EAL and MFL: Teaching through different languages

Freddie Gay

Founder of English Consultancy,  Freddie Gay has been a teacher, teacher trainer for more than 10 years and has worked in a number of countries, including Thailand, the UK, Malaysia but most extensively in Colombia. He has a number of teaching qualifications including a diploma in English language teaching to adults and a Master's degree in English language and applied linguistics from the University of Cambridge and has worked and had a keen interest in evaluation and assessment throughout his career.

Website: ecielts.net Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

As you would imagine, all English language lessons focus on the English language as the syllabus. Meanwhile, almost all English language lessons focus exclusively on the English language, without taking into account the learner’s first language, which we call ‘L1’. There is a pedagogical reason for this: the long-standing and ubiquitous idea that it is better to focus exclusively on L1 when learning a language.

Does the following sound familiar?

  • Do not translate.
  • Try and think in English.
  • Use a monolingual dictionary: do not translate.

English teachers have been preaching the above for fifty years. And they are arguably right to do so. Thinking in a second language, some say, is the high-watermark of using it. When we think in our native languages we do so exclusively, without translating or ‘comparing’ with other languages (This of course would depend on the speaker’s exposure to other languages while learning L1. Native speakers might compare languages, out of interest or curiosity, but they do not need to translate for understanding). And so this is something we aim to achieve when learning and using our other languages.

Imagine the following classroom scenario:

Learner: “Teacher, what does this word mean: ‘table’?’’
Teacher: “A table is a flat, horizontal surface supported by vertical legs equally balanced. There are usually four legs, but this can vary.”

This is an exaggeration, of course."Thinking in a second language, some say, is the high-watermark of using it." It would be a teacher of questionable ability that gave a definition like this to a learner of a level who does not know what the English word ‘table’ means, but it can illustrate a point: the teacher has sacrificed common sense, as well as time and effort, to hold to his / her strict belief that no first language should be used in the classroom. English only.

And what if the teacher had simply replied “mesa”? (The learner’s L1 is Spanish. And for the purpose of this exercise we will assume, somewhat strangely, that there were no tables in the classroom for the teacher to simply point at!).

‘Table’, or ‘mesa’, is a concrete noun, something tangible that we experience through our senses: sight, hearing, smell, touch or taste. There are no subjective subtleties of definition here, unless one is abstractly philosophising. Does it matter if we consider an object in two languages while learning one of them? There is, arguably, a comfort, a security in this association.

We can extend this idea of ‘comfort’ from the linguistically-specific to the more humanly general and philosophic. Piasecka states that “One’s sense of identity as an individual is inextricably bound up within one’s native language... If the learner of a second language is encouraged to ignore his/her native language, he/she might well feel his/her identity threatened.” (Hopkins, 1988:18).

But we can take this further. There is a lot to be said for designing a syllabus / lesson with L1 specifically in mind. Let’s take L1 Spanish as our main example, and consider what implications being a native speaker of Spanish has for learning English. We’ll start with pronunciation.

The ‘schwa’ is by far the most common sound in English. It is a vowel sound and can be seen (or heard!) in these highlighted syllables: worker; about; difficult. It is always unstressed and it does not exist in the Spanish language. I repeat: the most common sound in the English language does not exist in the Spanish language. Hence the common pronunciation of, to take one of the examples above, ‘worker’ as ‘workair’. There is a very strong argument for paying particular attention to the schwa sound in designing a syllabus for native Spanish-speaker learners. Learners who do have the schwa in their native tongue, however, such as French speakers, don’t need to focus so much on this – it will come more naturally – and so tailoring lessons thusly will be very helpful.

English and Spanish share roots. Both have Latin as a ‘parent’, only Spanish more purely: English is more mixed in its influences. This shared origin means that the word ‘difficult’ in English, for example, sounds very similar to its Spanish equivalent, ‘dificil’. And there are many other English-Spanish cognates, ‘accident-accidente’, ‘bicycle’-bicicleta’, ‘interesting-interesante’, being just a few.

There are also false cognates, or ‘false friends’: similar words that actually have very different meaning. Take the English word ‘embarrassed’, for example. In Spanish, ‘embarazada’ means ‘pregnant’! Confusion with these cognates could be very dangerous!

When designing a lesson or syllabus, we can take into"In Spanish, ‘embarazada’ means ’pregnant’!" account the above when we decide how to focus on vocabulary and what particular vocabulary to focus on, chapter by chapter. This ‘tailored’ approach has the benefits of just that: ‘tailor-made’ English learning. Like a well-cut suit.

And there are implications for grammar, of course. Many. Let’s think about how we conjugate verbs for the second and third person singulars. In Spanish, we generally add, or at least incorporate, an ‘s’ to express the second person singular. Thus, ‘tu tienes’, ‘tu quieres’, ‘tu me gustas’. The third-person Spanish singular can be defined by an absence of an ‘s’. Hence the above in the third person are: ‘el tiene’, ‘ella quiere’ and ‘el me gusta’.

In English, however, we generally use an ‘s’ to express the third person. Hence ‘he has’, ‘she wants’, ‘he needs’. As a result, native Spanish-speaking learners not expressing the ‘s’ in the English third-person singular is probably the most common mistake they make, in my experience. And it is such an important, fundamental tense, and thus worthy of ‘tailored’ syllabus focus. We therefore might want to give this tense more focus and practice at elementary stage (and indeed other levels) than we might with learners that are native speakers of other languages.

There is much significance for error correction, of course. Error correction is not always spontaneous, and should be predicted from experience of a specific type of learner and built into the planning stage of a lesson or syllabus. If we know what areas of grammar Spanish speakers commonly have problems with, we can plan our lessons more slickly and precisely as a result.

What would you prefer: a tailor-made suit or dress, one that fits your unique shape and colouring, or one ‘off-the-peg’, categorised down to a number? It is the same with languages education. It can be argued that we can never fully remove the L1 from the learning environment of L2, so why try and force it? Instead, we can embrace this influence and use it to a precise advantage.

Co-written by Jon Porter.

How do you cater to different learner’s lingual needs? Share your tips below.

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