No French in English class!

Miss Education says:

As an undergrad studying to become an ESL teacher, I was constantly told that there was no room for French in English class (except if there was a severe problem that needed to be addressed). Five years after finishing my bachelor’s degree, I have had the opportunity to work with other ESL teachers and discuss about this issue. Some teachers did not use French at all, while others found it difficult not to speak it during their teaching. Clearly, ESL specialist go about this in different ways. What we largely have in common, though, is that we believe there should be very minimal to no use of the students’ L1 in the L2 classroom. This suggests that ESL teachers believe that the best way to learn an L2 is to be fully soaking in a tub of the second language in question.

Some teachers that did use French in the classroom used it for specific reasons. Some of these reasons they shared with me are: translating words, making sure they understood the activity presented, giving them important messages, or to helping with following directions. I didn’t think these were good enough reasons, but I am in no place to judge one’s choices on how they conduct their classes. I took note of these experiences and reflected on my own teaching.

Others who refused to speak French in the ESL classroom believed it to be challenging at times for the students but they claimed it pushed the students to get out of their comfort zone faster and use their English expressions more often. But when I asked about the students who had a lot of difficulty getting out of their “bubble”, the answers I go where in the lines of “Don’t worry, they will. They all do at some point.”

So in light of my third -and final!- blogpost, I decided to briefly share with you some points I have found interesting as I researched this issue. I will be focusing on one article by Cook (2001) because he challenges the belief that L1 should not be used in the L2 classroom and suggests many ways in which L1 can contribute to L2 learning. (For teachers in this field, particularly those like me who are struggling with this issue, I think it’s a must read).

Cook (2001) explains that depending on how we use L1, teachers can make L2 learning much easier. He writes about different ways to incorporate L1 successfully which include the New Concurrent Method (using L1 when concepts are important but when its time to review concepts already explained, the teacher does the review in L2, and to redirect students; often, L1 is used to praise/reprimand students); It also suggests that student code-switch to help them before real L2 users and stresses the need to teach cognates to students.

Next, Cook (2001) touched on CLL (Community Language Learning). You can read about this in my second blog post entitled How can I help my students break down the barriers of their anxiety to enable them to learn their second language?

Thirdly, Dodson’s Bilingual Method is elaborated on. This consists of the teacher saying something in L2 and has the students infer the meaning and explain what they think it means in L1. This method focused a lot on meaning rather on other skills.

Lastly, the article includes a section on how the use of L1 can be beneficial in the ESL classroom. Here are a few reasons: 1) efficiency (can something be done quicker or better if L1 is used), 2) learning: will L1 help learning L2, 3) naturalness: this is when the learners feel more comfortable discussing some topics in their L1 rather than L2 (I believe this to be geared more to adult learners, not primary ESL), and finally, 4) external relevance: will the students use this L2 outside the classroom.

When reading about efficiency, I was trying to list a few scenarios where French should be used. I had a hard time, really, aside from a fire alarm or major problems, I couldn’t think of any time it would be more efficient. I believe that we cannot look at efficiency as a shortcut to learning as learning happens at its own pace.

Furthermore, I am a firm believer of comparing one language to another to know the similarities and differences is beneficial when learning an L2. Using a French sentence on the board for example and translating SVC so that students see the similarities in writing in English is a great way to learn grammatical notions.

Lastly, I do not think that naturalness comes into play in the primary or secondary ESL classrooms as we teach more “theme-based” but I do believe that external relevance is important and we need to stress its importance to our students. Likewise, internal relevance is important and I believe it needs to be shared with classmates.

I can go on and on as this is a subject seems to be close to home, but I will end my post here and look forward to what you have to say!

What are your thoughts about the use of French in the ESL classroom? What are your experiences? I cannot wrap my head around one specific answer. Anyone else feel that way?

Cook, V. (March 01, 2001). Using the First Language in the Classroom. Canadian Modern Language Review/ La Revue Canadienne Des Langues Vivantes, 57, 3, 402-423.



4 thoughts on “No French in English class!”

  1. Hi Miss Education,

    Thank you for sharing your experiences and also your muddles about what is the best answer to the question of the role of L1 in L2 classes. I think you’re struggling to find a single answer because there is no single best answer. As with just about everything with teaching, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. There are best practices, for sure, but as teachers, we are always responding to the local context of our classrooms and our learners. That said, the local context is always nested in larger policy frameworks and social/ political discourses. Although I have pretty strong ideas about the benefits of recognizing and drawing on learners’ range of linguistic resources in their language learning, this does not mean that I have one way of teaching. My approach to teaching shifts with each group of learners, depending on who they are, what our various motivations are for being there, etc. The debate about the role of L1 is an important one because it draws attention to the possibility of thinking differently about what we do as teachers and how it might impact our learners. It adds nuance and depth of reflection to our teacher tool kits.

    I can share one example of efficiency, besides urgent things like fire drills. When I was teaching an intensive English course to a group of Japanese university students in Montreal, I would often switch to Japanese to clarify their understanding of instructions for a task. This meant I spent less class time negotiating understanding of instructions and giving more time for the students to do the task. That is how I read the argument for increased efficiency. How is class time spent and what do we spend it on?

    I’m curious to see how others in the course weigh in on this.



  2. Hi Miss Education,
    I read this article in a course I took last term and partially agree with Cook (2001), especially where efficiency is concerned. Sometimes, I can spend at least 10 minutes trying to explain an abstract low frequency term, which I don’t think is time well spent in the classroom. On the other hand, I don’t think it is fair for me to translate the term if the students in the class have diverse language backgrounds, which is the case for all my classes now. However, when I taught ESL in Quebec, I occasionally used French while teaching because it was more efficient, and I certainly felt no guilt doing so. I also agree with Alison regarding instructions. As a teacher, you really want the students to “get” the instructions; otherwise they cannot do the task and may get penalized for not understanding.

    Cook, V. (2001). Using the First Language in the Classroom. Canadian Modern Language Review/ La Revue Canadienne Des Langues Vivantes, (57)3, 402-423.


  3. Maxime – Comment 5


    Well, this is an interesting question. I went through a similar undergraduate program and was also taught to use exclusively English for the ESL classroom. When I first began teaching, I taught enriched English for secondary 3 students, and found myself speaking mostly English, but clarifying certain things in French or relating certain word definitions or grammar points back to French. This was much quicker than trying to find a way to make it understood for everyone in English. The students were appreciative of this and it did not affect the amount of English they used in the classroom. Now, I also taught at a primary schools in a low socioeconomic neighborhood comprised of mostly French-speaking people. The students were not very motivated to learn English and the previous teacher had been speaking to them in French quite a bit. When coming into the school, I decided to pretend I spoke NO French. The students were quite confused at first, but after a few weeks, those who originally didn’t want to speak English started doing so. I think that the amount of French used in an ESL classroom is really dependent on the needs of the students, and ensuring that the use of French remains a tool rather than a crutch.


  4. Using French in an ESL classroom has become a taboo in many Quebec school contexts even though many ESL teachers still use it. At first, I was very adamant that I would never allow any French in my English classroom. Over time, I became more flexible about the matter, but I had my criteria to decide whether I would tolerate the presence of French. First, if the majority of students don’t have many chances to use English outside of the classroom, I seldom allow them to use French during the lesson because the English classes they have are the only opportunities to practice English for them. Second, I tend to tolerate the presence of French if the learners are beginners because they usually don’t have diverse linguistic repertoires to express their thoughts in L2. Third, I even encourage my students to use L1, when they need to articulate complex ideas because expressing complex thoughts in L2 is not an easy task.



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