When I was at secondary school I loved languages. I studied both Spanish and French and my dream was to one day become fluent. I worked hard and always did well in my exams, but when f
inally, after five years of studying, the time came to actually speak to the native language assistants, I was terrified! Why? I didn’t feel comfortable speaking in the languages I was learning because I wasn’t used to it. In class my teachers (great as many of them were) spoke largely in English, and the students did the same. I had a good understanding of grammar and knew quite a bit of vocabulary, but I didn’t really begin to develop my speaking skills until I came to live in Spain, and was surrounded by the language.
Of course, not everyone has the opportunity or the inclination to move abroad to work on their language skills, nor should they have to. As native language teachers we have the ability to make the classroom a place where only the target language is spoken, so that our students can enjoy total immersion in the language, thus developing their listening and speaking skills from the moment they enter to the moment they leave. This means that they will not only achieve a better language level, but they will also be much more prepared if and when they do find themselves in a country where the target language is spoken.
When we make the classroom a target language only zone, we create an atmosphere where speaking it is the norm. Learners lose their self-consciousness and start to feel comfortable expressing themselves in the language they are learning, because everyone is doing it. If the teacher addresses the students in both languages, for instance the students’ language for grammar explanations and the target language for speaking activities, the students are tempted to use their own language all the time, as in this way they can communicate more quickly and with less effort. Of course, they also practise and learn less!
Another point is that the variety of language that the students are exposed to when the teacher speaks only the target language is greater, and therefore more enriching. Instead of simply translating a word from one language to the other, we can provide synonyms, antonyms and examples. By doing so we broaden the learners’ vocabulary as well as helping them with comprehension.
I firmly believe that using only the target language in the classroom, and, of course, asking that they do the same, is one of the best things we can do for our students. I sincerely hope that mine appreciate and make the most of the opportunity to be in a purely English-speaking environment for two hours every week. I only wish that I had been as lucky!