Dealing with mother tongue interference in an English Classroom

You can make it easier for students to use English by:

  • Describing your rationale clearly and getting their support from the beginning,
  • Deciding where you place yourself in the classroom. The groups nearest you are more likely to use English than those further away. So take an interest in what each group is doing and move around so that groups have less chance of switching back to their own language.
  • Monitoring more overtly: for example, by having a pen and paper in your hand.
  • Making the work task-oriented. If the final product has to be in English, whether it is a story, a film review or just answering comprehension questions, a greater use of English is ensured.
  • Keeping speaking activities short until the students have more confidence and increased fluency. It is better to have a shorter time than is strictly necessary than having time to spare at the end of group work.
  • Making sure that the students has the English to do what you ask. You might find it helpful to start off with very structured activities after you have taught some essential words and expressions so students are not at a loss for words.
  • Starting with “open” pair work (a dialogue in front of the class) as a model for the “closed” pair work (every pair working simultaneously).
  • Assigning roles. If everyone knows what he or she must do, they are more likely to do it in English. You might consider giving someone the role of “language monitor” – someone to make sure English is used in the group – or “evaluator” – someone who will report back on the of the group overall, including their use of English and of their mother tongue.

Finally, don’t be too concerned if your students resort to their mother tongue in group work or pair work activities. Sometimes it saves time in the long run, as when they are clarifying instructions before they begin the task. It is worth remembering that if you are doing group work as an alternative to whole class work, then even if only 2 people are using English simultaneously you have doubled the amount of student talk for that time.

It’s best to motivate the use of English, not punish the use of the Mother Tongue.

Many students, especially younger ones, will lose interest if they can’t give details over something they just thought about and would like to share (related to an open discussion). Weaker students will ask to speak in their mother tongue, and after, teachers should help them repeat it in English (which allows for new structures and vocabulary or simply revision of those).

Also, the lowest classes, with adults or young adults, usually get very stressed if grammar is explained in English (because they feel better if grammar rules are precise and understandable, even if it’s just an illusion) Slowly and surely, they’ll end up understanding English grammar explanations and accepting without stress newer never-heard of rules explained in English when introduced to other grammar topics.

The same goes for new vocabulary, some low-level students will not be able to understand the meaning of new words until they have been translated, and they must get a bit more confidence in themselves until they get used to dealing with English definitions.

Basically, the Mother Tongue is useful in translation and fully understanding definitions, rules, activities, etc., with low-level nervous students.


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