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Teenagers: Speaking: Why

teenagers avoid using English

Reasons why teenagers may be reluctant to speak English in class
and solutions to help students overcome this problem.

They feel silly speaking a language in which they know they are making mistakes.
It is artificial to communicate with their classmates in a foreign language.
When they want to say something important to each other, they do so spontaneously in their
mother tongue.
They do not have the English to express the concepts that the teacher wants them to express.
They do not understand the point of speaking English all the time in class.
It is very tiring to concentrate on producing a foreign language especially when your level is low.
The topic / activity that they are supposed to be talking about in English is boring, so they talk
about something else in their mother tongue.
Speaking English is difficult.
Speaking English is not fun.
For students these reasons are valid maybe they have a good reason to want to use their own language.
The Communicative Approach
This approach encourages teachers to insist on the use of English in the classroom, but by constantly
nagging teenagers to speak English we may be being counter-productive. With younger children we try to
immerse them in English and give them plenty of opportunities to acquire the language. As children get
older they develop a variety of different learning strategies. While they will always be open to language
acquisition, they also start using conscious learning strategies. And may feel uncomfortable with others.
Allowing the use of mother tongue is important for teenagers, but we must understand how this will
enhance their language learning experience.
Humanistic approach
If students feel strongly about a topic they are discussing in class, the way they are learning, issues outside
the classroom etc it is only natural to allow them to express themselves in their L1 within the classroom.

Allow for an L1 island in the class either a clearly defined area students can retreat to (a corner
of the room or by the teachers desk) in order to express themselves in L1

Or allow a time (e.g. the first or last five minutes of any lesson) that is free for discussing their
learning, the topics of the lesson, or just telling their teacher and fellow students a funny story that would
take forever to tell in English and would lose all the humour, etc
Making it a clear place or time can instil security, but maintains an English as much as possible classroom
for the rest of the time.

Comparing languages
The ability to compare their own language to English may help them overcome obstacles that L1
interference creates. Translating single words or sentences can lead to greater understanding.

Wall posters
Students can collate words on posters that either:
(1) have direct translations and are very similar in both L1 and English
(2) false friends words that seem similar but are actually different in meaning and often cause confusion
(3) words that they often want to use but find hard to remember in English students can choose their own
criteria for such word banks.
They can also expand into collecting grammatical structures in similar groups

Idioms students can collect local idioms and expressions with literal translations and then the
English equivalents (e.g. an Arabic idiom translates into The son of a duck is a floater and the English
equivalent is Fruit doesnt fall far from the tree. It is interesting to discover how similar many such
expressions are even when countries and cultures seem very distant.

Students and teacher can discuss the precise meaning of the English in L1

Students can add L1 translations/explanations to their language records where appropriate

Talking about language

When students are asked to do grammar exercises, or write together in English, or to do any work where
they need to think about how English works, this is a situation when students may benefit from being
allowed to use their L1 together. In these situations students often usefully explain grammar/lexis to each
other, share ideas about how English works and actually engage in a much deeper exploration of language
than one that might occur when their teacher tries to prohibit use of English.

Teachers can make it clear that at such times L1 use is OK!

Translation is fun!

Translation is a natural strategy for many learners in approaching language learning.

Here are some activities that are particularly appealing to teenagers. They are based on students
translating from L1 into English in fun contexts, and that lead to a very focussed production of spoken

Traditional songs
Students (in pairs or threes) choose a song in their own language and translate into English (an added
challenge is to try to make it still singable to the original tune).


Soap operas
Similarly students choose a scene from their favourite soap opera or movie and translate into English. They
can act these scenes out in front of the class later.


Students can do the soap opera activity using a videoed episode of the programme, turn down the sound
and speak over their English versions (this may be more appealing to more self-conscious students).


In threes, students take on the roles of an interviewer, a famous person who can only speak L1 and an
interpreter. They must carry out an interview (TV interviews are good as students think about body
language too) with the interpreter facilitating the communication. This is possible at low as well as high
The above activities encourage students to focus on translating meaning and appropriate register, not just
translate single words.

Tourist / Alien role plays

In pairs students are (a) themselves (b) a visitor from another country or planet where only English is
(a) must explain an L1 instruction, menu, set of rules, advertisement etc to the visitor

Translation chains
Students stand or sit in lines, the first student is given a sentence in L1, they must translate it into English
and tell it to the next person, who then translates it back into L1 and tells it to the next student etc until the
end of the line.
This can be done orally or can be written. This can be hilarious and can lead into interesting discussions
about how the translations went wrong.

Teenagers: Speaking: How to

encourage teenagers to use
Teenagers often do not feel comfortable using English in the
English classroom because they feel self-conscious doing so.
Teenagers are very sensitive and a way of helping them deal with
this, that I have tried successfully, is to introduce different masks
for them to hide behind.
Famous people

At the start of a lesson put stickers on the front of the teenagers shirts these stickers have on
them names of famous international figures that all the students will know (George Bush, Arnold
Schwarzenegger, Pamela Anderson, Che Guevara, Aristotle etc). Tell the students that for the entire lesson
they will BE this person.

Students must walk around the classroom and greet each other without speaking to encourage
students to internalise the characteristics of these people.

Next they can speak and say hello. At this stage students will tend to speak in another voice to
their own they are not themselves but have taken on a mask.

During the lesson, which can be a typical one, remind students who they are and that the only way
to communicate with such an international group is through English.

Set up a discussion on a topic the next one in the course book will do. Students must discuss the
topic in role.

Encourage students to do group language work like grammar exercises still in role.
This approach may not work with all groups of teenagers but has worked very successfully with groups I
have taught, especially in the 11 14 age group, once they trust the teacher.

Similarly get students to wear funny hats or use props like sunglasses, a scarf etc to denote that they are in
role as an English-speaking person during part or all of the lesson.

Set an example
If you share the same L1 as your students, stick to the rules that you set for your students. Use English as
much as possible for class routines and for managing the class as well as for direct language teaching.

Make English use achievable

Especially with low-level classes it is hard for students to use English without sufficient support

Provide classroom language (in the form of posters) that students can use throughout the lesson.
Phrases such as I dont understand, How do you say x in English?, How do you spell x? etc can be
introduced, drilled and students encouraged to use instead of L1 equivalents.

Make activities, such as pair work, achievable in English by ensuring as much of the English as
possible that is needed for the task is pre-taught, drilled and practised before students are put into
pairs/groups and expected to use it. A survey such as this can be a useful support for students to use in
order to practise Do you like watching xxxx on television?:


Student 1

Student 2

Student 3

Student 4


Students go round the class and ask four fellow students the four questions they have all the language
they need to do the task successfully and if they want to add more information in English they can do so
under no pressure.

Teenagers, like adults, need to understand why they do what they are asked do in the classroom. Once
their teacher explains the need for speaking English and how it will enhance their language development,
they will be readier to try to speak more English, especially if they are clear about when they are free use
L1 (see above). A contract can be negotiated between teacher and students with clauses like:
Teacher I will allow students to express feelings about the lesson in L1
Students I will try to use only English during role plays and pair work practice

Sometimes students lapse into L1 because they simply forget they should be using English rather than
communicating, problem solving or completing a task. I introduce playful reminders into lessons.

Pay a fine if students lapse into L1, I shake a paper cup with a few coins in it that has $10 or
similar written on the outside and threaten to fine them. I never take any money! But it becomes a joke and
students remind each other to speak English saying You must pay Miss Olha a thousand dollars etc, so it
is focuses them back on to speaking English.

Similarly I have used a red card a card I pass to the first student I notice using L1 excessively or
inappropriately during the lesson. It is then her/his job to pass it on when they notice another student doing
the same. The student with a red card at the end of the lesson has to do a job for me like clean the board
or carry my books back to the teachers room. Again it just makes them more aware of using English.

Getting teenagers talking

Getting teenagers to use English in class can provide a considerable challenge to most teachers. This article
examines some of the reasons why it can be so difficult and makes some suggestions for overcoming these

Why it's important

Long-term and short-term memory

Language fitness & agility


Why they don't use English

Peer pressure

Lack of motivation

Lack of support

How we can get students talking

Explain why it's important

Confidence tricks

Attainable goals


Why it's important

Long-term and short-term memory
Theoretically, we retain information in two ways: In short-term and long-term storage. We transfer information
from one to the other by convincing our brains that facts in the short-term memory are valuable enough to be put
in long-term storage - otherwise, the information is discarded.

Our native language is stored in the long-term memory. New information about a second language,
however, is stored in the short-term until it is transferred.

To understand the new information quickly, we often translate into our native language. However, this
makes it more difficult for the brain to accept the new information into the long-term memory. The result? We
quickly forget the information about the second language.

Students need to translate less often. If they get used to speaking English - this helps the new
information to be stored more quickly and for longer.

Language fitness & agility

Language learning and maintenance uses a surprising number of muscles - most importantly, the brain, and the
more obvious muscles in the mouth and jaw.

It follows logically that just as with any other muscle, the more you exercise it, the easier it is to use.
So how often do teenagers exercise the muscles required for speaking English? If their only opportunity
is English class, they need to maximise on the time to exercise as much as possible.

Speaking is a way of expressing ourselves in whatever language we use. The most motivating language to learn
therefore enables us to talk in a way that is true to our personality. Even the best coursebook cannot provide this
resource for every individual in every class!

Students bring their personalities to every class - if we can keep English as the language medium, their
authentic language requirements will become apparent. This means accepting their personalities - in terms of
topic (e.g. music, fashion, gossip), and function (e.g. exaggerating, exchanging anecdotes).

If they don't have the tools to express themselves in English, they'll use the tools they do have - their
native language.

Why they don't use English

Peer pressure
Even native speakers take years to master their language, so it's no surprise a foreign language learner has to
make a lot of mistakes before even managing to produce anything approaching good English. The spontaneous
nature of speaking means you're likely to make more mistakes than you would otherwise. So generally we're
asking our students to stand up and make fools of themselves at a time of their lives when they are at their most
Lack of motivation
If you ask a teenager why they think they should speak English in class, what's the most likely answer? Stunned
silence, a disdainful look, or a droned 'because we have to practise'? They're following orders - and for what? So
that in two or three years they may be better able to communicate effectively with another English-speaker? Not
only is the motive external, but the end goal is too distant for many teenagers. For many students, instant
rewards for speaking English are much more motivating.
Lack of support
There are two kinds of support: Classroom atmosphere and linguistic support. It may not be realistic to expect
teenagers to provide the generous and patient atmosphere ideal for language practice, but it is possible to
encourage them to support each other, for example by working in teams.
It is easier to provide linguistic support, in terms of words and phrases that are required for classroom interaction.
Classroom language (e.g. 'Sorry I'm late', 'Can you repeat that, please?' etc.) is the only English they will need to
repeat throughout the whole course, and it has an authentic context - it would be a waste not to capitalise on it!

How we can get students talking

Explain why it's important
Only you know how mature your class is and how well they will respond to the rationale behind your methods.
However, it's often worth giving even a less mature group a chance to understand what you're trying to achieve.
Not all students will react in the same way - the underlying theory may motivate smaller groups within the class,
even though it might not appeal to the class as a whole.
Confidence tricks
This involves rewarding them for using 'easy language' - making them believe the goal is easy to achieve.

Classroom language is ideal for this, as are pronunciation games.

Drilling has a particular appeal, as the student's voice is safe in a crowd of voices, and it is the sound of
the English (not their English) that is strange or amusing.

Along the same lines, choosing a buzzword for a class can encourage even the weakest student to try
to use their English. The word could either be very useful, or sound a bit strange or be a key word in the group of
vocabulary just learnt. The use of the word then has to be rewarded - and how you do that is up to you.

Attainable goals
Obviously the lower the level of the group, the less English you can expect them to produce.

For very low levels, the aim may be to spend only five or ten minutes speaking English per class. Initially
this may be spent presenting and practising classroom language, which then allows them to extend 'English
time' for themselves.

For higher levels, it is still worth identifying when it is more important to be using only English and when
it is good to use their native language. This should be indicated by some kind of visual to remind them when to
do what.

As with most techniques concerning teenagers, it's important not to give up! For all concerned, the task is not
easy but it isn't impossible either. The aim is simply to try and increase the amount they speak English - this
could be from 20% of the class to 40%, but it could also be from 0% of the class to 0.5%. Either way, you have
had a positive effect on their oral English - so recognise it!