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Pros and cons of teaching exclusively in the target language

Diary submitted by Mathilde S, Erasmus+ internship in Madrid

There are a lot of divergent theories over the role and significance that the mother tongue should have in a foreign language class, but scholars recognize the benefits of the monolingual principle. In other words, there is “consensus that teachers should aim to make maximum use of the target language”(Turnbull & Arnett, 2002: 211). As opposed to the mother tongue (MT), the target language (TL) is the one learned and which learners aim to master. In my internship, I taught English to Spanish EFL learners. Since I only have a A2 level in Spanish, I almost taught exclusively in English, which made me want to discuss the pros and cons of this method.

On the one hand, there are many advantages of teaching in the target language. As it means maximum exposure and immersion, students learn faster and more efficiently. Reciprocally, students tend to push themselves more to understand and it therefore fosters their motivation to learn. Not only doesit facilitate the acquisition of language skills, it also triggers and stimulates the student’s mind andbrain to think in English. One of my students once told me that he enjoys being confronted to “English concepts”. Students will in fact assimilate vocabulary, grammar structures, and get used to hearing either a British or an American accent in a rather quick and unconscious way. Moreover, this total immersion works like a simulation of the real world. Students in fact like to learn concrete things about daily life and want to be able to react in any situation where English is spoken. They will therefore picture the outcome of what they are learning in a rather straightforward way. It ultimately creates a natural environment in the classroom, in which students feel more comfortable.

On the other hand, there are some drawbacks of teaching exclusively in the target language. It is obviously not the best method if students are complete beginners. But even when teaching to students who have an intermediate level, there is always the possibility that they don’t understand ormisunderstand. Teaching exclusively in the TL can also mean that explanations given by the teacher are less detailed. Furthermore, because the MT is usually a common ground between the teacher and his/her students, not using it in class can mean that there will be less affective or interpersonal support between the teacher and his/her students. Moreover, if students are not comfortable with the target language, they can be discouraged to learn or to engage with the class. The result of these various hazards is the loss of time, meanwhile switching to the MT means that you can get more things done. It is also important to note that translating to the MT helps students to create clusters and therefore memorise more easily. In my experience, I first thought that teaching grammar would be difficult. As my trainer was Spanish, he did speak quite a lot in Spanish to explain English grammar. Notwithstanding, Spanish and English differ in many ways. Spaniards for example struggle with structures involving “neither” and “either”, as it differs from the way they use tampoco. Another common mistake I noticed was the use of do or make, because Spanish language only has the verbhacer.

In order to minimise the drawbacks and get as much as benefits possible from teaching exclusively in the target language, the teacher needs to make his/her students are aware that understanding everything he/she says is not a top priority, neither in the classroom nor in the context of being in an English-speaking situation. In other words, the emphasis should be put on accuracy and meaning rather than fluency, especially for beginner and intermediate levels. Furthermore, it is important to promotethe use of the language, activate students’s language skills, make them participate and engage with the class. They should feel confident to ask questions in case they don’t understand. A good way to make sure they understand is to ask them if the understood, what they understood and if they can explain using their own words, or are able to do exercises and practice. When my turn to teach grammar came, I made sure that students get the concepts and practice the tenses and structures in various examples. For instance, quizzes about prepositions of time and place worked pretty well.

In a nutshell, both the teacher and students face pros and cons of respectively teaching and being taught exclusively in the target language.

Sources:

Littlewood, W., & Yu, B. (2011). First language and target language in the foreign language classroom. Language Teaching, 44(1), 64-77.

Turnbull, M., & Arnett, K. (2002). 11. TEACHERS USES OF THE TARGET AND FIRST LANGUAGES IN SECOND AND FOREIGN LANGUAGE CLASSROOMS. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 22, 204-218.

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