Woman speaking with many flags coming out of her mouth

Dear Dr. Mooney,

I don’t think I need to worry about teaching English Learners. I only speak English, and a teacher needs to be able to speak his or her students’ native languages in order to teach them well, right? Won’t there be bilingual professionals in my school who will teach these children?  BTW: How many languages do you speak?     

Slightly Concerned Monolingual

This is a question often asked when people learn I am a university educator who prepares pre-service and practicing teachers to teach English learners (ELs).

It comes from the commonsense assumption that a teacher must know a student’s native language in order to teach them well. Although knowing another language can provide many benefits for teachers of ELs, being bilingual is not a requirement

Which language would you choose?

I am a monolingual English speaker. I had two years of Spanish in high school and another semester in college. Those courses helped me understand the basics of the Spanish language, including how to conjugate verbs, some common vocabulary, and how to ask about the location of the restroom. Traveling to Asia and teaching many Asian students has given me an appreciation for Mandarin and couple of useful phrases, but that’s about it. 

Fluency in a language other than English would not have helped much with a class of adult English learners I once taught. There were 12 students who spoke TEN different native languages. I know! I was shocked, too, particularly since it was in the Midwest, not Los Angeles, New York City, or Chicago. So while knowing Spanish would have helped me communicate with the Spanish speakers, it would have provided no benefit for working with the Chinese, Khmer, or Bosnian speakers. Knowing each student’s native language well would be almost impossible in many situations.

Although this may be an extreme example, it’s not uncommon for multiple languages to be spoken in a K-12 classroom. When I taught in the Dallas Metroplex, my 22 third graders spoke four different native languages, in addition to English. I know elementary and secondary teachers who currently have classes with 4-5 different languages represented among their students.

If you’re a monolingual English speaker like me…

Resist the temptation to assume the need for bilingualism. It may lead you to relinquish your responsibility for teaching ELs to the ESL Specialist or a bilingual paraprofessional. There’s no need to do this! (Not to mention the fact that bilingual colleagues are not always available in all of the languages spoken by your students. Even if they are employed by your district, they may be few and the students many.)

By combining a foundational understanding of language acquisition with a variety of instructional strategies, you can be an effective educator of ELs

If you are bilingual or have a desire to be… 

Those skills can definitely be useful! Being able to greet your students in their native language or discuss issues with their family members will go a long way in developing close relationships with them. You will also be able to more easily clarify confusing instructions or academic concepts for students. 

Whether you teach in a bilingual program or only use your language skills occasionally, you will need to incorporate students’ native languages thoughtfully. In most K-12 programs in the US, one primary goal is for students to learn academic English. If teachers rely too heavily on the native language to communicate academic content, students may “tune out” during instruction in English and wait for the teacher to translate into the native language. As a result, their English language development will not progress as quickly as it could otherwise.

Let’s talk about this!

I’m interested in hearing about your experiences with students’ native languages. Do you speak them? How do you use them in the classroom? 

If you only speak English, have you found ways to incorporate or demonstrate value for other languages with your students? 

A new Discussion opens today about these questions.

Share your thoughts in Incorporating Students’ Native Languages.

If you haven’t already joined a discussion, it’s free to create a new member account and start talking today!

Additional Reading:  

The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom
by Helen Thorpe
ISBN:  978-1501159091

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