One Classroom, Two Languages: Which Language When?
By Dr. Suzanne Irujo, ELL Outlook™ Contributing Writer
Over 25 years ago, I got my first full-time teaching job. I had thought I was going to be a high school Spanish teacher, but the job I got was as a third- and fourth-grade bilingual teacher. I worried about how I would learn to teach reading and math, but I didn't worry about when to use English or Spanish in my classroom. Nobody else did, either; they just said, "Here's your classroom, these are your students; go teach."
So I just taught. Gradually I learned how to teach reading and math, but I still didn't think much about which language I was using. If a student spoke to me in Spanish, I responded in Spanish. If another spoke to me in English, I responded in English. Most of my whole-class instruction was in English because most of the materials I had were in English
It wasn't until the year had ended and I started reflecting on my teaching and the children's learning that I realized we had used a lot more English than Spanish all year. For people who believe that the most important thing for bilingual children is that they learn English as quickly as possible, I suppose that would be seen as good. But I believed that the most important thing was that they acquire a solid foundation of academic skills in whichever language they could best do it in, and I wondered whether a preponderance of English served that purpose. I also believed that it was desirable to continue to develop the children's Spanish skills so they would have a better chance to be literate in both languages as adults, and I knew that wouldn't happen if I continued using mostly English in my classroom.
I've been wrestling with the issue of appropriate use of two languages in bilingual and ESL classrooms ever since, and every time I think about it, I come up with more questions than answers.
Issues, Goals, and Approaches
Why is the use of two languages in the same classroom an issue? Does it really make any difference when and how a bilingual or ESL teacher uses the students' native language and English? Wouldn't it be best to just use whatever language seems appropriate at the moment? Let's look at bilingual and ESL classrooms and see what the issues are.
In transitional bilingual classrooms, academic content is taught in the native language so students can continue to progress in subject areas while they are learning English. There is usually a goal that students learn (or continue to develop) reading and writing skills in the native language so that these skills will transfer to English once oral English proficiency has developed. In maintenance bilingual classrooms, there is an additional goal that native language literacy skills should continue to be developed so that as adults, students will be able to benefit from being biliterate. In both kinds of bilingual classrooms, the acquisition of English proficiency, both social and academic, is also a primary goal.
In order for these goals to be attained, teachers need to be aware of how much time they spend using each language. And research shows that when bilingual teachers don't consciously think about which language they should use when and monitor their language use, they tend to use much more English than they want to use or thought they were using . When this happens, the native language is often not developed well enough to provide a solid base for transfer to English, a situation that can then have a negative effect on English development. In addition, subject matter knowledge does not develop very well because students in bilingual classrooms don't usually understand as much from instruction in English as they do from instruction in the native language.
At the opposite extreme are bilingual programs or classrooms that continue to provide all instruction in the native language even after students have been in this country for several years, with only a small percentage of time devoted to instruction in English (and this is often social English, with little or no attention paid to the use of English for academic subjects). When students from classrooms such as these transition to all-English classrooms, they often have a difficult time because they have not learned to use English for academic purposes.
So for optimal use of the two languages in a bilingual program, a structure should be developed that allows for use of both languages in academic contexts. Transitional programs often begin with more use of the native language and move towards increasing amounts of English each year of the program. This can be difficult, however, when students with different numbers of years in the program are placed in the same classroom. Bilingual programs may choose to separate languages by having different teachers for each language or using each at a different time or for different subjects, or there may be no official separation of languages, leaving it up to individual teachers to decide when and how to use the two languages.
In ESL classrooms, the goals are normally related only to English: Students must acquire social and academic English and must progress in academic content taught in English. English is taught as a subject, and academic content is taught through "sheltered English" techniques, in which grade-appropriate content concepts are taught using techniques that minimize the effect of low language proficiency. The native language is not an "official" part of an ESL classroom but is often used when possible to support the learning of English and of academic content in English.
The issue for ESL classes has to do with the question of whether it is more important for ESL students to learn English as quickly as possible, in which case it makes sense to use English exclusively, or whether it is more important that they continue to progress in content areas and acquire academic skills, in which case use of the native language is beneficial. For optimal native language use in an ESL classroom, the native language might be used to support academic content learning, but English could be used exclusively, or almost exclusively, for English language learning. However, this leaves teachers who use an integrated curriculum, which combines content learning with language development, with no guidelines.
We know that native language support is not always possible in ESL classrooms: The teacher may not know the native language of the students, or there may be students from many different native languages in the classroom. When native language support is possible, it can often be difficult to use the native language in appropriate ways with each student.
Of course, decisions about which language to use when are never really as simple as this discussion of the issues might lead us to believe. Multiple influences in the situational context, such as individual teachers' language ability, goals of the program, available resources, students' ages and prior educational backgrounds, language use in the community, or societal attitudes towards the native language, affect decisions about the use of two languages in the classroom.
Because of these contextual factors, it would be impossible to create a single policy about the use of two languages in the classroom in all situations. There are valid arguments for both separation and concurrent use of English and the native language, and many different ways of implementing either approach . There is only one point on which most experts agree: Concurrent translation, in which everything that is said in one language is translated to the other, is not a good idea. Whether the translation is done by the teacher, by a bilingual teaching assistant, or by other students in the class, the result of concurrent translation is that students stop paying attention to whichever language they have the most difficulty understanding, which is usually English.
While the experts go on debating these issues, teachers in bilingual and ESL classrooms must go on teaching. Some school districts have established policies for language use, but not most. Some bilingual teacher preparation programs teach candidates about this issue, but many do not. This leaves the majority of bilingual and ESL teachers to either work out a solution for themselves or, as happens in most cases, to ignore the issue. Either way, there can be adverse effects on the development of students' academic skills and language proficiency. How much each language is used and the ways in which it is used must be the result of a conscious decision, not of what just happens to come out of a teacher's mouth at any particular moment .
 In an early study, Legarreta ("Language Choice in Bilingual Classrooms." TESOL Quarterly 11, no. 1 ) found that bilingual teachers who thought they were using equal amounts of Spanish and English actually used English over 70% of the time. Twenty years later, a study by Bruce et al. ("Inside Transitional Bilingual Classrooms: Accurately Describing the Language Learning Process." Bilingual Research Journal 21, no. 2/3 , http://brj.asu.edu/archives/23v21/articles/art2.html) had an almost identical result: English was used alone 70.8% of the time, with English used in support of Spanish an additional 9.4% of the time.
 The chapter on language use in Irujo 1997 (Teaching Bilingual Children: Beliefs and Behaviors. Portsmouth, NH:Heinemann) describes the arguments for and against separation of languages in bilingual programs and various approaches for separating languages or for using them concurrently.
 Dr. Irujo would be happy to answer questions about the use of two language in specific contexts, or any other questions related to the education of ELLs. Please send questions for her to: email@example.com.