and the length of each class goes from 20 to 30 minutes. I was told this morning not to use Chinese, and I feel very frustrated about that.

    I am wondering if any of you have any experience about how to explain and convince a Chinese kindergarten to use students native language in class?

    Or do you think that the rule of not using students native language is acceptable given that I teach them everyday?

    Thanks a lot in advance for your tips ๐Ÿ™‚

  11. Richard Graham

    Hi Julia, if you see them everyday you’ll very quickly get to “mostly English” just keep an eye on what language you are needing in Chinese and teach that as the target English for the next lessons. There will still always be some parts where it is needed though.

    With regards persuading the kindergarten, the main thing is to discover their reasoning behind their choice. Sometimes it comes from academic ignorance (usually easy to overcome), sometimes it’s marketing (i.e. they promised the parents “all English”) and in some cases it is to keep the kids coming longer (e.g. kids don’t learn as quickly if they don’t understand so need more lessons!) Once you know their reasoning it’s a lot easier to enter a discourse with them!

  12. Rhayza

    Im going to tell you my experience . I speak Spanish and I teach English , I never speak Spanish in class even I understand what they re saying. I do my best to make myself understood . I use fashcards videos, drawing, whatever I can but I never speak spanish to them and they re very happy with me cause they re learning

  13. Richard Graham

    Hi Rhayza, great to hear your experience! Do definitely do try some Spanish with the tips above, it will take things to a whole new level for you! ๐Ÿ™‚

Comments are closed