Published 17th October 2017

The issue of first language use in the classroom is a tricky one. Learners may sometimes feel the need to communicate in their first language and they may be shy to always use English if they are scared of making mistakes in front of their classmates. Of course, translation is not always a bad thing and, in fact, it can be used effectively if done appropriately.

But there is a difference between using their first language to translate one or two words or communicate something vital and to have a fat chat with their friends or ask the teacher a random question they could just as easily ask in English. This is something we want to avoid in our EFL classrooms because it is robbing our learners of opportune moments to speak English and use English to communicate.

How can we get our students to speak English in the classroom?

It’s as simple as 1, 2, 3!

1.      Teach classroom English

Teach your learners the language they need to be able to communicate in the essential, everyday classroom situations.

What do you call…?

How do you say…?

Can you say that again, please?

Can I go to the bathroom?

If learners know how to say phrases like these, they won’t feel the need to resort to their first language when they really need to say something without worrying about being misunderstood.

2.      Allow free speaking

Speaking in English shouldn’t be reserved for practise activities or role plays. There doesn’t need to be a designated time to speak English in the classroom. There should always be space for the learners to say what they want to say in English. If this means commenting on the previous night’s football match or talking about their plans for the weekend, then so be it. Let them talk and build on these conversations. You might even find some inspiration for a Dogme-style lesson.

3.      Change the Seating Arrangements

Often classrooms are arranged with the learners sitting in rows. While this works well for activities which require individual work, like tests, they are not conducive to free conversation. Speaking is the main aim in an EFL classroom so we want to do as much as possible to encourage talking. Arrange the classroom so that your learners are able to move about easily and are able to talk to more than one person at a time.

Remember that it’s important not to encourage your learners to speak English at the expense of the learners’ first language. Criticising or insulting their language is not going to do you any favours. Instead, try to create an environment in which your learners feel comfortable speaking English and want to do so of their own volition.