Don't be afraid of using your first language when studying a new one. By English with Stephen

Use Your First Language

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Hello and welcome to another episode of Learning English with Stephen.

What’s your first language? My first language is English. This is the language I grew up with. It was easy to learn English. My second language is Portuguese. This is the language I had to study, to make mistakes with, and get frustrated by.

Have you ever had a teacher or a friend tell you that you shouldn’t use your first language when learning English? Maybe there is a sign on your classroom door saying you should only speak English inside the room. Well, I think the idea you shouldn’t use your first language when trying to learn a second language is ridiculous, and today I am going to talk about why good language learners do use their first language all the time. But first, some relaxing music.

Before we start, I’d just like to remind you that it is still not too late to send me any questions you might have about me, English, or learning English. In a couple of weeks, I am going to have an episode to celebrate 10 weeks of this podcast and I am going to answer your questions. You can find me on Facebook or Instagram or go to my website

When I first started teaching English, many years ago, there was this idea that, inside the classroom, both the teachers and the students should only use English. In some cases, the students’ first language was actively prohibited.

This was good for me because my first job was in Poland and I didn’t speak Polish. My second job was in Taiwan, and I didn’t speak Mandarin, either. But now I have been living and teaching in Brazil for a long time so my Portuguese is pretty good and I have realised that the idea of banning my students’ first language is a terrible one.

Now, I am not saying you should always try to translate from your first language, but there are times when it is quick and efficient to use it.

When I am trying to learn new concepts in Portuguese, I often find myself comparing them to English. Sometimes they will be exactly the same as English, and then it is easy to remember them.

However, more often than not, there is a difference between English and Portuguese. In these situations, I try to remember how and why it is different.

Analysing the similarities and differences between your first language and English can be a valuable strategy.

Another reason we should use our first language is to clear up any doubts. If my student can ask me if the English word ‘sympathy’ means ‘simpatia’ in Portuguese, I can quickly answer. Similarly, after teaching a new word, I can ask my students how they might translate that word into Portuguese. If they get the wrong translation, we can start again.

Using your first language can also help you to identify what language you need to learn. For example, you need to write an email and you know how to greet the person in your first language. Use that knowledge to find out the equivalent in English.

Finally, we often need to translate in real life. You might have to translate a menu while on holiday for a family friend. You might receive businesspeople from a different country and have to help them get around. You might need to help a friend or relative understand some song lyrics. All of these situations demand some you use your first and second languages. If we sometimes need to do this in the real world, then we should practise it in the classroom.

It is important to remember that I am not saying we should rely upon our first language for everything when we are learning English. However, to refuse to use our first language is also the wrong way to do things. There needs to be a balance where we use our first language when it is easier or will save time.

This also means that, in an ideal world, your teacher should speak the same language as you. There was this assumption that I was a better teacher just because I spoke English as a first language, and that I was better than a Polish person because my English was ‘better’. This is not true. I would always want a teacher who can speak both languages well. Don’t assume that a British or an American teacher is better than a local teacher.

Anyway, what about you? Do you use your first language? How and when? Leave a message in the comments and I’ll make sure I write back to you.

Remember to follow me on Facebook and Instagram for all the latest news and leave me any questions you have so that I can answer them in my special 10-week celebration!

See you soon.

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