Abstract This study investigated own-language use in teaching English as a foreign language to preschool children. Interviews were conducted with 20 teachers involved in preschool English instruction in a large city in Poland. Using thematic analysis, the study identified three major themes in relation to teachers’ own-language use: the children’s well-being, classroom management, and teaching the language. The same themes were identified in the case of the children’s parents, who were sometimes present in the classroom. The teachers’ descriptions of classroom interaction also revealed four functions that learners sometimes used their own language for: learning the language, managing the behaviour of others, and expressing physical needs and emotions. The main conclusions stemming from the teachers’ accounts are that the learners’ own language plays an important role in English instruction for preschool children and that decisions about its use are motivated by both linguistic and non-linguistic factors. Introduction Teaching English as a foreign language (FL) to young learners is on the increase in Europe and around the world (Garton, Copland, and Burns 2011: 3–4). It is, therefore, hardly surprising that the process is attracting increasing attention from educational authorities, language-teaching specialists, and researchers. As Copland and Garton (2014: 223) show, there has recently been an upsurge in the number of policy documents, handbooks for teachers, conferences, and research publications addressing this topic. For example, in 2011, two large-scale survey studies were published, those of Enever (2011) and Garton et al. (2011). These dealt with English instruction for young learners in, respectively, a European and a global context. The two projects, which offer comprehensive surveys and discussions of both policy and practice in early FL instruction, are, however, limited to primary school learners, as are most other studies in the field. The need to extend our understanding of pre-primary classrooms is all the more urgent because increasing numbers of pre-primary children are attending FL/English classes (Mourão 2015: 52–53) and because, as Robinson, Mourão, and Kang (2015: 5) say, ‘EFL pedagogy for this specialised context is undeveloped.’ Research into the teaching of very young learners is therefore needed to help educational authorities take or modify policy decisions, to help teachers teach more effectively and to help them decide, for example, when the learners’ own language should or should not be used in the process of instruction. The purpose of this exploratory study is to contribute to filling this gap in research by examining own-language use in preschool instruction in EFL. The following research questions are addressed in the study: How do Polish preschool teachers of English describe their use of the learners’ own language in the classroom? How do Polish preschool teachers of English describe their learners’ own language use in the classroom? How do Polish preschool teachers of English describe their learners’ parents’ own language use in the classroom? In order to answer the research questions, two settings were examined: private language schools and state-run preschools. The distinction is relevant to the phenomenon under investigation as the former institutions often implement an English-only policy in their classrooms, whereas the latter do not enforce strict guidelines concerning own-language use. Also, private schools, as opposed to nurseries, normally allow parents to be present when the youngest children are taught, which may affect language choices made by teachers and learners. Own-language use in FL instruction: previous research In recent years, there has been considerable interest in the role of learners’ own languages in foreign (mostly English) language learning and teaching. Literature review articles and books on the topic have been published (e.g. Hall and Cook 2012) and a global survey of attitudes and practices in English instruction has been produced (Hall and Cook 2013). The findings of the Hall and Cook (2013: 15–17) project indicate that while the vast majority of teachers believe that ‘English should be the main language used in the classroom’, many of them sometimes, often or always employ their students’ own language to explain vocabulary and grammar, to manage classroom events, and to develop rapport with students. Some teachers also find their students’ own language appropriate in language-awareness activities and in discussions of learning strategies, study skills, and learners’ needs. The Hall and Cook (2013) survey also revealed considerable variety in views and reported practices concerning own-language use. This variability is confirmed in the few studies which focus on primary EFL instruction. First, there are reports of teachers using the new language in the classroom almost exclusively. One example is Carless’s (2004) observational study performed in a Hong Kong primary school classroom. The learners were just six years of age and the teacher who was observed controlled the input by employing simple vocabulary, short sentences, and visual aids. Second, it has been demonstrated how ‘[m]inimal but judicious and systematic’ use of the students’ own language can be a part of successful foreign language primary classes. The teachers observed by Oga-Baldwin and Nakata (2014) consistently applied different types of signalling as a means of regulating own-language use. Third, there are accounts describing considerable variation between teachers within specific settings. For example, Inbar-Lourie (2010) found that the frequency of own-language use by teachers of English in Hebrew and Arabic primary schools in Israel ranged between 6.8 and 75.6 per cent. Methods Participants and contexts Altogether, 20 Polish teachers of English were interviewed for the study. Ten of them worked in private language schools in a large city in Poland, and ten in state-run nursery schools in the same city. Table 1 contains information concerning their qualifications, teaching experience, gender, class size, and learners’ age. table 1 Teachers’ and learners’ characteristics Private schools Nursery schools Qualifications BA and MA in English Cambridge First Certificate in English Cambridge English Advanced Certificate Methodology courses in teaching young learners BA and MA in English Cambridge First Certificate in English Cambridge English Advanced Certificate Teaching experience 3–20 years 6 months–24 years Gender female: 10 female: 9; male: 1 Class size Learners’ age 3–8 2–6 15–25 2.5–6 Private schools Nursery schools Qualifications BA and MA in English Cambridge First Certificate in English Cambridge English Advanced Certificate Methodology courses in teaching young learners BA and MA in English Cambridge First Certificate in English Cambridge English Advanced Certificate Teaching experience 3–20 years 6 months–24 years Gender female: 10 female: 9; male: 1 Class size Learners’ age 3–8 2–6 15–25 2.5–6 View Large table 1 Teachers’ and learners’ characteristics Private schools Nursery schools Qualifications BA and MA in English Cambridge First Certificate in English Cambridge English Advanced Certificate Methodology courses in teaching young learners BA and MA in English Cambridge First Certificate in English Cambridge English Advanced Certificate Teaching experience 3–20 years 6 months–24 years Gender female: 10 female: 9; male: 1 Class size Learners’ age 3–8 2–6 15–25 2.5–6 Private schools Nursery schools Qualifications BA and MA in English Cambridge First Certificate in English Cambridge English Advanced Certificate Methodology courses in teaching young learners BA and MA in English Cambridge First Certificate in English Cambridge English Advanced Certificate Teaching experience 3–20 years 6 months–24 years Gender female: 10 female: 9; male: 1 Class size Learners’ age 3–8 2–6 15–25 2.5–6 View Large Data collection and analysis Ten nursery schools and five private language schools which specialize in teaching young children and implement an English-only policy were contacted by the researchers. The selection of the institutions was based on convenience. In each case, nursery school principals and school heads were approached by either of the researchers, informed about the study being performed, and asked for permission to conduct interviews with teachers. Permission was granted by all the nursery principals and four of the school heads. The principals/heads were assured that no identifying information about their institutions would be released and the teachers were guaranteed anonymity. The tool used to collect data was a semi-structured interview. The interview guide, which had been piloted twice and slightly modified as a result, contained Polish translations of the three research sub-questions (rephrased to address the teachers directly), questions aimed at obtaining teacher and learner information, and information about the rules concerning language choice that the teachers established with their learners. The interviews were conducted in Polish by both of the researchers and lasted approximately 30 minutes. They were audio recorded and then transcribed orthographically by the second author. The accuracy of the transcripts was checked back against the recordings by the first author. The extracts from the transcripts which are used in the Findings and discussion section are English translations produced by the first author. The method used to identify patterned responses in the data was thematic analysis (Braun and Clarke 2006). In the analysis, the initial reading of the transcripts for general meaning was followed by coding and theme development. The data were coded specifically for the research questions that had been formulated and thus the process can be described as theoretical or deductive (Braun and Clarke ibid.: 83–84). The reliability of the coding was established by calculating the per cent agreement. The agreement was measured as 0.86 and 0.89 for private schools and nurseries, respectively, which is typically considered good (Guest, MacQueen, and Namey 2012: 89). Disagreements in the assignment of codes were resolved through discussion. The revised codes were then collated into potential themes and all the data relevant to the themes were gathered. Finally, the coded extracts were checked against the themes and minor adjustments in the initial themes were made. Findings and discussion In private schools, there were three parties involved in what went on in the classroom: teachers, child learners, and the parents of the children. The parents were always present when the smallest children were taught and they were often there with four- to six-year-olds. In nurseries, the children’s parents were not present in the classroom, but in some cases, the teachers spoke about nursery assistants helping them to maintain discipline. Table 2 presents the themes we identified in the teachers’ descriptions of own-language use of all the parties involved. As the report below demonstrates, although the themes were the same in the case of teachers and parents, the scope of the themes differed considerably. table 2 Themes in teachers’ descriptions Participants Themes Teachers/parents ensuring the children’s well-being managing the classroom teaching the language Learners expressing emotions expressing needs managing behaviour learning the language Participants Themes Teachers/parents ensuring the children’s well-being managing the classroom teaching the language Learners expressing emotions expressing needs managing behaviour learning the language View Large table 2 Themes in teachers’ descriptions Participants Themes Teachers/parents ensuring the children’s well-being managing the classroom teaching the language Learners expressing emotions expressing needs managing behaviour learning the language Participants Themes Teachers/parents ensuring the children’s well-being managing the classroom teaching the language Learners expressing emotions expressing needs managing behaviour learning the language View Large Teachers’ and parents’ own language use The first priority for teachers was to ensure the children’s well-being. Polish was considered an effective means to achieve this goal and it was used when emergencies arose, as evidenced in the quotes below: I have used Polish in my class in situations in which the safety of the children was at stake, when I knew that I had to react quickly. (School Teacher/ST 1) I use Polish when, for example, the children are pushing one another. I mean, in situations when the safety of the children is involved. (Nursery Teacher/NT 2) When dealing with crises of this type, the learners’ own language was employed by teachers themselves or by the children’s parents, who used Polish ‘when their child was crying, when the children wanted the bathroom or when they wanted to leave the room’ (ST 6). The second major domain involving teachers’ and parents’ own-language use was classroom management. Here also both teachers and parents worked to ensure that the children were focused on classroom activities. Several school teachers stated that they used Polish to handle difficult behaviour if other means had failed: ‘[I]f I tell them several times in English to be quiet … and if they don’t respond, then I switch to Polish’ (ST 8). ‘I sometimes do that [use Polish] when a child is very naughty and nothing else works’ (ST 4). ST 4 made the following comment about the parents’ use of Polish in her classes: When parents speak Polish they mostly do it when the children are running around the room, they say ‘Come here’, ‘I told you to sit down’, ‘Stop running around’. They don’t know enough English to say that in English. While the nursery teachers saw the provision of English input as an important part of the instruction process, they also appreciated the value of the learners’ own language for classroom management and for task instructions in particular: I prefer to use English for simple instructions or commands because they are useful for the kids now and will also be useful for them later at school. But … I see no point in using English to provide instructions which are complicated when we are doing things at the desks. (NT 10) NT 10 also stressed the effectiveness of delivering more complex instructions in the learners’ own language to large groups of young beginners. ‘I don’t feel guilty about it whatsoever’, he added. The third theme evidenced in the interviewees’ talk about own-language use was teaching the language. School teachers often stressed that their goal was to maximize target language use in class but they also stated that sometimes recourse to Polish was necessary: We use Polish when vocabulary is challenging for the children, when a reference to something very specific needs to be made. For example, a colleague of mine here recently introduced the word waxwing. … Then we are allowed to use Polish. (ST 5) According to the school teachers, it was not difficult for them to remain in the target language virtually all the time while teaching and practising vocabulary: ‘[W]e deal with concrete vocabulary so we can present it with the help of realia or visual aids, photos or pictures which we have here’ (ST 3). Some teachers used realia whenever possible, even if it required considerable preparation: ‘[W]hen we teach fruits, vegetables, or for example honey or food related vocabulary we simply buy these things and make sandwiches, and we also teach related items like “(to) butter”, “pick up” or “put away”’ (ST 1). No teacher mentioned having to resort to Polish during vocabulary practice, for which nursery rhymes, songs, and games were commonly used. The teachers in nursery schools also used flashcards to introduce new vocabulary. However, they commonly expressed concerns about the children’s interpretations of some of the pictures. To avoid misunderstandings they elicited the relevant lexical items from the children: ‘[T]here is a flashcard and the children must tell me in Polish what it shows, so that I can be sure that they know what they see in the picture. … A picture and reality can be two very different things sometimes’ (NT 8). Questions about the content of the pictures were mostly asked by the teachers in English. The children answered in Polish and then the teachers provided English translations. Polish was also used by some nursery teachers to convey meaning of English vocabulary items in three other cases. First, translations were used when certain adjectives or verbs were introduced: ‘Take the verb “fly” for example, I won’t rise up in the air, I won’t. So I say [in Polish], for example, let’s pretend we are flying’ (NT 1). Second, there were teachers who exploited lexical links between Polish and English and pointed out cognates, such as ‘helicopter’, ‘hamburger’, or ‘hotel’. Third, some teachers reported making general remarks in Polish when a new topic was being introduced. They generally explained to the children why they were going to discuss the topic and presented some key vocabulary. In the language schools, English vocabulary was supposed to be taught without recourse to Polish. However, the teachers’ efforts to do this were sometimes thwarted by the children’s parents. ‘Some parents … when for example a picture of a chair is being shown and the teacher says “This is a chair”, they whisper to their child To jest krzesło, this sometimes happens but we try to eliminate it because it’s unnecessary’ (ST 3). In some schools, the parents were asked to communicate with the children and the teacher in English but how much English they actually used depended on how well they knew the language. If they did not know it very well they often hardly said anything at all in English or in Polish: ‘[P]arents don’t want to use Polish too much because they know it’s an English class and they don’t speak English either because they are afraid of making mistakes’ (ST 1). Parents who were proficient in English sometimes became active participants in the lessons, as was described by ST 1 in relation to a group of two-year-old learners: ‘I also had an incredible group of eight children whose parents spoke English to communicate with me and their children. It was really cool, simply incredible.’ Learners’ own-language use The teachers in the two settings differed in how they dealt with the question of rules concerning language choices in the classroom. Nursery school teachers adopted a rather relaxed approach, with some of them not establishing any rules at all. There was only one teacher who used an English-only procedure during parts of the lessons. By contrast, all the school teachers we interviewed had made the English-only policy explicit to the children, at least to those aged between three and four and older. The children were also reminded about the policy regularly. Despite the differences in the language use policies adopted in the two settings, the teachers described their learners’ own-language use in similar terms. The children used Polish to help them learn new vocabulary, to manage the behaviour of others, and to express their emotions and physical needs. The children in language schools were rarely provided with Polish equivalents of English vocabulary items. It seems that they also rarely asked for them: there was only one teacher who reported children directly asking for translation equivalents: ‘You always get the question “What does it mean?”’ (ST 10). In nursery schools, there were two teachers who described questions concerning English translation equivalents as being very common and referring to many or all of the types of vocabulary items that were being introduced. In both settings, the children were also reported to use another simple tool to learn the meanings of English words: they simply stated in Polish that they did not understand something. ST 1 responded to such statements first through miming or gesture to convey meaning, and if that failed she provided the Polish translation using the sandwich technique. Again in both settings, there were teachers who supplied the relevant English words and expressions in response to learners signalling a physical need. Another kind of linguistic behaviour of the children related to vocabulary learning involved the children naming objects in Polish: they produced Polish words in response to flashcards shown by the teacher when vocabulary was introduced or practised: When I was introducing names of animals the children went [in Polish] ‘Oh, this is a spider’, but then they repeated the word in English. It happens that I show a flashcard and the children respond in Polish right away. They won’t wait for the teacher to say the sentence but fire away in Polish. (ST 8) They sometimes remember [a word] but are not quite sure, … and then when in doubt they turn to Polish for support. (ST 6) While the former behaviour may have resulted simply from children not knowing English words and at the same time being eager to participate in an activity, the latter may be an example of learners trying to access a foreign language word by linking it with an own-language equivalent. Examples of children associating English and Polish words were also reported by nursery school teachers; for example: When we play the children sometimes need to pair up, and although it says in a song that they are supposed to be in pairs or in threes, they say in Polish ‘now pairs’, ‘now threes’, they mostly repeat this in Polish. So they know what to do, they understand the song, they know what it’s about, but they communicate this in Polish. (NT 5) In some cases, a Polish word produced by one learner led to a translation from another one. It seems that most often in this way the children helped one another in the learning process: It often happens that if a child says a word in Polish, then another one throws in its equivalent in English. They help each other in this way. (ST 6) However, in some cases translations seem to have been motivated by the need to express emotions: They get a little annoyed, I can see that. They get annoyed when there is someone in the group, especially a new child, who needs translation. They start translating words themselves, ‘no jeju, no jak, zobacz, to jest mouse’ [Gosh, look, this is a mouse] and they start getting annoyed. They get annoyed when someone doesn’t understand. It’s funny. (ST 9) English translation equivalents were normally embedded in Polish sentences, as in the quote from ST 9 above. However, nursery teachers also reported English words were also inserted into Polish sentences in more communicative exchanges between learners: From what I can hear, it’s often like they speak Polish, sort of using English words. … For example: ‘Ty dostałeś duży triangle, ja takiego nie mam!’ [Oh, you got a big triangle, I don’t have one like that!]. (NT 10) No such mixing was reported by teachers from private language schools. Sometimes, Polish was also employed by the children for comments indicating interest in the topic being discussed: For example, the subject is animals, and we say ‘This is a cow’, and also dog, cat and so on, and a child pipes up A moja babcia ma krowę! [And my grannie has a cow!]. … And then I say in English ‘Your grandmother has a cow!’ (ST 3) Finally, interactions between children also involved situations in which one child used Polish in an attempt to influence the behaviour of another one: ‘They speak to each other in Polish, they spontaneously say things like “move over”, “let go”, “give it to me”, all this is in Polish’ (ST 2). While the school teachers tried to restrict or eliminate Polish from the classroom, using various motivational strategies to achieve this with older learners, they looked at own-language use by their learners as something natural: ‘They sometimes use Polish, of course they do. They are Polish children’ (ST 7). Conclusions and implications In this exploratory study, the data were obtained solely through interviews with teachers; there was no direct classroom observation. Despite this limitation, the data do provide several interesting findings with implications for teaching practice and further research. The general picture that emerges from the analysis of the data is that the learners’ own language is used systematically (albeit sometimes minimally) in response to the learners’ linguistic and non-linguistic needs. The teachers clearly saw their learners’ needs as overriding any teaching policy that they were supposed to follow. Similarly to Edstrom’s (2006: 286–90) account of her reasons for own-language use in teaching Spanish to English university students, the teachers in this study seemed to feel a moral obligation to their very young learners to ensure their physical and emotional well-being. It seems, then, that regardless of the learners’ age and the languages involved, a degree of flexibility in making language choices in the classroom should be recommended to both teachers and school officials, especially those who wish to implement a monolingual policy in their institutions. Teachers, of course, also have a professional obligation to convey foreign language meanings accurately. In this study, both groups of teachers relied on flashcards or pictures to introduce new vocabulary; however, they differed in how they evaluated their reliability: many nursery teachers also elicited own-language equivalents to prevent misunderstandings, which they thought were likely. Since in the language teaching literature there are also accounts of beginners misunderstanding illustrations and monolingual explanations (e.g. Butzkamm 2003: 31–32), preschool teachers in general can perhaps consider using elicitation of equivalents or informal comprehension checks, at least in cases involving more complex materials. The teachers’ recounts of classroom interaction provided many vivid descriptions of learners’ linguistic behaviour. In the descriptions, similarities can be found between the learners’ own-language use and the language behaviour of bilingual children in natural settings. As the literature on bilingual first-language acquisition (BFLA) shows (e.g. De Houwer 2009), BFLA children make various attempts to associate the two languages they are learning and they also switch between them. So, like BFLA children, some of the learners described by the teachers in this study produced translation equivalents, translated in both directions and mixed languages. Direct classroom observation would be necessary to determine, for example, the exact amount of translation that the children perform. There is clearly a possibility that resorting to the stronger language in the process of language learning is equally natural for children both outside and inside the classroom. The aim of this exploratory study was to identify patterns of own-language use in preschool English instruction through interviews with teachers. It seems that the teachers we talked to were very aware of the language choices they made. Whether following individualized pedagogical principles or implementing general school policies, they were able to provide a rationale for their use of the learners’ own language and they were not apologetic about it. In Edstrom’s (2006: 288–90) terms, their motivations for own-language use were positive, deriving from the need to fulfil the various obligations they owed to their learners. Paweł Scheffler is a Lecturer and Researcher in the Faculty of English at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. His research interests are second-language acquisition, classroom instruction, and modern English grammar. He has published in a variety of journals both in Poland and abroad. He also writes language teaching materials for Polish learners of English. Anna Domińska is a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of English at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. She is interested in the didactics of teaching English as a foreign language and mentoring. She is also the author of EFL materials for teachers of English. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org References Braun , V. and V. Clarke . 2006 . ‘ Using thematic analysis in psychology ’. Qualitative Research in Psychology 3 / 2 : 77 – 101 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Butzkamm , W . 2003 . ‘ We only learn language once. The role of the mother tongue in FL classrooms: death of a dogma ’. Language Learning Journal 28 : 29 – 39 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Carless , D. R . 2004 . ‘ A contextualised examination of target language use in the primary school foreign language classroom ’. Australian Review of Applied Linguistics 27 / 1 : 104 – 19 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Copland , F. and S. Garton . 2014 . ‘ Key themes and future directions in teaching English to young learners: Introduction to the special issue ’. ELT Journal 68 / 3 : 223 – 30 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS De Houwer , A . 2009 . Bilingual First Language Acquisition . Clevedon : Multilingual Matters . Edstrom , A . 2006 . L1 use in the L2 classroom: one teacher’s self-evaluation . Canadian Modern Language Review 63 / 2 : 275 – 92 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Enever , J . (Ed.). 2011 . ELLiE. Early Language Learning in Europe . London : British Council . Garton , S. , F. Copland , and A. Burns . 2011 . ‘Investigating global practices in teaching English to young learners’ . British Council ELT Research Paper 11-01. London : British Council . Guest , G. , K. M. MacQueen , and E. E. Namey . 2012 . Applied Thematic Analysis . Thousand Oaks, CA : Sage . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Hall , G. and G. Cook . 2012 . ‘ Own-language use in language teaching and learning ’. Language Teaching 45 / 3 : 271 – 308 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Hall , G. and G. Cook . 2013 . ‘Own language use in ELT: exploring global practices and attitudes’ . British Council ELT Research Paper 13-01. London : British Council . Inbar-Lourie , O . 2010 . ‘ English only? The linguistic choices of teachers of young EFL learners ’. International Journal of Bilingualism 14 / 3 : 351 – 67 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Mourão , S . 2015 . ‘ English in pre-primary: the challenges of getting it right ’ in J. Bland (ed.). Teaching English to Young Learners: Critical Issues in language Teaching with 3–12 Year Olds . London : Bloomsbury . Oga-Baldwin , W. L. Q. and Y. Nakata . 2014 . Optimizing new language use by employing young learners’ own language . ELT Journal 68 / 4 : 410 – 21 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Robinson , P. , S. Mourão , and H. J. Kang . 2015 . ‘English learning areas in preschool classrooms: an investigation of their effectiveness in supporting EFL development’ . British Council ELT Research Paper 15-02. London : British Council . © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press; all rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
ELT Journal – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 27, 2018
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