“It’s better if the teacher can’t speak the student’s first language.” Really?

I’ve been in the teaching game since 2011. My experience is mainly teaching Japanese students, along with a smattering of Chinese and Korean folks who are based in Japan. Several times now, I’ve come across the belief that “Native English teachers shouldn’t be able to speak the learner’s first language. It’s better that way, because then the learner will be forced to communicate only through the target language.”

Not “teachers shouldn’t speak the learner’s L1.” They “shouldn’t have the ability” to do so.

I find this to be a very strange distinction, because of course the goal is to get the learner to use the target language as much as humanly possible in a given lesson. This means if the learner straight-up asks me, “How do you say 海外 in English?” I answer with, “Can you explain the word to me?” The learner then comes up with something like, “Well, not in Japan. In other countries.” At that point I can say, “Oh! Abroad!” and that’s the end of that. The learner has not only learned the word, they have “earned” it by explaining in the target language what they wanted to say.

And surely, a teacher is capable of doing that regardless of whether they can or cannot speak the student’s L1, aren’t they?

Maybe this is a cultural thing purely rooted in Japan, but let me ask you: have you come across this belief yourself, or do you believe it? What are the benefits on either side?

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5 thoughts on ““It’s better if the teacher can’t speak the student’s first language.” Really?

  1. If you understand the language you can help with grammar. I remember a Japanese lesson I took in Matsue, the teacher kept talking about adjectives and adverbs only we had never used those words in class so I was completely lost. I think that as a last resort I prefer that my students ask me a question in French at the end of the lesson rather than leave without any understanding.

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  2. I have been teaching in Korea since 2009, and have learnt Korean pretty well over the years. I personally think NETs should learn the language of the country they’re living/teaching in, but limit its use in the classroom setting. I don’t speak it in my classroom, but do occasionally write a vocabulary word in Korean (especially if it’s a new or uncommon English word).

    I want my students to develop competency in English as a second language, so I discourage the use of L1 in the classroom, and encourage an “English only” environment. Sometimes that works if the students are advanced enough, but if the students are very young or at an elementary level, then allowing some L1 use may be beneficial. I may have my higher-level students interpret what they’ve understood into their first language to help out the lower-level students in the class.

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    1. Hey there, thanks for sharing your thoughts! I agree with your ideas. I keep a pretty strict “English only” rule in the class, but if one student is struggling, I turn a blind eye when another student assists them with their L1.

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      1. Hey 🙂 thanks for the reply! It’s always tricky to balance L1 and L2 use. I’ve seen studies claiming that using L1 in ESL classrooms is helpful and also others stating the opposite.

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