“My Students Don’t Feel Comfortable When I Spend Long Amounts Of Time Teaching In The Target Language.”

 “My students don’t feel comfortable when I spend extended amounts of time teaching in the target language.”

“My students complain when I stay in the target language.  They say, “Miss…I don’t speak Spanish!” or “What she sayin’!?” or “I didn’t understand a word you just said!”

“Staying in the target language may be a good instructional goal to shoot for, but it just wouldn’t work for my students.”

Along these lines, a reader made some insightful comments after reading last week’s blog post:

I think many HS students walk into a WL class “expecting” those L1 -> L2 connections to be made.  Many of them think they can’t function unless they “know” what those words mean in L1, and they dislike having that knowledge gap created.  It’s difficult for many of them to “trust” in the L2.  Lots of L1 interference comes into play here.  (I’m not commenting on whether these things are good or bad pedagogically — those are just my observations of student reactions).

If a foreign language teacher approached me for advice pertaining to situations like these I would say:

1-  My students, as well, experienced levels of discomfort when I switched into staying in the target language.  (Read my story of transitioning into 90+% TL use.)

When I asked students to participate, they would often say things like, “But Sr. Howard, I don’t understand Spanish!”  I guess their conclusion was that they were in the wrong place.   It was as if they felt like they boarded the wrong flight.  “I must be in the wrong place because this feels like a place for people who speak Spanish.  …and I DON’T!”  They assumed that my “Speaking Only Spanish” class wasn’t for them because they didn’t speak Spanish.

2-  Expect the transition into 90+% target language use to include a level of discomfort.

It’s normal for individuals to feel uncomfortable (especially at first) in an L2 immersion environment.  Explain to your students that it is okay if they feel uncomfortable.  Explain that it’s normal to feel confused or overwhelmed when someone starts talking with sounds they’ve never heard before.

3-  Give students a reason (or motivation) to “stick with it” even though it’s uncomfortable at first.

Click here to read a list of what I did to increase student motivation to “stick with it”.

Read this post for what I believe is the most important reason to “stick with it”.

4-  Give students tools/strategies to make sense of their new L2 world.

There are times when a class of mine might need a refresher on what tools and strategies to use in order to make sense of the language they’re hearing.  Whenever this happens, I pause instruction in the target language to tell my students, in English, things like:

  • “Don’t expect to understand 100% of what I say with my mouth.  Your goal isn’t to understand everything.  I don’t expect you to understand everything.”
  • “You can’t understand what I’m saying by just listening.”
  • “You have to WATCH, WATCH, WATCH!”
  • “You might think, ‘Sr. Howard, why do you make us be so quiet while you are teaching?  It’s so quiet you could hear a pin drop!’  Boys and girls, I ask you to be so quiet because the only way you will learn Spanish in my class is if you are watching what I’m doing or showing you.  If you are talking to a friend, or if your whisper makes someone stop looking at me, NO SPANISH LEARNING will be happening.  And you have a job to do when you are in this room.  Your job is to learn Spanish.  And to learn Spanish, I make it very easy.  All you have to do is WATCH.
  • “I never get mad at a student for trying.  I never get mad at a student for making a mistake.”
  • “I do get very mad at a student for making fun of someone else who makes a mistake.  I also get mad at a student if she keeps another student from WATCHING the source of instruction.”
  • “In this class, mistakes are good.  In this class I will say, “Hooray!” when you make a mistake because it means that you tried!”
  • “You’ll notice that I do some of the same things over and over again.  Those are the important things to pay attention to.  Also, notice what I write under the word, “IMPORTANTE” on the board.  Those are the important things to pay attention to.”
  • “You’ll never understand if you don’t WATCH what I’m doing or what I’m showing.”
  • “Spanish class is like TV:  All you have to do is watch.”

It’s important to give your students tools for making sense of their new L2 world because they can no longer rely on their ability to understand what’s being spoken.

5-  When you stay in the target language, your students will stay uncomfortable IF you haven’t made a philosophical distinction between an ‘L2 immersion environment’ and a ‘COMPREHENSIBLE L2 immersion environment.’

It’s one thing to be in an L2 immersion environment and have no idea what’s being said.  (i.e. Example #1: Listening-in on a telephone conversation between two native speakers of a language you’ve never heard before)  It’s another thing to be in an L2 immersion environment (or situation) where you can understand completely what’s being said, even though you’ve never heard the language.  (i.e. Example #2: Someone just indulged in their first bite of a chocolate dessert and closes their eyes before slowly saying something to the effect of, “Delicious,” in the target language.)

In your 90+% target language environment, try to avoid facilitating an immersion experience like example #1 from above.  Instead, try to facilitate situation after situation after situation of examples like example #2 from above.

Remember to keep in mind this general rule:

Hearing a foreign language ALONE will not allow a person to acquire a foreign language.

6-  Stick with it.  Students will gradually become less uncomfortable.

Many transitions in life are uncomfortable at first.  When you start a new exercise routine, it can be painful at first.  When you start setting your alarm to wake up early after a long vacation, the first couple mornings can be very difficult.  A first year teacher is in for quite a long year as she transitions into a new teaching job.

If you give up quickly, you’ll never be able to notice that, eventually, it does get easier.  Tell yourself and your students that it won’t always be as hard as it is during the first couple weeks.  Stick with it and it does become easier.

The majority of my students have not only moved past experiencing discomfort in a comprehensible L2 immersion environment, many of them actually love it!  Some of them even forget that they’re actually learning L2.

A few minutes ago (as I am writing this post) one of my students just walked into my classroom with his mom.  We chatted for a while before it was time for them to leave.  When his mom said it was time to go, he said, “I wish that I could just stay here and live with Señor Howard.”  I asked another dad if his son told him what we did last time in Spanish class.  His Dad rolled his eyes and said, “Yes, he told me like 200 times.”  One mom said, “We’ve moved a lot, and we’ve never had a language class experience like my son is having now with you.  He is learning so much.”

An Italian teacher from Australia just tweeted me the other day and said:

“Gotta tell you that you inspired me! Am now running Year 8 and 9 classes in 100% Italian except for the last 3-5 mins! Thanks!  …and not only that, but have managed to inspire the other 7 people in my faculty! Xlnt results,kids focused,& enjoying it!:)”

7-  More about experience than language study.

If you still find your students feeling uncomfortable or uninspired, long after you’ve made the transition into staying in the target language, consider doing things to help the students focus less on language learning and focus more on whatever experience they are having in the target language.

For an example of this, read the posts on teaching grammar while staying in the target language.  You’ll notice from the scripts that a participating student could easily forget he’s learning language because the activity (eating cereal and/or wondering who’s going to get to eat the cereal) is so engaging.  If your activities/experiences are worthwhile and meaningful, it could be that the students begin to acquire L2 without even realizing it.

More posts to help you get started:

Rules of thumb to keep in mind:

  1. If something you are about to say in the target language isn’t going to be comprehensible, it’s not worth saying.
  2. Use less words.
  3. Set a goal that your students will not think, “I have no idea what my L2 teacher is saying.”
  4. It’s not unrealistic to set a high goal for how much of the input will be comprehensible for the students.
  5. Even though you are speaking a language that is foreign to them, you should strive to make sure that at least 80% of the input is comprehensible.  They may not understand every word.  …but that’s okay.  If you shoot for input being comprehensible 80% of the time it won’t matter as much to your students that they don’t understand every word.  The will still be able to decipher.
  6. It’s hard work for students to decipher the input that you are trying to make comprehensible.  Give them frequent deciphering breaks.

Keep the conversation going!

Have you tried out any of these teaching suggestions from Tuesday’s Tips for Staying in the Target Language?  How did it go?  Leave comments below or add to the conversation on twitter by using #langchat (for general language teaching comments) and/or #TL90plus (for staying in the target language” comments).

 See what others are saying about Tuesday’s Tips For Staying In The Target Language.

Señor Howard

Señor Howard – www.SenorHoward.com/blog – @HolaSrHoward

Caleb Howard – www.SoMuchHope.com – @calhwrd

Your voice is valuable! Share your target language teaching experiences!

2 thoughts on ““My Students Don’t Feel Comfortable When I Spend Long Amounts Of Time Teaching In The Target Language.”

  1. Thank you so much for posting your practical, concrete, doable and VALUABLE ideas for how to teach in the target language. You provide the detail that is so important in helping to understand how it can be done! Your blog is a national treasure and I will tell teachers near and far about it!! Sending admiration and gratitude!

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