Hold Your Tongue!

Should we allow our students to speak in a language other than English in an English class?

I forbade my students from speaking in any language but English in class. Whether it was to talk to me or during class discussions, the only words students were allowed to utter were English words.

Until this semester:

I happen to have a group of French-educated students in my English 102 at the American University of Beirut who find it difficult to form coherent sentences in English. While doing a class activity and some research using the Wadsworth Handbook, these students were struggling with discussing the material. The activity was taking longer than it should, and its purpose was not being achieved. It dawned on me that maybe if I let them speak in their preferred tongue, they can accomplish the task faster and more efficiently. I did. I allowed them to speak in French or Arabic, and the end result was that they successfully completed the work.

While learning German and Italian (the last two languages I attempted at conquering—and miserably failed, I should add), I found it crippling to decipher the language using the language itself. It was easier to treat the language like a mathematical equation and solve its acquisition challenges using a different yet preferred language. I am not sure whether it was my age or my schedule which deterred me from pursuing these languages any further, but I feel that being able to discuss a language in another language employs a comparative skill which aids with the learning process.

This makes me wonder whether we, instructors of English, are hindering the language acquisition process by demanding that our students converse in a language which is somewhat easy to read and write but challenging to speak in.


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