One of the most important lessons I learned as an ESL teacher in Morocco was to meet my students half way, or at least try. I worked with students who spoke little to no English and were very young. Fortunately, I had more exposure than most teachers to the Moroccan culture and language and had previously studied Arabic in Morocco.
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The rule in my particular school was that once you stepped into the classroom in the morning, it was 100% English or no talking. That rule, especially for younger learners, is very intimidating. Some of my students would shut down completely because they were nervous that they would mess up or that they would not know what to say if I asked them a question. I quickly learned that this would not work in such a young student population.
How to Use Students’ Mother Tongue
I began brushing up on my basic Arabic and French with a tutor after school and would begin my classes in all three languages, English, Arabic, and French. I am not saying this is easy, or optimal, but this made my classroom an extremely better learning environment for my students. Not only did my students feel like they could relate to me more, but they knew they could come talk to me about things if they didn’t know the words in English. It opened up a whole new door of communication. There were times that I would describe English words in Arabic or French just so they could comprehend the vocabulary correctly. This also cut down on the behavioral issues in my classroom because my students knew that I could understand most of what they were saying (Read: How to Use L1 within the Communicative Approach).
Throughout the year, I used less and less of my foreign language skills and spoke more and more English in my classroom. But being able to lightly communicate with my students in their mother tongue made a huge improvement in my classroom and with my students. I encourage you, if you are teaching students of another language, to learn the basics of their language. Create a comfortable learning environment by being willing to make mistakes in learning their language and to meet your students half way.