Teaching English is all about speaking English, right? Well, sometimes I forget that when I am in the classroom and speaking in broken, grammatically incorrect English in an attempt to help my students understand even a word of what I am saying. Or when my assistant immediately translates everything I have said, completely negating the students' need to understand English. The last six weeks have been different.
Six weeks ago I started a new teaching job in Myanmar at an international school. The job and the school have surpassed my expectations and one of the most impressive things is that I can use complete sentences in the classroom and give directions in English and the students not only understand, but they respond with great English. This has been a breath of fresh air. I think every teacher reaches a point where they get a little frustrated that their directions are not being understood; I know I have, especially when having to resort to baby talk because its the only way your students will understand directions. Teaching in an international school where English is the language, not just a subject, is a totally different experience.
Once again I am teaching Kindergarten, but this time I can talk to my students like an adult and I can use full sentences and explain directions in English and trust they understand. Never before have I spoken to Kindergarten students like this. Typically, I would have to say things like "bye bye crayon" instead of "please put your crayon away" and never before have my students told me what they did over the weekend. One of the real treats has been watching my students talk to each other in English. It is amazing to me that they understand the concept that they are only allowed to speak English at school and they not only follow that rule, but they are able to have the same conversations in English they would in their mother-tongue.
The reason I bring this difference to attention is because I think it illustrates a very important part of language learning that is often neglected in schools: complete and total immersion in the language. From my experience as an ESL teacher in two other countries, I have noticed that even in the English classroom, the native language is still being spoken, sometimes more or equal to the amount of English. While I understand the benefit of translation, I think a lot more can be spoken exclusively in English, especially when coupled with hand gestures and demonstrations.
I think our students understand a lot more than we give them credit for, and providing translations for every direction takes away from their creative and critical thinking. My Kindergarten students don't speak English fluently, but because they have been challenged by an exclusively English classroom, they are able to critical think about what I am saying and either form an understanding or ask questions that help them understand.
ESL is one of the fastest growing sectors and English language-learners are one of the largest demographics. Hopefully, they will learn to speak English correctly and fluently, but this can't be achieved if schools don't start investing in programs that challenge their students to speak and understand English in the classroom. As for me, I think I'm going to forever be the evil teacher who makes the rule that only English can be spoken in the classroom...and hope that my students appreciate that someday in the future.