When I first started teaching, at a language school for adults, there was a strict ‘no Turkish’ policy within the walls of the school. Anybody caught talking or communicating in Turkish on the premises, whether a complete beginner or in an advanced level class, was promptly kicked out with their money for their current course refunded. The owner of the school explained that he had struggled as a youngster to learn English and it was only when in a total immersion environment that he started to speak more fluently (granted, that total immersion consisted of 6 years studying and working in the UK) and so he felt it best to maximise the talking time available to his students. It soon became clear to me that this was also a marketing ploy as keen bosses and parents sent students to the ‘English only’ school.
Whatever the reasoning behind it and the rights or wrongs of its enforcement, the rule made little difference to me as I knew hardly any Turkish at the time. I could just about tell the guy in the greengrocer what I wanted (though he often pointed towards the supermarket when I mispronounced mantar, the Turkish for mushroom, as manti, a mini-ravioli style dish!), ask the taxi and bus drivers to drop me off at the next corner and get another beer but that was it.
By the time I started teaching kids, much had changed. After nearly 3 years in the country, I had an ever expanding vocabulary and I was able to communicate with most people, albeit not entirely fluently. A friend whom I had worked with at the language school until he started teaching kids a year before me told me that one of the biggest changes I would have to get used to, apart from classroom management issues, was starting to speak Turkish in class. “You’ll have to”, he said. “There’s no other way.”
I took his word for it at first and started to use Turkish when they didn’t understand words or activities and when dealing with discipline issues. They giggled a bit at my mistakes but I used the opportunity to discuss how it wasn’t nice to laugh at other people’s errors and generally everything was fine. For the first couple of years that was fine until one day with a new class, after just having worked on ‘What is this?’ questions and responses, the children started to point at unfamiliar objects in a picture in their course book at ask me ‘Bu ne?’ (that being the Turkish for ‘what’s this?’). I tried to encourage them to ask me the question they had just learned but they wouldn’t. It then occurred to me that outside class they were generally talking to me in Turkish as well saying things like ‘merhaba’ and ‘iyi günler’ when passing me in the corridor.
I then resolved to ‘play dumb’ when it came to Turkish with future classes. Any utterance of ‘Bu ne?’ was met with a shrug and ‘Sorry, I don’t understand’ from me. I also taught a whole host of useful phrases for the classroom (e.g. ‘Can I get something from my bag?’), which was added to on a need to know basis. It was difficult at first but it had the desired affect. Kids started to use the language they had learnt to communicate with me, sometimes startling me with the ways they were able to manipulate their limited knowledge to express themselves.
However, despite what I see as advantages in using English only (that is me using English only – I don’t prohibit the kids from using Turkish between themselves), some teachers I know are not keen on the idea and think the teacher not using the kids’ own mother tongue can have a negative impact. As a result, the issue has been discussed often and, in the rest of this post, I’ll look at some of the arguments I’ve heard against the teacher only speaking in English and my counter-arguments:
1. ‘It’s so much easier to translate words.’
They say: Why put so much effort into explaining, miming or eliciting meaning when a quick translation will suffice.
I say: Isn’t that what we want our students to do? We want them to find meanings of unknown words by themselves. We want them to process the meaning so it sticks. In one class, I was asked what wet meant. I could have just said islak but instead I poured water onto the sleeve of my shirt and said ‘Look! It’s wet!’ I bumped into a student from that class years later who said he had never and would never forget that word!
2. ‘You can’t build a relationship easily with the students unless you chat to them in Turkish.’
They say: Getting to know students early in the year is impossible if you don’t use Turkish. That prevents the building of relationships between the teacher and the class/individual students.
I say: Some of the best teacher-class and teacher-student relationships I’ve ever had have been in classes where I haven’t spoken a word of Turkish. They feel more of a sense of achievement when they have been able to communicate with somebody in a foreign language and this helps build positive relationships. Also, what do they want to know about me? Not where I’m from or how long I’ve lived here. They want to know what I like, what cool gadgets I’ve got and what I can do and they want to tell me the same – all topics that are covered early in the year anyway.
3. ‘Turkish is essential for discipline issues.’
They say: Sometimes Turkish is necessary when dealing with misbehaviour in class. It’s the only way to make the rules clear.
I say: There are just two rules in my class: Listen when the teacher is talking and Be nice to your classmates. Easy to understand. Also, those kids get lectured at length enough by their other teachers. They don’t need the English teacher to do it as well. In serious cases, I have a deal with the floor manager (one is placed in an office in each corridor in my school) that they will help me out and do the lecturing for me!
4. ‘Students lacking in confidence will suffer.’
They say: Some students will be overwhelmed if their teacher only speaks English and will lose even more confidence as a result.
I say: It is exactly for the benefit of these students that I do this! In the past, I used to speak Turkish in class and the insecure students would constantly ask for help in Turkish, ask me to repeat instructions in Turkish and ask me simple questions in Turkish. When they are placed in a situation where they have to use English, they actually start to listen and they realise they can do it. I’ve seen students really blossom and grow in confidence as they see that they can speak English and be understood as well as listen and understand.
5. ‘In case of illness or emergency, there is no other option'.’
They say: If a child desperately needs to see the doctor or go to the toilet, it’s unfair, bordering on cruel, to make them speak English to tell you.
I say: A difficult one this. However, in most genuine emergency cases, it’s obvious what is wrong and the teacher can act accordingly, calling the school doctor or letting the child out of class as required.
6. ‘It doesn’t actually help their English in the long term.’
They say: Later, they have non-native speaker teachers anyway (1st, 2nd and 3rd grades are exclusively taught by native speakers in my school with other higher grades split between NNS ‘grammar teachers’ and NS ‘conversation teachers’) and so will talk Turkish in class then. Besides, it’s all forgotten during the summer.
I say: Quite the opposite! Teachers who have taken over my old classes at the start of a new academic year always say how surprised and delighted they are that the kids speak so much English with them from day 1. Also, as they do start to have lessons later on with non-native speaker teachers who may speak Turkish with them in class, isn’t it better for them if their native speaker teachers use English as often as possible?
So that turned into a longer post than I expected! I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject. Do you use L1 with your students? If so, when and why? If not, why not and how do you cope with some of the difficulties that arise as a result?