Reasons why teenagers may be reluctant to speak English in class and solutions to help students overcome this problem.

Photo of students speaking to each other.

Source: Getty Images/ Hero Images

Let us first examine why teenagers often avoid practising spoken English in class:

  • They feel silly speaking a language in which they know they are making mistakes.
  • It is artificial to communicate with their classmates in a foreign language.
  • When they want to say something important to each other, they do so spontaneously in their mother tongue.
  • They do not have the English to express the concepts that the teacher wants them to express.
  • They do not understand the point of speaking English all the time in class.
  • It is very tiring to concentrate on producing a foreign language especially when your level is low.
  • The topic / activity that they are supposed to be talking about in English is boring, so they talk about something else in their mother tongue.
  • Speaking English is difficult.
  • Speaking English is not fun.

For students these reasons are valid – maybe they have a good reason to want to use their own language.

The Communicative Approach

This approach encourages teachers to insist on the use of English in the classroom, but by constantly nagging teenagers to ‘speak English’ we may be being counter-productive. With younger children we try to immerse them in English and give them plenty of opportunities to acquire the language. As children get older they develop a variety of different learning strategies. While they will always be open to language acquisition, they also start using conscious learning strategies. And may feel uncomfortable with others.

Allowing the use of mother tongue is important for teenagers, but we must understand how this will enhance their language learning experience.

Humanistic approach

If students feel strongly about a topic they are discussing in class, the way they are learning, issues outside the classroom etc it is only natural to allow them to express themselves in their L1 within the classroom.

  • Allow for an L1 island in the class – either a clearly defined area students can retreat to (a corner of the room or by the teacher’s desk) in order to express themselves in L1
  • Or allow a time (e.g. the first or last five minutes of any lesson) that is free for discussing their learning, the topics of the lesson, or just telling their teacher and fellow students a funny story that would take forever to tell in English and would lose all the humour, etc

Making it a clear place or time can instil security, but maintains an ‘English as much as possible’ classroom for the rest of the time.

Comparing languages

The ability to compare their own language to English may help them overcome obstacles that L1 interference creates. Translating single words or sentences can lead to greater understanding.

Wall posters

Students can collate words on posters that either:

(1) have direct translations and are very similar in both L1 and English
(2) false friends – words that seem similar but are actually different in meaning and often cause confusion
(3) words that they often want to use but find hard to remember in English – students can choose their own criteria for such word banks.

They can also expand into collecting grammatical structures in similar groups

  • Idioms – students can collect local idioms and expressions with literal translations and then the English equivalents (e.g. an Arabic idiom translates into ‘The son of a duck is a floater’ and the English equivalent is ‘Fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree’. It is interesting to discover how similar many such expressions are even when countries and cultures seem very distant.
  • Students and teacher can discuss the precise meaning of the English in L1
  • Students can add L1 translations/explanations to their language records where appropriate

Talking about language

When students are asked to do grammar exercises, or write together in English, or to do any work where they need to think about how English works, this is a situation when students may benefit from being allowed to use their L1 together. In these situations students often usefully explain grammar/lexis to each other, share ideas about how English works and actually engage in a much deeper exploration of language than one that might occur when their teacher tries to prohibit use of English.

  • Teachers can make it clear that at such times L1 use is OK!
  • Translation is fun!
  • Translation is a natural strategy for many learners in approaching language learning.

Here are some activities that are particularly appealing to teenagers. They are based on students translating from L1 into English in fun contexts, and that lead to a very focussed production of spoken English:

  1. Traditional songs

    Students (in pairs or threes) choose a song in their own language and translate into English (an added challenge is to try to make it still singable to the original tune).

  2. Soap operas

    Similarly students choose a scene from their favourite soap opera or movie and translate into English. They can act these scenes out in front of the class later.

  3. Dubbing

    Students can do the soap opera activity using a videoed episode of the programme, turn down the sound and speak over their English versions (this may be more appealing to more self-conscious students).

  4. Interpreters

    In threes, students take on the roles of an interviewer, a famous person who can only speak L1 and an interpreter. They must carry out an interview (TV interviews are good as students think about body language too) with the interpreter facilitating the communication. This is possible at low as well as high levels.

The above activities encourage students to focus on translating meaning and appropriate register, not just translate single words.

Tourist / Alien role plays

In pairs students are (a) themselves (b) a visitor from another country or planet where only English is spoken.

(a) must explain an L1 instruction, menu, set of rules, advertisement etc to the visitor

Translation chains

Students stand or sit in lines, the first student is given a sentence in L1, they must translate it into English and tell it to the next person, who then translates it back into L1 and tells it to the next student etc until the end of the line.

This can be done orally or can be written. This can be hilarious and can lead into interesting discussions about how the translations went wrong.