17 May 2015

Don't Teach in the Target Language

Forget teaching in the target language. Forget teaching in the L1 too, for that matter. There's a third language that you should be spending 90% of class time using.


I owe Thomas Sauer for the discovery of this language when he turned me on to John De Mado's The Principled Approach via #langchat.

Read it. It is the secret of life...or at least of language teaching.

The whole article is a revelation, but it's #7 of John De Mado's 10 Organizing Principles for Language and Acquisition that has been ringing through my head through every class every day since:

If only I had been thinking of language in these terms when I was a drowning seventh year n00b babbling in the target language whenever I could to meet ACTFL recommendations. We might have avoided those L2 hangover headaches that afflicted me the first few times I went to Mexico. Or even by my tenth year, so those kiddos who graduated last week would not have been reminiscing about my panicked cries of "Ninety percent! Ninety percent!" when they spoke English.

Finally here at the close of my 12th year teaching (10th teaching Spanish), I've got classes full of Spanish II kiddos proud to hit 90% on a regular basis with just a little gamified incentive.

If I were still trying to teach in the L2, this would not be possible.

Instead, my answers to their questions, my instructions before they begin, my cues and comments throughout the day, they're all carefully selected interlanguage* now.

I used to obsess about exposing students to the most authentic language possible as soon as possible. Well I remember trying to parse Mexican Spanish without knowing the definition of pos or pues, so I did my damnedest to keep my kids treading water in the deep end from the start.

Sadly, I think more drowned than learned to swim that way.

Now, I still firmly believe that students need exposure to authentic language as early as possible, if only in Pinterest and infograph form. And while we have a song--or three--of the week each week, my data tells me I need to do more to expose them to authentic audio so they will be able to survive in wilds of the local mercado. For all my Spanish classes and visits with the ex-suegra, the language I create for them will never be authentic, so they have to hear and read the language from others, from native speakers before they have to fend for themselves.

It makes me think of my son as a toddler. The boy could watch Thomas the Tank Engine for hours on end if I'd let him, absorbing every lesson. He'd hang on just about every word of Love You Forever and There's a Monster at the End of this Book. But let me ask that child to put his banana peel in the trash? Suddenly I was talking Martian.

I didn't have the option of resorting to my almost-two-year-old's L1--he didn't have one yet, really. I had to keep it simple, stick to words he'd heard over and over (but couldn't say), and check for understanding every few words. I had to take it step by step and scale back even from the language I know he'd heard from Thomas and Grover a million times.

That's what you do with novices. You speak their language. And for novice L2 learners, their language is interlanguage.*

*My hero and colleague Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell has pointed out that my understanding of what interlanguage means was not in line with Sr. De Mado's original intent. It turns out interlanguage is more a language we as educators need to interpret rather than speak. Check out this interview with John De Mado for more information, and watch out for a post from me on Interlanguage Secret Decoders!

#2 in the Top 5 posts of 2015


  1. I think that teachers don't always understand what it means to use authentic texts, or that there are lots available to all proficiency levels. That leaves everyone frustrated. They also need help understanding what 90% TL "looks like"....ooh, I feel a conference session here! Wanna go in on a SCOLT proposal???

    1. Yes!! I've been trying to think of a topic for SCOLT! I'm doing "Less Is More" at FLANC, but wanted something...more? for SCOLT!

  2. haha, I think that is an oxymoron....or is it ironic? Anyway, let's do it!!

  3. I've noticed that students do (enthusiastically) use the language with TPRS, a similar method of building comfort with vocabulary/grammar that encourages creativity and silliness. My students are still talking about the lesson when leaving class- good signs that it is sinking in and they are feeling empowered!

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  5. Selinker's Interlanguage Theory is about what goes in the learners' minds - how they are processing all this input and turning it into output. By using the TL in the classroom and providing comprehensible input, it helps learners to constantly alter their L2 to match the new information they receive once they move it to their long term memory. It's when they "notice" the L2 that they begin to incorporate it in their output.