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Which language do you use with total beginners?

When someone who is clearly a total beginner in his target language, like doesn't even know very basic grammar rules or words and can't even read the script (e.g. Thai, Chinese, Arabic), which language do you use to write answers to this user? Do you use his target language, even though he most possibly can't read the answer, do you use English (if it isn't the target language) or do you use the mother tongue of the other user (if you happen to know it)?

I see this sometimes, that a user is asking a very basic question and some other users write a reply that is more appropriate for intermediate or advanced learners and I wonder how useful this is for the learner (especially if he can't even read the script).    

Sep 1, 2016 5:58 PM
Comments · 15
Well for example when my foreign friends were learning how to speak German when they first came here to Germany I would speak in German around them and write texts or anything in German to them because they wanted me to then I would translate it into English for them, and be like "this is how you say that in German" and I did that until they became fluent in German. We don't speak in English to each other anymore since they're fluent in German now, but when they first started learning it me and other Germans would put things in both German and English for them so they could learn German. I tend to do this to anyone who wants to live here in Germany unless they say otherwise so I use both German and English in that case.
September 1, 2016

I really try to stay in the target language unless I'm giving complicated or detailed instructions and it would take twice as long to insist on staying in the target language. There is plenty of research to support communicative language teaching, and simple directions should be given in the target language I think. I remembered numbers so much better because my Spanish and Italian teachers wouldn't say "turn to page five" but instead gave this simple instruction in the target language enough times that people recognized it.

For communicative language teaching to work well, it takes a skilled teacher who knows how to rephrase, get the point across with gestures or facial expressions, and it also takes a keen learner who really wants to internalize the language and not just know the rules. A lot of people are learning the language for exams and have very inflexible ideas on how to learn language - usually not based on any peer-reviewed research, but on popular myths about language learning and how they were taught themselves - so aren't open to this method. 

It can take extra effort and I have found myself frustrated when I couldn't immediately understand a teacher, but looking back, I learned so much more. That's why sometimes I prefer to work with teachers who don't speak any English because there's no temptation to resort to it on their part, and I get a lot more input when they rephrase and find synonyms. 

I came to communicative language teaching very skeptical because I don't believe the sole purpose of language is communication and I like "old-school" teachers. However, I also value research, especially when it's been tested in the classroom, and I think it's a really effective way to learn language if it's done properly.

September 2, 2016


Yes, it does happen. I especially see this in the Chinese section, that users who clearly don't know the very basics of the Chinese language and therefore most probably can't read Chinese characters at all get lengthy replies in Chinese. I also know another user who learns Farsi just by memorizing sentences, but doesn't learn grammar and can't read Arabic letters. So, how could this user possibly understand a reply written in Farsi? 

What I do, is to reply in English, if the question is asked in English and reply in the target language, if the question is asked in the target language. When I do corrections, I also normally write my explanations in German (I only correct German entries). But when I can see from the notebook entry, that the user is still at the total beginner level, I might explain in English (or the mother tongue of the user if I happen to know it) to make sure that the other user understands my explanation. 

September 2, 2016

This is an interesting discussion, Miriam!

I can't talk as a teacher but as a student. I decided some years ago to enroll a French course (I had never been in touch with this language). The teacher talked from the first day in French and although I think it is better to be spoken in your target language, it makes no sense talking to someone who has not a minimum knowledge of the language so this person is not capable to guess what the teacher is saying. 

So, in spite of thinking that a language must be taught in the language you are learning, this is not always working for people who has not been introduced a little bit in the language they want to learn. It would be different if you could live with a native speaker to start this way from scratch (being spoken in the target language) but in an "academic teaching process", I found it very discouraging and complex.

September 2, 2016

Well, sure. But if it doesn't help the person that asked the question it might always be useful for other users. I can only say for myself that when I see that the user is advanced enough to benefit from the answer or an explanation made in Polish, I provide them in Polish. If they're not, I use English. But still, since questions like that rarely are urgent, I think it's not a bad idea try to explain things in the target language.

Anyway, does it really happen? Do people who have no idea about the language ask questions about it?

September 2, 2016
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Language Skills
Chinese (Mandarin), French, German
Learning Language
Chinese (Mandarin)