Allowing Mother Tongues in ELL Classrooms: One Teacher’s Perspective

As a teacher, how does having learned a second language affect your teaching of ELL’s? Similarly, how does it influence your perspective on the use of mother tongues in an ELL classroom? BGL’s Teacher Christal offers this personal account:

In 1958 my mother emigrated from Quito, Ecuador to Los Angeles, California. She told me that her teachers did not let her speak Spanish and she was forced to learn English by the sink-or-swim method. She remembered that in second grade she went to the bathroom in the classroom because she was scared to ask for permission in her native language. When I was born, my mother decided not to teach me Spanish because she thought it would confuse me hinder my English speaking skills.

Teacher Christal & her mom in Ecuador.

Teacher Christal & her mom in Ecuador.

In 1996 at the age of sixteen I went back to Ecuador for about a year. I enrolled in a Spanish-speaking school. At the time I understood many Spanish words but was not able to speak it conversationally. I was not allowed to speak English in my classes. I remember being teased by other students and being embarrassed when I made mistakes learning the language. Although I did learn Spanish, it was a very stressful time in my academic career. This experience helped me to conclude that the learning of languages should be taught as authentically as possible with numerous opportunities for engagement with both academic and non-academic subject matter.

While I attended the University of California at Santa Barbara I decided to become an educator. I tutored English Language Learners from the Santa Barbara community. I then received my Master’s Degree in Education from the University of California at Los Angeles. UCLA’s teacher education program focused on helping students in lower income areas of Los Angeles. Many of the lower income schools with which UCLA worked had predominately English Language Learners. UCSB and UCLA gave me tools to create a classroom that allowed students to learn the English language in a meaningful way. I began teaching in Pico Union in 2003 and I have helped teach over 500 English Language Learners.

Celebrating Christmas in LAUSD.

Celebrating Christmas in LAUSD.

In 2009 I started teaching English Language Learners from Tsia Hsing School, in Taipei, Taiwan. I learned that I could help English Language Learners learn English even if I was not physically in the room with them. The technology we use allows all participants to feel that we are sharing the same space even though we are 6,000 miles apart. I am still able to foster authentic experiences for English Language Learners using an original curriculum and inventive experiences like international student collaborations and 4G Field Trips. I went to Taipei in 2010 and I loved being able to meet the students in person, but I continue to feel that personal connection with them even from a distance.

Visiting Tsai Hsing in 2010.

Visiting Tsai Hsing in 2010.

It is clear to me that learning a new language broadens your mind and enhances the possibilities of your future. Through all my experiences I have learned that English Language Learners learn the best when you embrace their native tongue and they feel comfortable making mistakes in the classroom. I hope that any student that walks into my classroom – virtual or otherwise – knows that their native language is respected and embraced in my class.


One comment

  1. bill teweles · December 19, 2014

    Very impressive 2nd language perspectives from a number of students and educators. As someone who’s taught in countries where English is a foreign language (incl. China), I certainly share your view that the students’ first language is of value and an important part of the classroom environment. The students’ native tongue shouldn’t be the focus of instruction, though, as they get plenty of it (maybe nothing but) outside the classroom and at home. They certainly shouldn’t be penalized for using their L1 to clarify things or to interject thoughts. I noted, esp. in Japan, that students could bring out important contrasts in usage or cultural style by injecting their first language periodically. However, in an ESL teaching environment, where students may be paying thou$ands of dollars for instruction in the 2nd language, students who continually revert to the L1 or use a different language in class may be creating an unhealthy learning environment. I remember all too clearly one community college where 80% or more of the students were from one Southeast Asian country and continually spoke their L1 in class. The upshot of that was students from other language backgrounds would drop the class or complain that they didn’t care to spend their hard-earned money or time learning _______ese (!) At other community colleges where a variety of languages came into play, English (or ESL) would eventually win out because it was the lingua franca and/or language of prime academic interest. So, as many of your commentators have suggested, yes, give students a chance to offer input from their 1st language background, but don’t let it take over the class or become the main focus of instruction.

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