Teaching English in classes where everybody shares the same L1 is not one of the most authentic experiences. At times, it can even feel somewhat ridiculous. You ask a question in English, for example, but a student replies in Czech. In an attempt to indicate that this is not exactly what you expected, you pretend you didn’t understand. You ask, with a quick but perceptible wink, “Pardon? Can you repeat it, please? I didn’t understand”. But while most of the class is giggling and chuckling now, the student in question has failed to see through your trap and obediently repeats his original answer, in Czech again. He doesn’t get it till the whole class bursts in laughter and his best friend whispers: “In English, dimwit!”
The use of L1 in English lessons is a frequently debated issue. Some teachers insist on L2 only while others believe that using L1 is justifiable since it can be beneficial under certain circumstances. One way or the other, if your students all share the same L1, you will probably never eradicate it from your lessons completely.
Having said that, I’m happy to announce that for the first time in my life, I’m teaching a multilingual class. There are 24 students whose mother tongue is Czech and Chi Kit, a 15-year-old Chinese boy, who joined the class a week ago. Needless to say, his arrival dramatically changed the whole L1 vs. L2 situation.
Chi Kit is here to gain experience. As none of us speaks Chinese and he speaks next to no Czech yet, the only possible means of communication are body language and English. Body language can be quite tricky because Chi Kit comes from a totally different culture, where certain gestures are used and interpreted differently. Thus, English has become the most reliable bridge between us and him.
This has had a tremendously positive impact. First of all, English is no more a mere subject for my students. It’s not something they use to please the teacher or to pass their exams. It’s not something that has to be 100% accurate and correct to be worthwhile. It’s not important what accent tints our speech or which English we choose to use. For the first time ever, it is a genuine means of communication and the only thing that really matters is to be understood and to get the message across.
Chi Kit’s arrival has an impact on other teachers too. As some of my colleagues don’t speak English, they need to find ways to communicate with Chi Kit in their own subjects. They can either ask me or other English teachers to help out, but I’ve reassured them that Chi Kit’s peers can easily translate and interpret for them if need be. These are some of the greatest motivation moments for those talented students who previously felt under-challenged.
Personally, I feel that speaking English in front of the class is no more a constant reflection of power inequality, i.e. of the fact that I have something my students don’t and they are there to learn it whether they like it or not. I feel that I use English because it is what we all know. And this shared knowledge helps us become closer as human beings.