Successfully using the target language in language teaching

6th July 2015 at 11:32


When I was first learning French and German, neither we nor the teachers used much target language in lessons. Listening was limited to recordings of awkward-sounding adults holding unconvincing “conversations”, and as far as speaking was concerned, it was rare that we did anything other than scripted roleplays. There has been a shift towards using more target language since then, and most MFL teachers agree on the positives of this, however for a variety of reasons many teachers still struggle with using it consistently. In an ideal world, students would be used to the target language being the main method of communication from an early stage, however in practice the situation can often be inconsistent. In order for target language to be used successfully, pupils have to be resilient and open to giving it a try, accepting that they will probably not understand everything and that communication with mistakes is better than no communication at all. Some pupils relish this challenge, but others would need a serious shift in their mindset before they can demonstrate such resilience, and this does not happen overnight.

Personally, I’ve found that the younger the learners, the more ready they are for a challenge. With reluctant learners, the challenge is for us to find ways to sneak in as much target language as we can without them deciding they can’t do it and giving up. I once did a deal with a particularly negative Year 9 class that we could usually speak English, but that we’d speak French whenever we were playing a game. They were happy with that compromise, and because they wanted to play as many games as possible, they found themselves in a position where they were trying to persuade me to let them do activities where we’d all be speaking French. They didn’t seem to twig that what I was really doing was getting them used to the target language so they wouldn’t put up barriers when I gradually started to use it more in the future. 

If you’re unsure of how to go about making yourself understood and build up your pupils’ confidence, routine can be everything. Starting the lesson with familiar language gives pupils an instant boost – if they know where you always write the date on the board, and you point to it and say “¿Cuál es la fecha?”, it doesn’t take a genius to work out what you’re saying. Gestures, mimes, facial expressions, cognates, helpful pictures and pointing at things work wonders for getting messages across, even if pupils don’t realise how much these are helping them.

If you are going to use a mixture of English and the target language, avoid flipping back and forth between them indiscriminately as most pupils find this detrimental to their understanding. I have an A4 sign hanging on my wall from a piece of string, with the English flag on one side and the French one on the other. It’s usually showing the French side, but if I choose to use English for whatever reason then I turn it over so it’s clear to the pupils that this is a deliberate decision. I recently met a teacher who had a set of plastic glasses with the French, Spanish or German flags on the lenses – when he was wearing the glasses, everyone spoke in the target language. Another method is to simply use a “time-out” signal to show that you are temporarily going back to English.

Using the target language yourself is one thing, but getting pupils to use it back to you is another. It’s useful for them to have a bank of key phrases that they can adapt as needed, such as this one. Competition and rewards can be key to establishing the routine of pupils using the target language spontaneously – I recently discovered the wonderful Target Language Bingo on Northgate High’s MFL blog (TL Bingo) which is possibly the most useful thing I’ve ever found for encouraging target language use as it can run alongside whatever activities we’re doing in a lesson, rather than being an activity in itself. Another idea is to get pupils to nominate a champion of the lesson who they think has made the most effort with target language that day. Pupils enjoy this responsibility and give reasons such as “x’s pronunciation is a lot better than it used to be” or “x helped everyone in our team when we weren’t sure what to say” rather than simply going for the person who seemed to talk the most.

Hopefully more and more teachers are feeling confident with using the target language in the classroom, with pupils consequently becoming increasingly used to this as a routine aspect of their MFL lessons. It pays to remember, however, that success with this hinges largely on the attitude and mindset of the pupils, and this may be the first thing a teacher has to work on before the target language can be used in a positive and productive way in their lessons.

Some TES resources: 

Encouraging the use of target language: French

Pupil Target Language Toolkit - MFL