I’m a bilingual and bicultural, British-Spanish, English teacher in Spain and many colleagues at work seem very surprised when I tell them I hardly ever translate anything in my beginner o elementary classes. Needless to say, this is because I believe teachers should be able to communicate without relying on their learners’ L1. However, I have absolutely nothing against translating some words in class if it proves to be beneficial for learners at a particular moment. I’ve taught in different contexts and I speak a couple more languages fluently but as a general rule I avoid using my students’ L1 in class simply because it makes my job easier:
1. It reduces the constant “In English, please” class reminder. Low-level learners tend to interact in Spanish for various reasons: they lack the confidence or necessary language, it’s faster, they feel embarrassed… etc. It’s okay if they communicate in Spanish with their peers but if they see they can do it with their teacher, prepare to work on your managerial skills even when they’re supposed to be practising exercises exclusively in English.
2. Students need to pay attention and work hard. Listening to you and others isn’t easy for low-level learners. They actively need to pay attention and set their brains in operation for cognitive engagement, which aids learning.
3. It aids shifting from the grammar-translation to the communicative approach. In Spain, English is taught in schools at a very early age but most Spaniards don’t speak it. This is mainly because it has always been presented as a grammatical combination of translatable items rather than treated as a communicative tool. Encouraging students to communicate in English enables them to see language learning from a different perspective.
4. It fosters tolerance of uncertainty. When learning a language, we don’t understand every single word (bottom-up information) but we guess the general idea. Not knowing for certain what is going on could be daunting but still, we need to tolerate the uncertainty and interact if we want to learn. Our class is the safest environment possible to train our students in tolerating ambiguities in communication.
5. Practice makes habit. If students get used to communicating to you in English, they’ll find it hard to do it in Spanish. I’ve had elementary students for a year who have asked me to speak to them in Spanish in our farewell dinner and it felt so weird that we had to switch back to English. The truth is that most of my fellow teachers who don’t speak Spanish find it sometimes frustrating to teach very low levels.
Here are 4 tips to teach low-level learners exclusively in English in Spain:
1. Keep smiling
A friendly supportive manner helps Spanish students feel at ease. If teachers seem frustrated or impatient, students feel they’re boring and a nuisance.
2. Use your body language and do a demo Most low-level Spanish learners think they won’t understand a word of English. Some may even have had very traumatic learning experiences at school, so they basically block when someone speaks English. Acting out while we’re speaking, demonstrating situations and demoing activities to explain what we want our students to do
makes them feel empowered. Understanding what’s going on with the help of contextual cues gives them a sense of achievement, which often encourages them to respond. We can eventually reduce this as they start feeling more comfortable.
3. Grade your language and use cognates: Sometimes the most natural way to say something in English seems difficult to understand. It’s always good to grade our language and make it simple and accessible to our students though it’s also our job to get them used to the expressions and the way we communicate. Cognates are words in 2 languages that are fairly similar in both meaning and writing. Using cognates can help us approximate to the Spanish without translating. Look at these words and compare these 2 sentences:
English → Spanish
Imagine → Imagina
Idea → idea
Imagination → imaginación
1. Now I’d like you to come up with 3 more examples in pairs 2. In pairs, imagine 3 examples: your ideas now, use your imagination. Here are some words we often use in English and a synonym in English that looks like the Spanish word to help you communicate:
English 1 → English 2 → Spanish
Arrange → Organise → Organizar
Mistake → Error → Error
Last → Final → Final
Alone → Individually → Individualmente
Usually → Normally → normalmente
Common → Normal → Normal
The same → Similar → Similar
Right → Correct → Correcto
Wrong → Incorrect → Incorrecto
There are also some important false friends that both English and
Spanish speakers need to be aware of:
Spanish → English → confused for
Simpático → Friendly → Sympathetic
Pretender → Hope / try to do something → Pretend
Éxito → success → exit
Largo → Long → large
Asistir → attend → help/assist
Atender → pay attention → attend
Librería → Bookshop → Library
Actual / Actualmente → Current / Nowadays → Actually
4. Situations work better than language. Spanish students can be quite inquisitive about meaning and they’ll always try hard to get a translation. Training our students to abandon the grammar-translation approach helps them to be more open to accepting the differences between languages and sound more natural. Working at a functional level works well if it’s staged and kept simple. For instance, imagine you’re working with basic introductions in a dialogue:
A: Hi! I’m Mark, What’s your name?
B: Hi Mark! My name’s Frith
A: Lovely to meet you Frith
B: Nice to meet you too
Introductions and social conduct are very idiomatic. If students work with the dialogue at a word level and translate, they’ll feel confused because of the translated words in Spanish sound really strange. Let’s help our students understand the function by getting them to act it out:
• Write/project the dialogue on the board
• Pick a student and demo the dialogue yourself
• Shake hands with your students as in an introduction to make sure they understand meaning
• Work on pronunciation and intonation in open class
• Make them go around and act out the conversation in pairs to meet each other
You can work on openings and closings. You can ask them to include a question of their choice between opening and closing the
conversation if they’re confident enough (What do you do? Do you like…?) Do you have some more tips? Please, share them with us!