Recently I read a post on a Facebook group asking whether or not teachers allow their English learners to speak in their primary/native language in class. Now to me, there is no need to think about the answer. It's a no brainer. Do I allow my students to speak in their native language in class?
Yes, I believe it's important to allow English learners to use their primary/native language as a leverage to learn their target language...in this case, English. Here's why:
1. Literacy is literacy, no matter the language. By allowing all languages in the classroom, we show that literacy in any language is literacy! If we embrace ALL languages, our students will follow suite. As leaders in the classroom, they look up to us. Creating conditions for language learning means that we value all languages.
2. Even when we don't hear students using their primary/native language, they could be using it in their mind to support learning the target language. For example, when a student is at the beginning proficiency level in English, he may hear the teacher say something in English, translate and process it in his head, and then formulate a response translated back to English. Primary/native language is foundational to learning a new language. The stronger the foundation, the easier it is to build upon.
3. The environment sets the tone for all learning to occur. We can stifle learning by setting rules that take a student's identity from them. When we say "hands to yourselves", that has nothing to do with personal self. Or Don't talk while the teacher is talking. But telling kids they can't be themselves "English Only" in essence means "You can't speak your native language in here" that robs our students of their personal identity. They begin to feel that their native language is bad, wrong, unwanted...like putting our hands on others or talking while the teacher is talking.
Reading the posts by educators and even ESL teachers that employ or encourage the English Only Rule, truly hurt me. I can't imagine someone telling me that I can't speak my native language. It would embarrass me. Shame me. Make me feel less likely to speak again. I'm not sure that I would speak any language at all. I think it would lift my affective filter tremendously. Even right now as I write this, I can feel my anxiety rising.
It is important and helpful to all teachers to know and understand language development. When we know how language develops, we can use this information to guide instructional decisions for planning and delivering lessons. While it's true that our kids will acquire language more rapidly when they use it, we have to keep in mind that students who know more than one language will rely on their primary language for support at times. This is especially true of students at the beginner levels of language proficiency. In order to accelerate their language development in English, we can provide plenty of opportunities for students to interact and scaffold conversations with sentence frames and word banks. We can also explicitly model expectations and conversational protocols. The conditions we create in our rooms will either help our students grow or they will impede progress.
Bottom line...native language supports learning a new language.
The "English Only Rule" should not exist in my opinion. And honestly, I didn't realize this was even still a thing until I came upon the Facebook post. I realize this is a touchy topic for some. And I'm sure that not everyone is going to agree with me.
Classroom Q & A with Larry Ferlazzo on Education Week
Dispelling the Myth of English Only
Colorin Colorado The Home Language: An English Learner's Most Valuable Resource