“Guilt Free” English Language Teaching

In another recent publication, Swain, Kirkpatrick, and Cummins (2011) provide guidelines on how to use local languages ‘guilt free’ in an English language class. Among other things, they state that using the local languages help in making the content comprehensible because it allows teachers/students to: a) Build from the known, b) Provide translations for difficult grammar and vocabulary, and c) Use cross-linguistic comparisons. Once again, they provide a number of examples of how this can be done successfully in actual classes.

– from Ahmar Mahboob, contributor for NNEST Interest Section blog

When I tell my students that I can speak both English and Chinese fluently, though I consider English my first language and main language of competency, they always say that I’m lucky. I’m very grateful for having had the background, both in school and at home, to be able to maintain and foster bilingual development in both Chinese and English.

However, going into ESL teaching in the U.S., I knew that my Chinese language skills might be more bothersome than helpful. I was afraid students would ask me to translate and be inclined to use Chinese to ask me questions instead of using English. I was afraid that non-Chinese speaking students would think that the Chinese-speaking students have some sort of advantage in the classroom or that I favor the Chinese speakers over other students. These fears really became apparent to me when I found myself comfortably and casually some of the Spanish I learned during high school with a Spanish-speaking student in my class. Immediately, I caught myself using a language other than English in my “English-only” classroom and wondered why I could feel so carefree about using Spanish but I had such restrictive fears about using Chinese. My conclusion was that it had a lot to do with the fact that I come from Chinese ancestry myself and I didn’t want to exclude any non-Chinese speaking students, making them feel like they couldn’t relate with me on the same level that Chinese-speaking students could. While I still maintain that it is one of my top priorities as a teacher to give all students equal access to my teaching and feel equally included in the classroom community, what I’ve realized is that my fear in using Chinese in my classroom has nothing to do with the linguistic advantages/disadvantages it brings to the students; rather, the fear and hesitancy to utilize Chinese comes more from perceived assumptions (from myself as well as my students) of whose language I’m using to establish relationships and communicate in the classroom. In a sense, by using English, I’m using a language that all my students are learners of, whereas if I use another language, hierarchies are established because some students are experts of that language while others are not. Another layer is added when I found myself using Spanish casually – while speaking Spanish may give the Spanish-speaking student an advantage in class, I still consider myself a learner of Spanish and I don’t have the appearance of someone of Spanish-speaking ancestry, therefore my comfortablility with using Spanish comes from the perceived assumption is that unlike when using Chinese, the teacher (me) is put in the position of a learner rather than expert.

Many times, I find myself suppressing moments where I want to share my Chinese speaking abilities. When students want me to speak a word of Chinese, I hesitate because again, I don’t want non-Chinese speakers to feel like I’m closer (relationship-wise) to the Chinese speakers. I find myself suppressing my Chinese language identity in many instances in my class and while I’ve become comfortable with the system I’ve established for myself, I also find it problematic. Why should I feel guilty for being Chinese and using Chinese in my classroom? It feels silly not to be using such an asset to my advantage.

I currently teach at an Intensive English Program in San Francisco, where my students come from various language backgrounds, mostly Chinese or Arabic. The method I’ve established for myself in managing English v.s. Chinese is to disclose my language abilities completely to my students from the beginning of class but only use English in class. My rationale for this method is that a) I want students to see me as a language learner like them and to know that I understand many of the problems and difficulties they experience in learning English, b) I don’t want to hide my Chinese language identity, and c) especially for a multilingual, multicultural classroom, I only use English so all students will have equal access to my teaching. Like I mentioned earlier, I feel comfortable with the solution I’ve come up with for managing my bilingual abilities/identity as a teacher.

It is very likely that by Fall of this year, I might be relocating to Taiwan to accept an English Teaching lecturer position at a university in Taipei. The hiring process is still pending but so far, it seems highly possible that this will happen. For me, I find myself wondering how a change of teaching environment will change my use of Chinese in my English classroom. When all the students speak Chinese as their first language and access will no longer be hindered but rather facilitated when Chinese is used to help their understanding of English, will I feel more comfortable using Chinese in my English language classroom? This is something that I’m excited to test out.

I remember teaching in an community-oriented adult literacy class where all the adults were Spanish-speakers. To help them understand some of the simple grammar concepts such as changing the verb depending on the tenses, using Spanish comparisons that I remember from learning Spanish in high school was particularly helpful. I anticipate that using Chinese in that way will also be helpful, though I still believe keeping English as the main language of interaction and teaching in the EFL classroom will give them the most exposure to English and be most helpful for students.

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