ESL Myths Debunked

Image by Mohamed Hassan

I was browsing the web the other day (what else is new!) and I stumbled upon a great article by Rusul Alrubail.  She answers what she calls the myths of ESL learners.

The 5 myths she addresses are:

  • Students can’t use their L1 in class
  • Students need to be corrected when they’re speaking English
  • All learners are immigrants
  • A student must assimilate with the North American culture if they want to learn properly
  • All learners share similar backgrounds, status, and culture.

To L1 or Not to L1?

Back when I was learning to become an ESL instructor, it was a big no no if a student used their L1 during class. It was frowned upon and even “forbidden” for lack of a better term. And if you let it happen in class, then you weren’t doing your job properly.

What are your thoughts on this topic? I personally never agreed with this philosophy. I’m no rebel, believe me, but the idea that a student learning a new language wasn’t allowed to reference back to their native language seemed bizarre to me.

What I did was allow those students who weren’t able to communicate well (especially at the lower levels) to use their L1 for translation purposes. It seemed fair and logical – especially when we’re talking about adult learners. Many are well educated individuals who have come to Canada for a myriad of reasons – whether they were forced to leave their country due to turmoil, or because they were seeking a better living environment for their families. They arrive with varying degrees of education and a variety of life experiences.

As such, I felt that by allowing the students to use their L1 to aid them in learning English and in making sense of what’s being taught, they would gain confidence and be more motivated to want to continue learning.

What I did, however, was continue to speak in English. And I did my best not to reveal where I was from and what languages I spoke because I didn’t want anyone to feel like they could speak to me in their native tongue! That has happened too many times in the past. They eventually would find out but I’d continue to speak to them in English until we had finished class.

Speaking above all else?

Another topic I wanted to get your thoughts on is the emphasis, or lack of, on speaking. Every student I’ve ever taught wished to know more English – and not grammar or writing or even reading. Just speaking. Although I believe in teaching all skills to bring balance their learning curve, I tend to skew more towards speaking, by integrating it as much as possible during class. I feel like most of us do the same in this regard.

For example, as I take attendance, I ask each student an open-ended question just to get them to talk, and to get out of their comfort zone a bit. Sometimes my question becomes a discussion point amongst those attending; so I go with the flow and wait until it stops, then move on to the next name.

Another thing I like to do to encourage speaking is role-play. I love role playing for students because once again, it gets them out of their seats but more importantly, it makes them uncomfortable – which is a great thing for them, since it forces them to think and act quickly in a given scenario. This helps them when they’re out in the real world, and interacting with others.

What do you think?

Now I’m turning this post over to you. I want to learn from you. We’re surrounded by a wealth of knowledge from those of you who have been at this ESL teaching game for years; so how great would it be to have that knowledge passed on to the rest of us. Sharing is caring. 🙂

Tell me your thoughts on the article by Rusul. Do you agree with all of her points or some? Do you believe in allowing students to use their native language to learn? How do you do things with your students to encourage speaking in the classroom?

Hi! I’m Laila and I’m a mom to two little ones who keep me very busy throughout the day (and night)! I earned a double major in Philosophy and Psychology from Western University, which basically means I can talk a lot and analyze anything! I earned my TESL accreditation and have taught in both school and workplace settings; but I especially enjoy teaching at different work places. I have a passion for cooking, baking vegan desserts, and DIY projects. I enjoy reading and learning about new things, but mostly, I’m excited to be sharing my thoughts and any information I may learn about with all of you. Happy reading!


3 thoughts on “ESL Myths Debunked”

  1. I absolutely agree that there is no reason to forbid use of L1 in the classroom, and in fact I encourage L1 use at the literacy level. They teach me some of their language, and I use it to help them. We rely on Google translate for the really tough concepts that even Google images cannot convey for us. On the other hand, I have a class of seniors (9 Mandarin speakers, 6 Arabic speakers) whom I am forever reminding to speak English rather than their L1 simply because if I never intervened, this class would morph into an L1 social club. One student who has proven intractable in this regard even gave a presentation in the L1 (about 20% in English) with me standing right there throwing my hands in the air in disbelief. They have grown too comfortable with me. Perhaps it’s time for me to trade one term with another instructor just to shake things up.

    1. Oh no! Sorry to hear that Kelly. I agree with you too – forbidding the use of L1 makes no sense to the students’ learning, but at the same time, you have to find the right balance which I think can be challenging to do.
      Sometimes you have to remind yourself that you’re doing your best and in the end it is up to the individual learner to claim the responsibility for their own learning. There’s only so much you can do.
      Hope all goes with with that class – keep us updated if you can.

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