a Multilingual Lesson

For most people, the official line is that in an ESOL classroom, the first language of the learners should be spoken minimally, if at all. This is almost always one of those rules which you set with your class at the start of the year, along with switching off your phones, and being on time.

I tend to stick to it, especially at the upper end of the spectrum where the learners’ English is of a sufficient level to participate in most interactions in a classroom.

There are definite benefits: cognitive benefits like the output, hypothesis testing element of second language acquisition, and social, interpersonal benefits, like not excluding the one Polish learner in a room full of Urdu speakers.

So it came as a bit of a shock to me that this Monday I was engaging in something resembling a translanguaging classroom: beginner level learners themselves trying to communicate with me using whatever resources they had. So we were gesticulating, drawing, translating for one another and just trying to use language which was accessible to them.

We had a good chat, me and the learners. I picked up a bit of Urdu (I can now count to five, and have a limited grasp of some food vocabulary, although the group were all impressed by my remembering how to say “My name is Sam” in Urdu) which was a positive exchange: I’ll try and learn these Urdu words, you can learn the English ones, and we’ll see how we get on. We swapped recipes, we exchanged concerns over one another’s children. Language developed out of this, new vocabulary, some work around the third person singular of the present simple, mainly so that we could focus on talking better. The learning outcomes of the lesson were achieved, so it can also get marked down as a success if you like things teacher-led in that way.

But it broke the English only rule, and I didn’t mind. In fact it felt that if anything more English was generated by my not insisting on English only. This was because, I think, the learners were more relaxed and confident and therefore happier to try and speak. In fact one or two learners in the group almost never contribute voluntarily in class in English and need lots of encouragement. In this lesson they both contributed several times without prompting.

There are caveats, of course: this was a monolingual group, so no learner was excluded in the interactions, and had there been one learner who felt excluded in any way, I would have been much tougher on the group. I did encourage learners to try and use English where possible, but never insisted.

But then the English-only rule, like anything which is presented as good, or at least accepted practice, is one which applies to some learners in some contexts. In this context, in this class, on this day, with this group of learners, allowing multilingual interactions worked: it was, on the day, effective in allowing learners to develop their confidence in classroom interactions, and therefore in producing more English interactions. That’s not to say I would do this again, maybe not even with this same group, although I think I will look at being less draconian in my English-only attitude with them.



  1. Sounds like a great session! A lovely read. Thanks!

    And, thanks also for the new concept of ‘translanguaging’. From your account here, it sounds like what might happen in my beginners group (and, dare I admit it, in the higher groups too). I’m away to try to find out more about it.

  2. I think this is something we need to embrace when appropriate – as you say it’s a bit like ‘I’ll have a go if you have a go’. It also acknowledges the culture and existing skills of the learners – who often feel they don’t have much to offer in the class if they lack confidence. It is hard though when some learners persist in not doing their bit. I have had deaf learners in my classes for the last few years and think it opens everyone up to doing things a bit differently.

  3. Hi Sam
    Urdu-only class- how lucky:)
    Personally, I think that referring to a mother tongue is not harmful at all. Even at higher levels giving the translation of a word can be much more effective than spending time on giving a definition from the encyclopedia (eg daffodil). From my experience the translation gives the students confidence that they’ve understood the word. Translation is part of learning a language and disregarding this fact when teaching does not change it.
    With translanguaging at higher levels I would be tempted to go even further and try comparative studies. I am convinced that comparing e.g. tenses in different languages would benefit our students. As we know transfer is positive only when there are similarities between languages, but maybe we could also prevent some negative transfers knowing more about the differences. It all, however, comes down to the logistics and the 2.5 hrs we have.

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