Speak English? But We All Speak Spanish! How to Teach the Monolingual English Class

Speak English? But We All Speak Spanish! How to Teach the Monolingual English Class

When people used to ask me at parties what languages my students spoke, I would tick off some of the common languages that might be spoken in a single ESL classroom in California: Spanish, Vietnamese, Cantonese, Russian…

This would usually bring a blank stare and the exclamation, “Oh, do you actually speak all those languages?” I was always tempted to answer “Yes.” However, I usually replied of course not and then offered a brief explanation of how an ESL class is conducted, and the listener would usually conclude the conversation with, “Well, that must be very difficult.” However, as most ESL instructors probably agree, it is actually a lot less difficult in some ways to teach a class of students from twenty different language backgrounds than just one…and easier to learn a second language in a multilingual rather than monolingual ESL classroom, as well. We only need to look at the language situation of Americans to understand this: Americans are notoriously monolingual because we have little motivation to learn another language as everyone learns ours. In addition, even if I do summon up the motivation to learn a second language, I am probably going to have to travel far from my monolingual culture to even practice this language in an authentic situation. Similarly, students in a monolingual class have a hard time mustering the motivation or gaining the opportunities to practice in order to learn a second language—and second language learning requires a great deal of motivation and practice—if they are surrounded by native speakers of their own language. Why bother? So one of the instructional problems of the monolingual English class is developing the motivation and the opportunities to practice that are not inherent in the situation. Although it is difficult, the ESL instructor can indeed help students develop the motivation to learn English and create the situations to practice to it move students toward acquisition of their second language.

Methods to Encourage English Use in a Monolingual or Near-Monolingual Class

The first step in developing motivation and practice opportunities in English for your monolingual ESL class is to recognize some important underlying values for class.

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    Promote Importance of English

    The first step in addressing the lack of motivation to use English in a monolingual ESL class—again, understandable as I wouldn’t speak Russian to my American classmates without major incentive—is simply to promote the value of English, what knowing English can do for the students. This goes back to the United States as a largely monolingual culture: Americans themselves frequently bemoan our monolingual state; the fact remains, however, that lack of knowledge of Standard English will generally impede an individual’s opportunity to advance in mainstream American society. Open discussion of this, and referring to successful bilingual individuals who acquired English as adolescents or adults, is the beginning of developing motivation in this area as students usually recognize the concern—indeed, it’s usually what brought them to class in the first place. In addition, recognition of students’ particular advantage in their future status as proficient bilinguals, increasing professional opportunities, at least, provides additional incentive.

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    English as the Common Language

    Reminding the student that actually not everyone in class speaks their language—usually the teacher, for one—also is helpful in establishing English, for the class at least, as the common language, and this actually reflects the culture as a whole. While in reality the United States has been multilingual since its inception, English has nearly always been the common language of the people, the expected “code” in most public situations, and the only really recognized “official” one—that is, while English in most places in the U.S. doesn’t carry the status as the official language, in practice it probably is—most educational and business settings, for example, use English as the language for communication. This is the starting point for establishing a course principle, the use of English as the common class language, reflecting the society as a whole—while at the same time validating the students’ first languages in specific situations.

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    The Need for Practice

    In addition, pointing out to students that practice is needed to acquire any language, and class may very well be their main opportunity to practice, especially if they don’t work outside their homes or cultural neighborhoods, will establish a further desire to use English in class. ESL students, having some experience as language learners, will usually readily, if grudgingly, agree on the need for continual practice to improve.

Once some underlying principles of an ESL class—the importance of English as a common language, the need for practice--have been recognized, the teacher then can move forward to creating opportunities for practice. This is admittedly difficult in the monolingual classroom, but it can be done.

Methods for Creating Opportunities for Practice in the Monolingual Classroom

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    Choice of Materials

    Some materials are so heavily imbedded in their own cultures that it is near impossible to discuss them in a language other than of that culture. Discussions of the Old West, for example, are perhaps best conducted in American English. (An essay by the humorist James Thurber on the hilarious attempts to translate the tales of Billy the Kid into French is one that has long remained in my memory.)

    The teacher will probably see students who attempt to switch back to their primary languages to discuss something like panning for gold getting stuck and saying, “I don’t know how to say this in—” and then returning to English, the “natural” vehicle for discussing this particular phenomenon. In addition, students are likely to recognize more everyday conversations such as what to say to an arresting police officer when stopped for a traffic violation as best conducted in English, the language they will certainly be having these conversations in, and again so much of the conversation is again embedded in a culture of driving, traffic tickets, and car registration and insurance, that translating it becomes problematic in and of itself.

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    “Multilingual” Groups

    As much as possible, scatter your few “diverse” students, those whose primary language differs from that of the rest of the class, throughout different groups rather than allowing them to cluster together. Also, go around and sit in on the different groups a short time each yourself, thereby promoting the use of English to include everyone.

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    Roleplay “American” Situations

    As with materials, there are certain situations that are so quintessential to a culture that it seems almost ridiculous to conduct them in anything but the language of that culture. There probably are ways in other languages to talk to telemarketers and respond to “paper or plastic” in the grocery store, but English seems almost the native language to these situations. Setting up situations where it feels almost “right” to speak English is another strategy to use.

Getting students to speak English in the monolingual or near-monolingual class can be challenging.

Some strategies beyond urging students to “speak English” repeatedly are called for. Therefore, using strategies such as helping students to recognize the value of use of English and setting up situations in which it seems almost necessary to do so will keep students focused on using English in their ESL class—perhaps the only time they will have extended practice in their second language.

What are some of the common concerns and methods of addressing the monolingual ESL class in your experience?

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