Monday, March 8, 2010

Using the Learner's First Language: Good Idea?

I had an exchange with a tutor with an interesting question about using the learner's first language during an English lesson. Julia Steege asked,
Because I can speak fluent Spanish sometimes I think it is easier for her when anything is slightly difficult to lapse back into Spanish. How do I deal with this? I want her to feel she can still use some Spanish, for clarification and sometimes to talk about our lives but I want to figure out better ways to challenge her to use only English

I thought it was a great question and wanted to share it with all of you. My answer is below:

Julia: Just a couple of thoughts related to your February tutor feedback .
One strategy used by a teacher of Ojibwa language in a Wisconsin reservation is very interesting. All classes are held exclusively in Ojibwa language. However, in her classroom hangs a rubber chicken. The chicken has a sign on it that says,
"FOR EMERGENCY USE ONLY!" If a student can't say something in Ojibwa, he or she may grab the rubber chicken and hold it over their head while speaking English. After saying what needs to be said, the student hangs the chicken back on its hook. The unmitigated silliness of the rubber chicken gag gets learners off the hook, so to speak, when they can't express themselves. Perhaps you can have a policy like that, where one has to do commit some silly act in order to revert back to the first language.

An alternative idea would be to print three cards that say, "Temporary Spanish Pass" on them. Give them to her at the beginning of the lesson. They would give her three opportunities to lapse into Spanish, but after she has given you her three passes, tough luck, mi amiga. Another thought: get an egg timer and turn it over while you or she is speaking Spanish and turn it on its side when she finishes. She gets three minutes (or whatever is on the hourglass) of time to speak her first language during class. A chess clock would do an even better job, and I suppose that the iPhone has an app for that.

Whatever plan you come up with, stick with it. Be quick to show her that you understand her English, even when it's far from perfect. When you can't, though, you may resort to a bilingual dictionary.

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