Debunking 5 “Teaching In The Target Language Myths”

Myth #1 –

“Staying in the target language is only for teachers who are native or near native speakers.”

Myth #1 MAY BE TRUE when a teacher is working with students who already function at a high L2 proficiency level.  However, when teaching novice students or intermediate low students:

  • Long, complex, L2 sentences can become TL acquisition stumbling blocks.
  • Lots of advanced L2 words may sound fancy and impressive to the L2 speaking teacher who is saying them.  However, to the novice student, they sound confusing, overwhelming and quickly reduce his level of motivation.

I’m starting to believe that the effectiveness of an L2 speaking teacher is LESS related to the level of his L2 linguistic proficiency and MORE related to his ability to *pair L2 input with meaningful and comprehensible extralinguistic input.

L2 speaking teachers do well when they…:

Myth #2 –

“Students will acquire L2 if they hear L2 spoken.”

Consider the following scenario:

If you answered the telephone and someone started speaking a mile per minute in a language you’d never heard before, you would:

  1. not be able to understand anything.
  2. be at least a little shocked and overwhelmed.
  3. arguably NOT be able to learn the language no matter how long you listened the native L2 speaker on the other end of the line.

Hopefully this simple scenario gives you insight into why I’ve been coming to the following convictions:

  • A novice L2 learner needs more than just L2 input in order to acquire L2.
  • It’s unrealistic for a teacher to expect novice students to acquire L2 if all he does speak in the target language.
  • IF the only form of available input is L2 linguistic input, the only way for a person to learn more L2 is by using L2 words she DOES KNOW to make sense of the L2 words that she DOESN’T KNOW.
  • If a person doesn’t know any L2 words (or if she only knows a few) her chances of learning L2 (by hearing L2) are very slim.

So…myth #2 will be FALSE particularly when a learner knows a negligible amount of L2 vocabulary.  Contrarily, Myth #2 becomes more and MORE TRUE as the amount of L2 vocabulary, that a student knows, increases.

(By the way…this doesn’t mean that novice students can’t acquire L2 in an L2 immersion environment.  They CAN!  It’s just that the environment CAN’T be an EXCLUSIVELY L2 input environment.  Their environment needs to be rich with meaningful and comprehensible forms of EXTRALINGUISTIC input that can be *paired with the incomprehensible L2 input.)

This leads me to myth #3.


Myth #3 – 

“I can only stay in the target language with level 2, 3, or 4 students but not with level 1 students.”

There are many strategies to help novice students thrive in an L2 immersion environment.  Here are some that I’ve mentioned on this blog:

1- Helping Reluctant Learners

2- Practical Advice/Strategies For…:

…Teaching Grammar While Staying In The Target Language.

…Introducing New Vocabulary While Staying In The Target Language.

…Making The Interpersonal Mode As Easy As Possible.

Giving Activity Directions While Staying In The Target Language.

Myth #4 –

“Students will feel overwhelmed or lost if the teacher stays in the target language.”

Myth #4 will generally be TRUE any time students can’t find meaning from the available input that surrounds them.  If a teacher communicates in ways that students DON’T understand, then, yes, they will feel overwhelmed and lost.

Although I can’t say for certain, my guess is that there are many teachers who choose NOT to teach in the target language because they are afraid of this.  They believe that students won’t be able to find enough meaning in an L2 immersion environment, so they speak L1 in order to help them feel more comfortable.

I think it’s a wise choice to opt for helping students feel comfortable.  However I don’t think it’s necessary to speak L1 in order for L2 students to feel comfortable and find meaning.

Over the last two years I’ve been learning that it’s possible to speak exclusively in the target language (even to novice students) AND, at the same time, avoid overwhelming them.

The trick (at least a trick that’s working for me) is *pairing incomprehensible L2 input with meaningful and comprehensible forms of extralinguistic input.  It makes L2 class fun, meaningful and students seem to experience low levels (and in some cases NO level) of stress.

Last week a teacher from a different school district came to observe my classes for a whole day.  He told me that, from his perspective, every student understood everything that was happening and that they knew what was expected of them even though I didn’t speak L1.

Earlier this year I asked a class to hold up 1 finger if they understood nothing in my class and 10 fingers if they understood everything.  They all held up 9 fingers or 10.

Myth #5 –

“It’s impossible (or nearly impossible) to manage student behavior while staying in the target language.”

Myth #5 is what kept me from staying in the target language for 8 years.  I WANTED to stay in the target language but I didn’t know how to address this issue.  (Read more about this here.)

I don’t believe that there is ONE fail-proof solution for every behavior management situation.  In my search for a way to stay in the target language AND manage student behavior, people gave me a lot of suggestions that I knew would NOT work in my situation.

So I can’t tell you what will work for you.  But I CAN tell you that I THOUGHT it was impossible to manage student behavior while staying in the TL and NOW I think it IS possible.

If you’re not sure what to do about student behavior, I’d suggest:

  • resisting the the pressure to stay in the target language 100% of the time.  Try it for little chunks at a time.  See what works.  See what doesn’t work.  Talk with your students about how it felt for them.  Reflect on what you will do if you try the TL activity again next year.
  • making the time you spend speaking in the TL as comprehensible as possible.  When students feel like they don’t know what you’re saying, they will probably start to engage in off-task behavior.
  • making the activities you do while speaking in the TL as meaningful as possible.
  • talking to as many people as you can.  See what they tried and see what might work in your particular situation.  If you’re interested, here’s what I tried.


*Disclaimer: These terms are my own and I’m using them for the purpose of reflecting on my own foreign language teaching practice.  The reader should not assume that these are the terms found in formal, academic writing.

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

Señor Howard

Señor Howard – – @HolaSrHoward

Caleb Howard – – @calhwrd

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