How much English should EFL Teachers Use?

Native tongue vs Target language

How much English should English teachers use in the classroom? A strange question, but it’s one that teachers often ask each other.

Just babbling away in English at an inappropriate level won’t really help your students — they will feel confused and overwhelmed — but if they rarely hear natural English, they will never pick up a good accent, correct pronunciation or other subtleties. And if they don’t actually use the language but only ‘study’ it, then they have little hope of becoming fluent speakers.

Some of the best language learning advice I’ve ever heard came from Benny Lewis ( who wrote about the best advice he ever received, “. . .to speak a language, you’ve just got to start speaking it. There’s no magic. . . you only need a willingness to make mistakes.” As teachers, we have to encourage that attitude — that there’s no shame in making mistakes.

When I first started learning Greek, I was a most reluctant speaker. I didn’t want to make mistakes or sound stupid, so I just didn’t talk. At all. When I met someone that I felt comfortable with, then I was able to communicate, not fluently and not without errors, but I was suddenly able to make myself clear.

As teachers, we have to make our students feel comfortable enough to communicate and provide a happy medium — not too much and not too little. Students need to hear as much level-appropriate English as possible while not feeling lost or completely baffled, but also keep the use of the native tongue to a minimum.

With my young learners and even older beginners and adults, I try to start as early as possible — actually the first lesson with simple greetings that I reuse in every lesson. I gradually add more questions and phrases — how was your day at school?, what did have for lunch?, are you ready?, let’s begin. I think most teachers don’t realize how much students pick up without our overt teaching of something. I had a little girl who started saying ‘so’ and ‘oops’. I quickly realized I had been overusing those words.

As students reach early intermediate levels, I really think the English-only classroom is vital. Encouraging students in a friendly yet strict way to use English as much as possible is the only sure method that will lead them to become natural-sounding fluent speakers.

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